Last spring, I took a fascinating Latin America and the United States course with Dr. Matthew Karush. We read a series of works (syllabus PDF) that looked primarily at the cultural relationship, exploring themes of transnationalism and generally complicating the picture; in fact, our class joke was “It’s complicated.”

So for this week, we felt it important to complement those readings with two overviews–one, written more like an undergraduate textbook, that focuses on the diplomatic and political relationship, and the other, an edited volume, that focuses on the cultural. I’m glad we did, as both of these books proved strong complements for the monographs from the class.

Books Read

Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

This book provides an overview of U.S.-Latin American relations, synthesizing recent research. Smith divides the relationship’s history into three eras: Independence to 1930s, 1940s-late 1980s, and 1990s-today. These three eras represent three what he terms “regimes”–that is, predominant ways that the relationship worked, predominant patterns: Imperialism, Cold War, and post-Cold War. The pattern of each era was not unique to the Americas, but rather inter-American relationships reflected broader patterns. While Smith discusses the first era, he primarily focuses on the second two. This left me with the question of whether the long Imperialist era that Smith describes should be broken up further. While I could see the value of lumping U.S. actions and Latin American responses in this era together under a common rubric, especially in consideration of the broader international system, I wonder if this long of a period is a bit of a stretch. Perhaps more focus on that era would have allowed greater nuance. Nonetheless, Smith should be praised for not telling a one-sided story with this work–he does an admirable job of covering the variety that is Latin America, and focusing on not just what was happening in the United States but what was happening in Latin America, without losing sight of the unequal nature of the relationship. So, all in all this book provided a good synthesis and framework for the diplomatic and political side of the relationship.

Joseph, G. M, Catherine LeGrand, and Ricardo Donato Salvatore. Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

This book, in some ways, represents the other side of the coin from Smith: the cultural side. It is a collection of essays on different aspects of the U.S.-Latin American relationship, presaging (published in 1998) the culture-focused works that we read in the Latin America-U.S. class (the earliest was published around that time). I especially paid close attention to the introductory and concluding essays, which provided a great overall framework not just for the case study articles included in the volume but recent historiography of the relationship, and indeed helped me synthesize the works we’ve read this semester (discussed more below). Even though the book is 15 years old, I’d still recommend it for the framework it provides alone.

Tying Things Together: Discussion Topics


Once again, this theme comes up–it seems to be inevitable in discussions of Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Smith, for example, defines the term as “the capacity of an actor–or nation–to impose its will on others without challenge” (5). He acknowledges Gramsci’s sense of hegemony as proscribing the courses of action that others can take–and their acceptance of those limits–but chooses not to use the term in that sense. In his essay in Close Encounters of Empire, though, Steve Stern uses that definition, in reprise of his previous work. I’d like to discuss this concept further–perhaps it should even form part of a minor field exam question. How do the different works define hegemony, and what difference does it make in how they portray the roles of “inside” and “outside” actors, for lack of a better term, in Latin American history? Depending on what other gaps we have to fill, perhaps it might be worth reading some Gramsci for the final week.

Dependency Theory & Developmentism, Relation of Each to World Systems Theory

Dependency theory figures prominently in Close Encounters of Empire, and slightly in Smith. In Close Encounters of Empire, both dependency theory and its foil, developmentalism, come in for rightful critique. I’d like to discuss further how each viewpoint illuminates–or doesn’t–both the topics discussed in these books, and the wider field as we’ve defined it. Perhaps some Prébisch or Cardoso might be in order for the final week, as well.


Smith divides his work into the three eras discussed above. Stern, in his introductory essay in Close Encounters of Empire, offers a similar periodization, but in this case for Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world: 1540s to 1750s, 1750s to 1930s, and 1930s to today. But within that, he separates 1890s-1930s (the main focus of the book). I’d like to discuss these periodizations further, especially in how they differ from the more traditional periods that break at independence. Are these periodizations more reflective of an approach of looking at Latin America and the world, or do they hold up otherwise (if such an untangling can even occur)?

Latin America and the World as a Subset of Latin American History?

Along those lines, I’d like to discuss a broader question: The degree to which a discussion of Latin America and the world is separate from, a subset of, or an integral, impossible to separate part of Latin American history, at least since circa 1500. Is Latin American history since Columbus a history of imperial interventions and deepening ties with the rest of the world? To put it another way, is a discussion of the history of Latin America and the World really a discussion of Latin American history, period?

Means of Empire

Much discussion of the United States’s role in Latin America is focused on the concept of “informal empire”–after the Spanish-American War, the United States did not build a “direct” empire in Latin America, and even quickly at least formally freed one of the territories–Cuba–it conquered in 1898. Instead, the United States exercised other means of control that could be said to constitute an empire. I’d like to discuss some parallels and differences with Spanish and Portuguese means of empire, especially in light of recent historiography (e.g., Kamen) debunking the idea of a centrally-controlled Spanish Empire. Obviously there are a lot of differences, but are the similarities more than meets the eye? Was the U.S. method of rule through local elites not that different from Spanish methods?

Transnational Views

Recent historiography has emphasized how impossible it is to untangle what is “local” versus “foreign.” Transnational approaches are rightfully in vogue. I’d like to discuss such approaches–prominent in Close Encounters of Empire, particularly how they differ from comparative history, and even from the way that Smith tells his story, jumping by chapter between the United States and Latin American responses. Could his history be considered transnational? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing if it’s not–but it does raise the question of how the story would be different.