Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Culture and power

A new history of Latin America in the 19th and 20th century

Prof. Dr. Héctor Pérez-Brignoli


The main purpose of this project is to produce a one volume book about the history of Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Seeking to influence opinion leaders, decision-makers, educators, and within reach of a broader audience, professionals working in the Humanities and the Social Sciences as well as university students will also benefit from this book. This choice explains the one volume book, using many maps and illustrations, and reducing the footnotes to a minimum. The main challenge in the writing resides in combining descriptions and narrative of events with long-term interpretation, including geographical and cultural diversity as well as shared problems, large countries and regions, and small states. In addition, I will seek to go beyond national histories to provide a global perspective and comparative approach.

Each chapter of the book will develop different views and alternative approaches to the main themes. My chief purpose is to provide the reader with a variety of tools in order to promote his/her own capacity to develop answers and solutions.

The main argument of the book is the interaction between culture and power and the politics of nation-building. In my view, these are the key-points in order to develop a new interpretation of Latin American History. My point of reference for departure is the classical opus of Tulio Halperin-Donghi, Historia contemporánea de América Latina published in 1967 and updated in 1991. (German translation: Geschichte Lateinamerikas von der Unabhängigkeit bis zur Gegenwart, Suhrkamp, 1991). The basic framework of my professor was built around two basic ideas that in the 1960’s seemed realistic:

  1. the possibility of autonomous industrialization as it was promoted by the CEPAL (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America); and
  2. the possibility of socialism as it was showed by the Cuban revolution. Nevertheless, at the step door of the 21th century it is clear that both possibilities failed and that it is time to propose a new interpretation.

In Latin America the process of Nation-building has been the result of a complex interplay between intellectual creation, material base (spaces, populations, and resources), institutions and power. Thinkers, lawyers and writers have had to conciliate the universal categories of thinking (the Aufklärung, the Natural Law, the Iberian tradition centered in the Catholic Counter-Reform) with the European and U.S. institutional and cultural models, and the local realities on the ground. A major challenge, that most of the time remained unsolved, was how to overcome the naive imitations and/or visions imposed by the “imperial eyes” (Pratt, 1992) of influential travelers and foreign observers.  In the end, local realities including authoritarian “caudillos”, unstable political regimes, ethnically divided and isolated societies, as well as the pressures of imperial powers, established a sharp and brutal frontier. 

Although most Nation-building started in the 18th century, the play still continues today. Accordingly, the proposed project will study the challenges, successes and failures of the Latin American modernization process. The main purpose of this inquiry is not to provide an accounting sheet of these achievements and disasters, but an examination of the interplay between culture and power in the history of the so-called “Far Western countries.” (Rouquié, 1987)  It is necessary to go beyond the simplistic views of human progress put forth by liberals and socialists during the 19th century and still influential until recent times. These linear and diffusion models are not only naive but also deceptive. For a deep understanding of the modernization process in Latin America we need a full reconsideration of key concepts such as growth, development, integration and secularization.

My own expertise on the history of Central America in the longue durée can be considered as a preparation for this project, which has incorporated an ample use of comparative analysis and multi- and interdisciplinary approaches.
The Nation-building process included, among many other aspects, two somewhat implicit features: a model of social development and a horizon of the future. Again, in the shaping and reshaping of these aspects, the interplay between power and culture has been crucial. More attention has to be paid to the unconscious, unsaid and implicit gestures. This is perhaps the only way to capture the full richness of our past and open our view towards a new discourse of “multiple modernities”.