When Tulio Halperin Donghi’s Historia contemporánea de América Latina first appeared in 1969, it had an immediate impact on scholarly conceptions of Latin American history, particularly regarding the first half of the nineteenth century. Lamentably and unaccountably the HAHR failed to review this stimulating and influential interpretive essay. In the hope of repairing the omission this review touches on the Historia contemporánea while focussing upon Halperín’s more recent The Aftermath of Revolution. The latter is not the long-awaited English translation of the Historia contemporánea or simply a beefed up version of its chapter on the 1825-1850 period. It is rather a completely new work on the early republican era that, however, does elaborate on some of the same themes while modifying some of Halperin’s earlier positions.
Both deal with the preservation of political and social equilibrium during a period of substantial disorder and with the means by which upper-class control was consolidated. In both, Halperin emphasizes that the militarization of politics and society during the Independence era weakened the position of late colonial urban elites while strengthening that of landowners. Magistrates, judges, bureaucrats, and clergy depended upon institutions that lost some authority during the period and also suffered war-induced fiscal penury. Competition from British entrants into the market undermined creole merchants. Landowners, on the other hand, in the context of a militarized politics emerged with new power; their land and retainers provided a power base and local militias served as the instruments of its expression. In The Aftermath of Revolution Halperín develops this point with a country-by-country analysis of the relations among urban and rural elites and national armies and militias. The treatment of the military is somewhat convincing on Mexico and Venezuela, much less so on Colombia and Chile (in the latter case the argument is both unclear and circular).
A second major theme in both books is the role of foreign, particularly British, economic interests. In The Aftermath of Revolution Halperin asserts for all of Latin America the pattern he discerns in the La Plata region: the overwhelming of local merchants by British traders with larger cash resources. The specific mechanisms to which he alludes need further investigation. In both books he further asserts that as the small Latin American markets for consumer goods become glutted, British merchants began to behave like their Spanish predecessors, emphasizing high markups on a restricted volume of trade. Halperin correctly maintains that the British had little interest in direct investment after 1825, though he errs a little in detail. (Mexico was not “the only country in Latin America to attract European, predominantly British, investors to its mines” [Aftermath, p. 61]. British and other European mining investment continued on a modest scale in Colombia even after the crisis of the 1820s).
In The Aftermath of Revolution Halperín brings more forcefully into play a third important theme—the idea that early republican efforts at “modernization” were limited by prevalent fiscal penury, which inclined Spanish American leaders to focus on projects which at small cost could have maximum symbolic impact. Halperín illustrates the point with the extreme case of building “pantheons,” as well as with the more central one of educational reform. But this observation is of great utility for understanding many aspects of the period.
The Aftermath of Revolution will be, like its predecessor, of great interest to practitioners of Latin American history, for Halperín is able to extract from limited information many illuminating and suggestive insights. Even while profiting from his perceptions, however, his peers will be well advised to view them critically. Halperín bases not a few generalizations on a single incident or individual, and one often suspects an uncritical use of sources. (José Manuel Restrepo, for example, is a fine witness but one must allow for the biases engendered by his political commitments.) Halperín is not above citing an extreme case and presenting it as representative. (The Colombian military budget in time of civil war is compared to that of Venezuela in peacetime.) Such interpretive faults as well as occasional factual errors, are to be expected, of course, in any attempt to erect a general synthesis for a subject lacking more than the skimpiest monographic foundations.
While Halperín’s new work will be stimulating to his professional audience, it is disappointing as an assignment for the classroom. The discussion usually assumes a knowledge of the period which undergraduates cannot be expected to have. Halperín also makes his message unnecessarily difficult to grasp by presenting it in an excessively unstructured way. Each of the four chapters is built around a topic or several related topics, but Halperín gives the reader no hint at the outset as to where any of the chapters is headed. Halperín’s discursive style, which often relies upon long sentences bearing extended parenthetical observations, may also pose a problem for ready comprehension. A lesser difficulty is the shaky grasp of English occasionally mani-fest in the work of the translator (“This is not to say that the old elites took the postrevolutionary redistribution of power lightly on its strides.”) For reasons not entirely clear to me, the message in the Historia contemporánea’s briefer treatment of many of the same subjects seems to come across more directly and clearly.
In evaluating Halperín’s work one feels compelled to compare it to Charles Griffin’s pioneering synthesis on the same general subject. Halperín clearly represents an advance in interpretation, adding a host of new insights. Nevertheless Griffin’s work remains more usable as a didactic work because of its more straightforward presentation. This includes the way it handles generalization. In any synthesis one confronts the problem of presenting unifying general tendencies while at the same time remaining true to the variety of history. Griffin does this by discussing generalizations and deviations from them together so that the relationship of norm and variations may be seen clearly. Halperín, on the other hand, sometimes discusses the generalizations and the variations from them in different places, making his message harder to grasp. For example, in the last chapter of The Aftermath of Revolution he advances his thesis about the decline of urban elites and the rise of rural ones in categorical, unqualified terms. But in his first chapter he presents material which implicitly modifies this generalization, showing that in Venezuela and Chile (at least) urban elites remained dominant. The uninitiated reader, however, will not have seen these cases as modifications of the general point as the relevant generalization is not asserted until much later.
The Aftermath of Revolution is an ideal book for propping up the instructor. As it may be too hard for many beginning students to follow, it can offer either the stuff for brilliant lectures or, if the book is assigned, an opportunity for indispensability in exegesis.