This book is a fine synthesis of a crucial topic: the forces that have led Latin America to borrow abroad, and then invariably default, from independence to the 1930s. Its central question, whether common features marked the debt crises of the past, is a challenging one. The answer demands synthesis of a disparate literature and coverage of the entire region, all the while dealing with an inevitably touchy issue. There is plenty of distressing material to mine from the panics of 1825, 1875, 1890, and 1929.
Marichal weaves together the many debt experiences with a seemingly simple thread. Debt crises reflected broad cycles in the world economy, simply put, booms and busts in international finance, and not the perfidious behavior of Latin American politicians and elites. At first glance, to specialists, this view might seem either obvious, programmatic, or vaguely dependentista.
Fortunately, the book admirably succeeds in meeting its own challenges. First, as a narrative and synthesis, it is ably organized, invitingly written, and judiciously argued. Background, comparisons, and case studies are used to great effect. In case after case, the book guides readers along with the right questions. One truly learns from this book. Second, in terms of his thesis, Marichal basically substantiates what others have long suggested—the multiple connections between world economic currents and loan crises—and far more effectively than individual studies have shown. The loan cycle emerges here with nuance and revision. Third, in method, the book is balanced. It studiedly uncovers the actors on both ends of this deadly embrace—foreign bankers and local elites—and their political as well as economic passions. In this sense, the book is a fine example of how to supersede, constructively, our dependency generalizations.
As a survey, the book raises more questions than it can answer, even on issues it aims to develop. Marichal demonstrates the Latin American elites’ overpowering infatuation with world finance, seen as the catalyst to economic and political progress. Yet one is struck by our scant knowledge of the nature and deficiencies of national finance structures. What sort of “financial underdevelopment” kept driving Latin America abroad? It is also difficult to grasp why so little was learned from one crisis to the next. The book explores the uses and productivity of foreign loans, but not sufficiently, for this topic seems integral to the inability to pay loans back. On occasion, “speculation” creeps back in to explain loan-practice failures, though the book largely banishes that tired idea. And, just sometimes, the thesis appears strained. For example, no matter what transpired in London, one suspects that the disintegrating republics of the caudillo era were doomed to defaults. We are nevertheless indebted to Marichal for this outstanding work, which will surely guide historians through such questions in the future.