This book was written as a companion to and outgrowth of the ten-part PBS documentary Americas: Latin America and the Caribbean, of which Peter Winn was the academic director. First published in hardcover in 1992, it now appears, somewhat updated, in a paperback edition. The volume clearly is intended as an introduction to contemporary Latin America both for the general reader and for classroom use. While Winn was responsible for the overall vision as well as the prose of the book, he was backed by a considerable team, including a squad of interviewers and a score of expert scholar-advisers.
The focus is distinctly contemporary. Two introductory chapters on the colonial period and the nineteenth century are rather cursory and perhaps unavoidably oversimplified. For the most part the book focuses on the years since 1960, and particularly on the 1970s and 1980s. Following the pattern of the television documentary, most chapters are thematically organized, and many points are dramatized through the lives and words of individual Latin Americans. The choice of Latin American exemplars tries to be broadly representative, with sketches and quotations from indigenes and women, peasants and urban migrants. Reference is made to the opposing views of landowners and leftist dissidents in El Salvador; of Chilean bourgeois women supporting Pinochet and working women opposing him.
The book also attempts to achieve broad regional coverage by discussing particular issues with regard to differing country cases. The conscious push to industrialize after 1945 is exemplified by Peronist Argentina. Venezuela provides an example of the emergence of guerrillas in the 1960s. Colombia comes in as a case of internally and externally threatened sovereignty. The topical organization with diverse regional references makes sense, but it has a drawback: readers see glimpses of parts of the region but may not get a clear sense of particular national identities.
Most of the topical chapters nevertheless are splendid. The one on the indigenous populations in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala is sound, and the one on rural-urban migration quite interesting. An essay on women, particularly in Chile, focuses on their changing economic roles and political activities, but it does not allude to the significance of birth control in changing womens lives. The treatment of religion is particularly informative and illuminating; focusing on Brazil, it sketches the rise and decline of liberation theology and the progress of Protestantism and discusses the origins of various forms of spiritism. A chapter on artistic culture (painting, fiction, music, film, telenovelas) usefully connects “high culture” to popular culture. An essay on state sovereignty is also excellent in dealing with the question of sovereignty in several senses: internal control as well as independence from external forces.
Addressing the question of the role of race or color in the region’s social stratification, the author makes statements that may be largely true, but presents them in simple and perhaps confusingly contradictory formulations. For example, on the status of indigenes: “‘Indian’ is an ethnic category defined by culture, not color” (p. 241). “Throughout Spanish America, a central colonial legacy is a social hierarchy based upon color and reinforced by class” (p. 242). At the same time, a chapter on people of African descent is excellent in that it points up differences in the social significance of African origins in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Trinidad.
Winn seems more interested in social and political history than in the process of economic development. While he alludes to economic phenomena and processes, he does not fully explain the origins of economic policies or the consequences of particular policies or conditions. For example, in the discussion of the emergence of import-substitution industry, there is no reference to Raúl Prebisch or the economic reasoning underlying that development.
Although it does not analyze economic problems as fully as one would like, this book nevertheless is an outstanding introduction to contemporary Latin America. It offers concise, intelligent, and interesting discussions of many important contemporary phenomena. And it is very well written. I expect that it will be used widely in introductory courses on Latin America and the Caribbean.