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Scholars Question the Disappearance of Latin America

October 15, 2010

“Why do we need Latin American studies?” asked Abraham Lowenthal, the Robert F. Erburu Professor of Ethics, Globalization, and Development at the University of Southern California. This question opened a recent talk at the Institute co-delivered with Jane Jaquette, professor emerita of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, titled "The Disappearance of Latin America: Implications for Latin American and Caribbean Studies."

These two renowned scholars of Latin America, both adjunct professors at the Watson Institute, dedicated the rest of their presentation to conveying the significance of such a question for the discipline of Latin American studies as a whole, in these “earth-flattening times,” and presenting a tentative answer.

The 1960s were “heady days” for Latin American studies, Lowenthal claimed, noting that it “was striking how many people went into Latin American studies.” His Harvard undergraduate class of 1961 alone produced over a dozen influential Latin American Studies specialists, such as Robert R. Kaufman, Gilbert Merkx, and Peter H. Smith, to name a few.

Given the overwhelming demand for education about Latin America, universities across the country began opening programs and creating large research funds for the study of the region. At the time, the US had a dedicated foreign policy, shaped by Cold War politics, directed at the region as a whole – a fact that accounted in part for the explosion of interest.

However this interest peaked in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, according to Lowenthal.

Today, there is a virtual disappearance of the region in terms of both identity and policy. According to Lowenthal it is very difficult to answer the question “who still thinks of themselves as Latin American?”

For all practical purposes Mexico is more intertwined with North America than South and growing more so every day, he noted. Brazil always “thought itself to be globally connected” with few regionally couched interests. Indeed, Lowenthal claimed that most countries in the region termed Latin America are ever more defined as simply American, forgoing the prefix “Latin,” and a vast majority of its entailments.

Ultimately, the fact that the people outside the region introduced the concept of Latin America is becoming more visible, said Lowenthal, and it thus seems that it is a concept more understandable from outside the region than from within.
Furthermore, a similar disappearance is happening from the perspective of the US government, which according to Lowenthal gives Latin America “short shrift.” The reasons that Latin America does not pull a lot of attention from a policy perspective are deceptively simple. The US currently holds that the region, as a region, poses little to no threat to homeland security. Drugs, human trafficking, and the violence that accompanies them is recognized as a threat, but not one specific to Latin America. The State Department believes those issues can be more effectively dealt with on a sub-hemispheric or global basis, reported Lowenthal.

Given this dual disappearance he then noted, it is easy to write off Latin America and the study of the region as relics of a bipolar world overly concerned with simplistic politics.  

However, Lowenthal said he hoped that no one in the audience would do so, outlining some significant reasons why Latin America is and will likely remain something worth studying and taking into account in policy considerations. The reason behind this significance, according to Lowenthal, is not traditional security concerns, but the “quotidian, day-to-day interactions” between Latin America and the United States.

Additionally, the countries of Latin America are forming a broader consumer base for the United States’ “necessarily expanding export market.” Furthermore, Latin American countries seem to be ideal partners for the US in combating several global problems – arms and drug trafficking to name just a few. Finally, Lowenthal concluded, Latin America is increasingly informing and generating social science theory, providing real examples in which structural dependence and asymmetric relations are being successfully overcome.

Professor Jaquette continued the talk, noting again the semblance of the disappearance of Latin America, while calling attention to many reasons aside from policy and security considerations that Latin America and the study thereof remain significant.

Given the increasing “flatness” of the world, said Jaquette, it is tempting to think that international studies should be approached strictly in terms of “issues or themes that link countries” rather than simple geographic blocs. Nevertheless she claimed that recent, nuanced statistical studies and much sociological research have clearly demonstrated that regions are still very strong and inclusion in a region is a very large part of a nation’s self identity.

Jaquette further noted that Latin America is a particularly prolific source of alternative theories across academic disciplines. Literature, politics, and law are three such disciplines where the contribution of Latin America has been truly remarkable, according to Jaquette. Unsurprisingly it is in these three areas that we can catch perhaps a glimmer of a thread that unites the heterogeneous countries that compose Latin America: the opposition to neo-liberalism.

One further, though unfortunate, unifying quality of Latin America, Jaquette pointed out, is inequality. The extent of this problem seems to be practically unique to the region, as no other area is currently experiencing it quite so severely. The importance of addressing this regional problem at a regional level should become apparent when one realizes that the resolution of the problem in Latin America could set the template for its resolution and prevention in the future, throughout the world.

Finally, Jaquette said that it is unclear how an acknowledgement that Latin America has disappeared would help improve the study of the countries it comprises. The teaching of Latin American studies should be somewhat altered to reflect current issues and problems. However, Jaquette said, this can be done without rejecting the idea of Latin America as a region.

Professors and students must simply recognize we live in a more global and interconnected world and draw from more disciplines and a wider variety of area studies to accomplish insightful work in the field. Ultimately, Jaquette concluded, she is interested in having the field of Latin American studies “rethink itself,” without destroying itself, and she sees much potential for this kind of transformation to occur.

Their talk was part of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Lecture Series.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Joseph Bendaña ‘11