Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. – Review – book review
John J. Dwyer
Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin American Relations. Edited by Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore. Foreword by Fernando Coronil. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 575. $19.95.)
This lengthy volume broadens our understanding of the cultural history of U.S.-Latin American relations. The book is divided into three sections with three theoretical introductory chapters, ten case studies, and three theoretical concluding chapters. Consequently, there is some repetition in the discussion of historiography and the empirical essays.
Rather than focus on nation-state policies, the 16 authors seek to fill the gaps in the literature by addressing what Emily Rosenberg terms the “politics of capital, culture and social connections” (497). According to editor Gilbert Joseph, the contributors “have all been deeply influenced by dependency theory and world-systems approaches,” and their essays are theoretically compatible with postcolonial and postmodern international relations theories (15). The authors examine the U.S.-Latin American “contact zones” in a way that accounts for the political and cultural processes of resistance, adaptation, and negotiation. They frequently demonstrate that U.S. officials and nationals, as well as American corporations and foundations, were not omnipotent when acting south of the border. Instead, many of the empirical studies correctly illustrate that both popular and elite actors in Latin America shaped the foreign-local encounter to meet their own ends. Although most of the case studies tap new sources, many rely predominantly on U.S., rather than Latin American, archival material.
Ricardo Salvatore’s theoretical chapter on the role of “representational machines” as a vehicle for disseminating culture is applied by Deborah Poole. Poole weakly concludes that during the late 1800s and early 1900s, paintings, engravings, and photographs of the Andes that were shown at art exhibits in the U.S. “probably exercised a shaping influence” on the way Americans perceived and acted on the Andean region (130). Steven Topik’s examination of the Brazilian naval revolt in 1893 and Eric Paul Roorda’s study of the airplane in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo convincingly show how Latin American leaders used the “illusion” or “spectacle” of modern military technology–obtained from the U.S.–to strengthen their grips on power.
Nonmilitary resources of the U.S. metropole also were harnessed by Latin America. Steven Palmer’s study of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Anti-hookworm Mission to Costa Rica during the 1910s and Seth Fein’s analysis of U.S. educational and cultural propaganda films shown in Cold War Mexico elucidate the high degree of transnational cooperation. Both authors ably demonstrate how U.S. programs were appropriated by the Costa Rican and Mexican political elite to expand state influence in each country.
U.S. economic interests in South America also are examined. Thomas Miller Klubock analyzes gender, culture, and politics in the Braden Copper Company’s El Teniente mining enclave in Chile from the 1920s to the 1980s. Catherine LeGrand studies the United Fruit Company’s banana enclave in Santa Marta, Colombia, Instead of relying on simple constructs of domination and resistance, LeGrand shows that UFCO was forced to adapt to local conditions; she also illustrates how the Colombian government and local popular groups took advantage of the opportunities presented by the company.
In her essay, Eileen Findlay fails to demonstrate adequately that the legalization of civil marriage and divorce by U.S. officials in Puerto Rico during the early 1900s was designed to quell the opposition of U.S. anti-imperialists over U.S. intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, Michael Schroeder tends to overemphasize the continued prevalence of the Somoza and Sandino “master narratives” concerning the Sandino rebellion and U.S.-Nicaraguan relations between 1926 and 1934. Lauren Derby provides an interesting analysis of the relationship between food and nationalism in the Dominican Republic. In two conceptual essays, Steve Stern discusses the “decentered center” and the “expansionist periphery,” while William Roseberry probes the social fields and cultural encounters of international history.
Both supporters and skeptics of using culture to theorize a new interpretive framework for studying U.S. foreign relations will find essays within this volume to support their positions. Best suited for upper-division undergraduate and graduate-level courses, this book will be of interest to students of U.S.-Latin American relations.
John J, Dwyer University of Utah
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