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Concise History of the Modern World

Covering the major regions of the world, each history in this series provides a vigorous interpretation of its region's past in the modern age. Informed by the latest scholarship, but assuming no prior knowledge, each author presents developments within a clear analytic framework. Unusually, the histories acknowledge the limitations of their own generalizations. Authors are encouraged to balance perspectives from the broad historical landscape with discussion of particular features of the past that may or may not conform to the larger impression. The aim is to provide a lively explanation of the transformations of the modern period and the interplay between long-term change and “defining moments” of history.


A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present, Second Edition
Teresa A. Meade

A History of Modern Africa, Second Edition
Richard J. Reid

A History of Modern Europe
Albert S. Lindemann

A History of Modern Latin America

1800 to the Present


Teresa A. Meade

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For the best sister ever
Martha G. Meade (1957–2012)

Preface to the Second Edition

This book covers well over 200 years of Latin American history, and while the history of the early centuries has changed little in these pages since the first edition appeared in 2010, the account of recent events reflects the considerable changes that have taken place since that edition was published. The December 17, 2014, announcement of the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after over 50 years of embargo and isolation illustrated three significant changes. First, the United States was ending the last vestiges of a failed Cold War policy. As President Barack Obama noted, “I do not believe we can keep doing the same things for over five decades and expect a different result.”1 Secondly, many Latin Americans were aware, if most people in the United States were not, that Cuba enjoyed a warm relationship with the left-of-center, and even moderate, governments of the hemisphere. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the Latin American and Caribbean heads of state voted to invite Cuba to the 2015 meeting in Panama. Opposed only by the United States and Canada (a country that nonetheless has long held relations with Cuba), the vote indicated that the rest of the Americas were prepared to hold the meeting without the hemisphere's most powerful member. This was a considerable departure from America's “Big Stick” wielding days of not so long ago. And finally, both Obama and Raúl Castro, who spoke simultaneously in Cuba on December 17, credited Argentine Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, with pushing each side to an agreement. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Cuba's most outspoken defender in the last few decades, may have smiled from his grave at this turn of events, but the rest of Latin America relished the signs of a new era.

The history of Latin America in this text begins with a brief summary of European colonialism, laying the groundwork for the succeeding chapters on the history of the independent nation-states. Presenting such a history is not easy: Latin America is immense and diverse; events that have a huge impact on one nation or region (such as the US war with Mexico in the 1840s) may affect others only tangentially, or not at all. Moreover, textbooks such as this one inevitably experience a crucial conflict. While the text should present a broad, general interpretation that makes sense of many disparate details and events, it is impossible to explore fully each and every event undergirding the big picture. Another inevitable tension is chronology (time) versus topics, as well as time versus place (country or region). Since historical events build on and grow out of whatever comes before, and lead into and influence that which comes after, it is very difficult to extract a happening from its context, especially given the many cultural, social, economic, and political contexts surrounding every historical moment.

Historians must always grapple with this dilemma of presentation: the author can stick to certain themes and relay a general analysis fitted roughly into a chronology or, alternatively, can relate the history of one country, or group of countries, one at a time. The country-by-country approach is often more precise, but difficult to use in the standard history class, while covering many nations in one full sweep can become confusing. Ultimately neither approach succeeds if the end product is stripped of the fascinating stories of people and events that make up the overall narrative.

In this text modern Latin American history is viewed through the prism of social class, gender, race, and ethnicity. Specific historical events and trends – such as the slave revolt in Haiti, the patriarchal rules governing marriage in Brazil, construction of the Panama Canal, or the Mexican Revolution – are explained according to this interpretive approach. The seemingly unconnected events in the histories of Latin American societies make up an account that is more than the sum of its parts; rather the parts, selected for their explanatory value, help us understand the whole. Thus I present examples of what transpired in a single nation at a specific time as representative of wider phenomena that serve as a window into the ideas, conflicts, social movements, cultural trends, and ascribed meanings that have made an appearance on Latin America's historical landscape.

This book relies on many texts, monographs, document sets, and journalistic and fictional portrayals of Latin America's rich history; however, it was necessary to allow one event to serve as the archetypical illustration of wider trends. For example, a discussion of Argentina's labor movement is used to reflect the struggle between workers and owners that unfolded under specific conditions but also took place in many countries. Labor in other areas is then covered in broad strokes, with the assumption that readers and instructors will draw on other examples to fill in the historical blanks. I settled on this approach after more than 20 years of teaching, mainly in a small liberal arts college, where it soon became apparent that students are better able to grasp the big picture when given smaller, concrete incidents to illustrate broader interpretations. Relying solely on “big theories” and moving from country to country and event to event, makes students' eyes glaze over, and note-taking turns to doodling. Blame could be placed on poor training in geography, the ethnocentrism of US society, the Internet, or what have you, but the truth remains that we often develop our understanding of history by building out from a specific example or single historical event.

Finally, history is based on original sources. The particular interpretation historians elicit from those sources, even the conflicting conclusions they derive after looking at the same or similar documents, is the heart and soul of the enterprise. Interspersed throughout this narrative are first-hand accounts, documents, and excerpts from fiction, displayed in boxes. These boxes have two purposes: on the one hand, they can serve as the basis of discussion in a class; on the other hand, they demonstrate the kinds of materials historians draw on to construct the most informed version of what transpired. Although I am well aware that readers sometimes skip over this additional material, seeing it as extraneous to the text, I am hopeful that instructors and students will pause to examine an original document, a quirky historical fact, or a literary reflection.

In addition to these first-hand accounts, I have woven in both historical and sometimes fictional asides from various authors, including the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano. Galeano compiled a three-volume “based on fact” fictional interpretation of major events in the history of the Americas from the pre-Columbian period to the late twentieth century. He did this, he anthropomorphized, because “Poor History had stopped breathing: betrayed in academic texts, lied about in classrooms, drowned in dates, they had imprisoned her in museums and buried her, with floral wreaths, beneath statuary bronze and monumental marble.”2 As a historian and teacher, I naturally beg to differ a bit with his conclusion, since those of us who teach and write strive to present history as a lively narrative, not dull facts drowned in dates. However, Galeano is right when he exhorts us to rescue history from hero worship and to question the sources, since neither they, nor the facts they present, “speak for themselves.” In his trilogy, Memory of Fire, Galeano freely and provocatively writes the history of the Americas and creates a fanciful narrative of the past, which sometimes misses the mark but more often nails it precisely.

In the end, we are all interpreters of history, trying to make sense of our own past and our place within the era in which we are living; and for that we rely on books and the explanations contained within them. Although this History of Modern Latin America is a very small contribution to that daunting enterprise, I hope readers will find this chronicle of Latin America's past interesting, the explanation of that history understandable and enlightening, and the interpretation challenging. History should be nothing less.



I first want to thank everyone who contacted me after the first edition of this book appeared in 2010 to tell me what they liked about the book, as well as to point out errors and suggest changes. That interaction has been enormously satisfying and I am indebted to David di Marco, Raúl Ianes, Alvaro Kaempfer, Jeffrey Lucas, Sandra Mendiola, Ángel Quiñones-Cuadrado, Lise Sedrez, and Richard Warner, for their encouragement and suggestions; to Nicholas Crowder for interviewing me and posting our conversation on his website. Peter Coveney, my editor at Wiley-Blackwell with whom I worked on the first edition, summarized the feedback provided to the press from scholars in the field so that this new book can better meet the needs of both students and instructors. His support, along with that of the other members of the excellent Wiley-Blackwell editorial team, especially Galen Smith, Georgina Coleby, Julia Kirk, Fiona Screen, and Giles Flitney was invaluable. Everyone competently and cheerfully answered my many queries, provided valuable corrections to my prose, and helped keep this work on schedule.

In addition to those listed above, many colleagues and friends in Latin America and the United States offered encouragement and advice. I want to thank Patricia Acerbi, Marc Becker, Cecilia Belej, Gregg Bocketti, Aviva Chomsky, Marshall Eakin, Brenda Elsey, Jeffrey Lesser, Deborah Levenson, Florencia Mallon, Guillermina Seri, Alejandra Vassallo, Barbara Weinstein, and Joel Wolfe for many useful comments. It has been my pleasure to work with a number of very bright and dedicated students at Union College. Colin Foard, Kelvin Martinez, Stacy Paull, Jazmin Puicon, and Andrew Vinales worked on the first edition and, I am exceedingly proud to say, have since gone on to positions in teaching, graduate school, government, and the private sector, all pertaining to history and Latin American affairs. More recently, Lucas Hall and Morgan Wilson carefully proofread the first edition, made suggestions based on published reviews, suggested revisions, and helped secure new illustrations. I am also indebted to the staff and resources at Union College, especially Jane Earley for administrative support, Kevin Barhydt and Omar Hassib for working with me on a website, the Union College Faculty Development Grant for funding, Bruce Connolly, Gail Golderman, and the other librarians of Schaffer Library for help with sources. Friends and colleagues Kenneth Aslakson, Andrea Foroughi, Sharon Bohn Gmelch, George Gmelch, Melinda Lawson, Tom Lobe, Joyce Madancy, Andrew Morris, Lori Marso, and Brian Peterson were always there with a joke and a receptive ear when pressures mounted.

Because the process of writing a textbook draws on the expertise of an entire profession, I have benefited from the research of the many scholars who have explored, analyzed, photographed, mapped, and charted the history of Latin America. Compiling a narrative from so many fine books, articles, web pages, newsletters, blogs, and news articles was both an inspiring and a humbling experience. The scholarship on Latin America is truly impressive; I hope this book conveys in a small way the wealth of contributions from scholars in the United States, Europe, and throughout Latin America.

On a more personal level, I want to thank my son and daughter, Darren and Claire, and my husband and best friend, Andor Skotnes, for their expertise with web pages, photographs, and other technical assistance. Andor helped me update illustrations and more than once left his own work as a historian to answer my cry of distress when my computer tried to sabotage this whole enterprise. Finally, it is with great sadness that I acknowledge the premature death of my sister Martha. Having worked for years in an urban high school teaching history to students who traced their roots to, and spoke the languages of, Latin America and many lands of the world, my sister used this knowledge to provide excellent comments on the first edition. The carelessness of a highway driver robbed the world of a dedicated history teacher, and for those of us who knew her well, of a wonderful friend and family member. I dedicate this book to her.