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The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean edited by Simon Collier, Harold Blakemore and Thomas E. Skidmore (Cambridge University: $39.50; 456 pp., illustrated).

October 13, 1985|E. Bradford Burns | A professor of history at UCLA, Burns is the author of "Latin America. A Concise Interpretive History" (Prentice-Hall). and

Innumerable aspects of Latin America command attention. To name a few: the blending of races and cultures to create unique civilizations; the beauty of the landscapes; the talents of the peoples; the intellectual achievements in 20th-Century art and literature; and an enviable ability to settle most international disputes peacefully.

Yet, perhaps more than anything else, underdevelopment has characterized Latin America. The majority of the peoples are undernourished, underemployed, undereducated and underpaid. Latin Americans live in poverty in a region that possesses great wealth and that for the past four centuries has contributed munificently to the enrichment of Spain, Portugal, England and the United States. Today the continent is hopelessly in debt, its future mortgaged to myriad banks.

Why has it been so? The first step toward an answer must be a knowledge of the tenacity of traditional institutions, for example, land ownership and use. In no region of comparable size in the world do fewer people own more land. Most of that fertile land lies fallow while hunger ravages the population.

The implantation of Iberian colonial institutions between 1492 and 1821 and the strengthening of many of those institutions during the 19th Century sparked the fiery struggle in this century to alter them. Although impressive changes have taken place, continuity with the past still persists. As the Brazilian historian Caio Prado reminds us, "We find the past, the colonial past, is still present and still very noticeable."

Growing numbers of Latin Americans demand change; the minority profiting from the present institutions resists. An inevitable clash--as today in Nicaragua and El Salvador--is the result. The challenges of change convulse all of contemporary Latin America. At no time in recent memory has it been more incumbent on Americans to understand the need for--and, more important, the hunger for--change in their hemispheric neighbors. Failure to comprehend this reality has caused and will cause the loss of American life, property, investments, trade, jobs, prestige, and possibly a loss to our feeling of security in this hemisphere as well.

"The next decade promises to be one in which Latin America will be in the forefront of global affairs," predicts "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean." To prepare their readers for a fuller understanding of the vast region inhabited today by 350 million people as well as to explain why it will "pose a major challenge to the existing world order," the three distinguished editors divide "The Encyclopedia" into six sections: The Physical Environment, The Economy, The Peoples, History, Politics and Society, and Culture.

History absorbs the most space, more than a quarter of the text. The "Peoples" section illustrates racial and ethnic diversity, a positive characteristic that prompted Jose Vasconcelos' conclusion in 1925 that "la raza cosmica" had emerged. To my disappointment, I found no mention of this major concept which has inspired generations of Latin Americans and to which, by the way, our own Chicano population frequently refers.

For a U.S. readership, the section devoted to culture probably contains the most novel information. It indicates a glowing richness beginning with the marvelously creative "high Indian civilizations," extending through the long, largely baroque colonial period, and revealing the lively artistic imagination of the 20th Century. Latin America nurtured four Nobel Prize laureates of literature, two of whom rank as giants of the novel (Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and two as masters of poetic expression (Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda). Alas, in one of its slips, "The Encyclopedia" ambiguously suggests that Mistral is a man, thus ignoring the major female contribution to 20th-Century Latin American literature. The many photographs, maps and tables enhance the value of this book.

Despite its claims of originality, "The Encyclopedia" is as long on facts as it is short on interpretation. The paucity of interpretation robs the facts of their meaning and dulls the drama. Consequently, a rather lifeless Latin America lies in these pages. And an inadequate index--devoid of reference to such key concepts as dependency, modernization, Liberalism, Marxism, and nationalism--detracts from the usefulness of this "Encyclopedia" even as a handy reference tool.

"The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean" merits commendation for its factual contributions and its experiment with a different format.

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