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The Cambridge History of Latin America : VOL. 3 FROM INDEPENDENCE TO c. 1870, edited by Leslie Bethell (Cambridge University: $80; 946 pp.)

March 16, 1986|E. Bradford Burns | A professor of history at UCLA, Burns is the author of "The Poverty of Progress. Latin America in the Nineteenth Century" (University of California Press)

"The most notable beneficiary of independence in Spanish America was the Creole upper class," concludes Frank Safford in his essay midway through this volume of "The Cambridge History of Latin America" dedicated to the independence period and the half-century thereafter. Just as correctly, he could have included Brazil--that one-third of Latin America speaking Portuguese--in his conclusion.

The tiny, privileged, Europeanized elite, those who had benefited most in the New World during more than three centuries of European domination, effected independence. Desiring to exercise power, not restructure society, those Creoles took over the top political and military positions once occupied by the appointees of the Iberian monarchs. They accepted the basic institutions of the colonial past, even strengthening many of them during the 19th Century.

Thus, Latin America moved into its national period shackled to the institutions of the colonial past. Land concentration continued, eventually accelerating to divest the Indian communities of what land had remained to them and to separate the Roman Catholic Church from Its vast estates. Consequently, Latin America today has the highest index of land concentration of any area in the world of comparable size. Labor laws invariably favored the few large landowners. The manumitted slaves found themselves subjected to labor practices that perpetuated their poverty, and limited their social and economic mobility. Monoculture continued. As in the past, emphasis fell on the export sector of the economy. Little wonder then that the dependency of the colonial period also characterized the economy of the newly "independent" nations.

Spain and Portugal were no longer the metropolises; Great Britain willingly and efficiently replaced them. The British benefited handsomely. Leslie Bethell and Jose Murilo de Carvalho point out in their essay that London "convinced" the Brazilians to set a maximum 15% tariff on British imports, while the English levied a 180% tariff on sugar and a 300% tariff on coffee, Brazil's two major exports. Little wonder, then, that Britain flourished while Brazil floundered. Part of this volume provides a factual explanation for Latin America's underdevelopment which wed aggressive British economic interests with the acquiescence of the Latin American elite. While both prospered, they simultaneously pauperized the populace of Latin America.

An international group of outstanding scholars contributes 18 essays to this volume. Six discuss the origins of independence, the struggles and the subsequent emergence of the independent nations. A majority of the essays then concentrate on the events from the early 1820s to the early 1870s, years historians customarily associate with the search for political order and the eventual resurgence of economic growth. Despite its fascinating drama, this key period in Latin American history has not been studied in the depth it merits. This volume happily makes a major contribution to our factual knowledge of it and provides valuable insights as well.

An unusual and excellent final essay by Gerald Martin summarizes very handily the diverse and vigorous cultural life of Latin America during this period. A lively artistic and intellectual creativity existed. Yet, inevitably, a propensity toward the imitation of Europe--a cultural consequence of economic and political subordination--inhibited or distorted that creativity.

The essays offer no substantial evidence of Latin American development during this important transitional period. The interpretive theme of dependency (and the underdevelopment it dictates) is seldom mentioned, at least directly--the volume is cautious about interpretation--but the factual evidence presented overwhelmingly indicates that old problems were being compounded rather than resolved. Strengthening iniquitous institutions rather than replacing them charted a stormy course for the future.

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