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Reading History: Imperialism and National Identity in Latin America

Christopher Abel and Colin M. Lewis analyse the state of history writing on Latin America, from a 1980s standpoint.

From the perspective of the gloom and despondency of the 1980s, the 1960s are recalled as a decade of optimism in Latin America. Political and economic experiment was accompanied by a renaissance of intellectual activity in the social sciences, literature and the arts. The decade spawned three controversial currents of writing about the role of Latin America in the world: dependency analysis, the study of UK-Latin American relations and the study of US expansion – which have come only gradually to influence each other. The present decade is an era of pessimism – of hunger, military rule, destabilising migrations to the United States and conflicts in Central America and the Caribbean. The 1980s are marked too by the external debt crisis and continuing reverberations of the oil crises. These issues give a new saliency and urgency to the study of the external connection since independence in the 1820s. While students of Africa and Asia have responded to changing perceptions of the spectacular processes of decolonisation and the creation of new states by stressing ethnic nationalism (discussed, within a broader context, in an admirably wide-ranging article by Anthony D. Smith, 'Ethnic identity and nationalism', History Today, October 1983), students of Latin America, have been concerned since the late 1940s with questions of imperialism and economic nationalism.

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