The Iowa City Public Library, for all its awesomeness, lacks a good collection of Latin American histories. They acquired upon my request “Argentina 1516-1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín” by David Rock. Rock’s history tears through almost 500 years of history in about 400 pages. It’s heavy on Argentina’s economic and political history with an emphasis on the 20th century. It’s a bit light on the social history or any kind of regional context. But it’s also a solid account of Argentina’s ups and downs, supported by balanced arguments and loads of economic data. In his introduction, Rock asks:
The central, compelling question about Argentina is simply, What went wrong? Why has Argentina failed to realize its promise?
He hypothesizes that Argentina never fully overcame its colonial past. Even after independence from Spain, the country still suffered from the predatory behaviors of elite classes of landowners and merchants, dependence on British capital and markets, and the unbalanced authority of Buenos Aires over the interior. Argentina got off to a slow start after independence, as less a nation-state than a fragmentary confederation dominated by provincial warlords. After the national government in Buenos Aires asserted its authority, Argentina had a pretty good run in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was a fairly prosperous mid-sized country but very dependent on agricultural exports. Participatory democracy struggled but made some progress by the 1920s. Attempts by the nationalist leader Juan Perón in the 1940s and 1950s to radically reorder the country’s class and trade relationships may have done as much harm as good. A dismal forty-year stretch of indebtedness, inflation, and instability followed Perón’s controversial decade in power. This dark period reached its nadir in the 1970s with a particularly nasty police regime in which capped off years of violent repression and economic stagnation with a military disaster in the Falklands. The book ends with a short summary of restored democracy and important political reforms in the 1980s.
The question, what went wrong? can seem a little foreign to Americans used to reading our own history and asking, how did we get so great? How awesome was it that we beat the Nazis and put men on the moon? And then we faced down the Bolsheviks. Yet we’ve had our share of corrupt political elites, regional divisions, economic inequalities, civil war, genocides, discrimination, exploitation, and so on. The differences between Argentina and the United States are not that great, but are perhaps magnified by each country’s peculiar circumstances. In fact, now might be a good time for Americans to turn off the History Channel and turn down the jingoism. The Nazis have been gone for more than half a century and who knows if those footprints are even still on the moon. Communism might be dead but Communists have stayed in business by owning our debt and selling us shoddy, dangerous crap. If we don’t soon cure our insular, fearful obsessions with security and materialism, our own dismal decades may just be beginning.