Learning from Latin America

Christine Mathias, December 2012

Over the last few decades, history in North American universities has fragmented into an ever-increasing range of specializations. As researchers took on previously neglected, sometimes arcane subjects, and incorporated elaborate theoretical frameworks from other disciplines, the grand narratives of previous generations slipped away. Outside the university, as Cold War politics gave way to neoliberal capitalism, and the Internet stimulated an already frenetic news cycle, history seemed more and more like an antiquarian pastime. Growing up in the 1990s, my friends and I had little exposure to historical argumentation—unless you count those dry social studies textbooks—and little interest in the past.

My peers and I entered graduate school at a time when many history departments were struggling just to exist. As we savored dusty monographs and even dustier archival sources, undergraduate course enrollments fell, fellowships vanished, and the job market atrophied. Most of us grudgingly recognize how fortunate we are that someone pays us—however minimally—to read, write, and teach what we love, but we also wonder how much longer this will last. As graduate students, we need to demand a voice in conversations within our departments and professional associations about the future of the discipline. In some cases, we students may have to start those conversations. We should investigate e-learning and e-publishing, and create new ways to play a vital role on campus and in the public sphere. We may have to face our fear of grand narratives in order to make the case for history.

In Latin America, where I now work, history is harder to ignore. Here, academic historians, heads of state, and ordinary citizens all recognize that trying to separate politics from history would be like unhitching the future from the past—a tantalizing prospect, perhaps, for those of certain ideological persuasions, but ultimately impossible. Historical arguments and counterarguments appear again and again in quotidian conversations at football stadiums, over coffee, or while waiting for the bus. Do people in Chile or Argentina know more about their national histories than North Americans do? Do they, perhaps, feel the weight of history more acutely in their political lives? Or am I simply paying more attention to these conversations in Latin America than I did at home?

Researching in Latin America is an energizing and frustrating endeavor—the work at once urgent and impossible, meaningful and fragmented. I imagine these feelings in some way replicate my professors' experiences as graduate students in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, when ideological battles raged inside and outside the classroom and social history still seemed new. Throughout Latin America, there are so many archives left to excavate, so many people left to interview, and so many pressing historical questions left to consider.

Last June, in the district of Curuguaty in eastern Paraguay, 11 civilians and 6 policemen were killed during a police operation that aimed to evict protesting peasants from the land they occupied. Political opponents of President Fernando Lugo blamed him for the massacre. A week later, Paraguay's Congress used the episode as a pretext to initiate a lightning-fast process to impeach the president. In only 30 hours, Congress had evicted Lugo and promoted his vice president, Luis Federico Franco, a member of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA). Ministries were reshuffled, and the regional political and economic blocks, Unasur and Mercosur, suspended Paraguay's membership. With less than 10 months until the next scheduled presidential and legislative elections, the country was left in limbo.

In the aftermath of these strange and troubling events, I received e-mails from colleagues who knew that I studied Paraguay and were searching for historically informed explanations. So much about the episode failed to make sense. A former Catholic bishop, Lugo had been celebrated in the English-language press as a defender of the poor and an advocate of land reform, yet now he was being blamed for a violent police raid that had consolidated the landholdings of one of Paraguay's richest men, Blas Riquelme, a former senator of the conservative Colorado Party. Most Paraguayans believed that Riquelme had obtained the land in question illegally, during the 35-year dictatorship of Colorado President Alfredo Stroessner. Lugo's election in 2008 removed the Colorados from office after 61 years of continuous rule, and marked the first peaceful transition of power from one political party to another since 1887. In only two days, the rival Liberal and Colorado parties cooperated to carry out a legally questionable impeachment process—described by many international observers as a "parliamentary coup"—that nullified the democratic significance of the 2008 election.

I tried as best as I could to answer my colleagues' questions. I spoke of the fragility of democracy and republicanism in Paraguay, and the extremely unequal distribution of land. Most members of Congress in Paraguay are wealthy landowners, and Lugo did little to interfere with their efforts to preserve the status quo. In recent months, young professionals in the capital city of Asunción had become increasingly vocal and effective in protesting Congress's most egregious actions, but their small rallies on the day of the government overthrow failed to garner much attention. Rumors of possible police violence in Asunción discouraged most of Lugo's peasant supporters from traveling to the capital to demonstrate.

I could not explain exactly who was responsible for the massacre in Curuguaty, only the latest in a seemingly endless series of violent conflicts in Paraguay's borderlands that have long served to suppress dissent and exacerbate inequality. I encouraged friends to teach their North American students about the historic roots of Paraguay's current crisis, but I could not recommend even a basic English-language text on the history of land policy in a country where 21 percent of the population owns an estimated 87 percent of the land. In Paraguay, few resources are available to preserve, organize, and analyze the historical documents scattered throughout various government ministries. Historical arguments abound in public discussions, but basic facts are hard to come by.

I hope the future of our discipline will involve more academic collaboration across national borders: more students and professors from the United States spending more time in other countries; more students from other countries pursuing advanced degrees in the United States; and more U.S. institutions using their resources to fund talks by foreign scholars, publications in translation, collaborative research projects, and archival preservation efforts. In addition to the obvious practical benefits for everyone involved, this sort of transnational cooperation could reenergize the practice of history in North America, infusing our monographs and classrooms with a bit more ideological fervor.

I could not write my dissertation without the generous Paraguayans and Argentines who helped me track down archival sources, patiently explained cultural tropes, corrected my translations, and reminded me again and again why my research matters. I hope I can repay their kindness by encouraging people in my country to learn about our southern neighbors, and to think critically about how our political choices shape theirs. I can imagine a future where U.S. students work with Paraguayan contemporaries on an online history project. As they share digitized sources, construct historical arguments, and compare notes, the students might challenge each other's assumptions and inspire each other to action.

Our students demand books and classes that will serve them in increasingly global lives. History offers a way to learn about unfamiliar places, and it can also be a way to build connections with unfamiliar people. We simply need to show students how learning about the past can help them navigate the future.

Christine Mathias is a fourth-year graduate student in history at Yale University and a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina. Her dissertation examines the conquest of the Gran Chaco, a lowlands region stretching across Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and seeks to elucidate the political strategies used by indigenous leaders to respond to state violence.