Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States by Heidi Tinsman (review)
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Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States. By Heidi Tinsman. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 363. $94.95 cloth; $26.95 paper)

In this book, Heidi Tinsman carries out an expansive yet intimate examination of many interrelated trends. She examines labor rights, environmental concerns, shifting patterns of consumption, struggles for democracy and human rights, interventions by the Catholic Church and NGOs, and the complex impact of neoliberal economic policies in both Chile and the United States—an impressive number of themes, all of them linked in one way or another to the shifting fate of the lowly table grape.

At the center of the story is the 1973 overthrow of the Socialist government of Salvador Allende and its replacement by a harsh military dictatorship that was fanatically devoted to free-market fundamentalism. In the decade prior to the coup, progressive regimes had carried out a sweeping agrarian reform that had effectively destroyed the near-feudal conditions in the countryside. Workers gained land and increased incomes, even while the reforms turned larger portions of land over to vineyards and orchards and laid the groundwork for the boom in fruit exports. The Augusto Pinochet regime built upon those changes, presiding over a major boom in the production of crops for export to the lucrative markets of the United States.

The dictatorship’s reforms coincided with a shift in the United States toward the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and a desire to consume such seasonal fare year-round. The expansion [End Page 780] of fruit production in Chile was in some ways modernizing, but conditions for rural workers worsened. Reversing many of the rural reforms of previous governments, the Pinochet regime presided over a dismantling of labor unions, sharp decreases in wages, and, perhaps most surprising, a dramatic feminization of the workforce. Men, who had made great gains during the agrarian reform years, now found themselves sidelined as women became the breadwinners. Consumption patterns also shifted for Chile’s rural poor, as imported televisions and household appliances became commonplace even while food and housing grew scarce. Some of the book’s most intriguing passages chronicle how national and international trends altered farmworker family dynamics, with a sharp uptick in domestic violence and other social problems. Tinsman provides considerable detail on the activities of the Catholic Church, labor unions, NGOs, and the prodemocracy movement to ameliorate rural hunger, lack of housing, and domestic ills.

The book is genuinely transnational in scope. Although Chile remains the primary focus, perhaps a third of the text is devoted to developments within the United States. Tinsman chronicles how agribusiness advertised grapes to health-conscious North American consumers, even while the United Farm Workers (UFW) labored tirelessly for three decades to persuade consumers that grapes were awash in pesticides, hazardous to the health of consumers and farmworkers alike. Tinsman notes that there was practically no overlap between the struggles of the UFW and the Chilean solidarity movement, so readers may find the narrative somewhat disorienting. Nevertheless, Tinsman argues convincingly that the lack of overlap is in itself telling. The two movements responded to Cold War priorities. UFW leader Cesar Chavez was anticommunist and traditionally Catholic, and he saw his struggle as a purely domestic one aimed at gaining greater rights and opportunities for Chicanos. The Chilean solidarity movement saw the struggle in terms of U.S. imperialism. That disjunction occasioned blind spots and missed opportunities all around.

In her epilogue, Tinsman finds grounds for optimism, arguing [End Page 781] that the protests at the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999 marked a watershed that enabled the U.S. labor movement to view itself as something more than an interest group for American workers. Rather, the struggle of American workers is linked to the global fight for human rights and environmental justice. Buying into the Regime is an admirably researched, well-conceived, and creative work that should find a broad audience.

Timothy J. Henderson

TIMOTHY J. HENDERSON is chair of the History Department at Auburn University at Montgomery. He is the author of several books including...


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