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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 152-153

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The Soul of Latin America

The Soul of Latin America. By Howard J. Wiarda (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001) 358 pp. $35.00

The "cultural" approach to explaining differing developmental levels of present-day nations has a faithful following among contemporary scholars. Landes and Huntington are among the most recent luminaries to apply this approach. 1 Wiarda has applied it to Iberia and Latin America in numerous books and articles over the last four decades.

Wiarda's argument is well synthesized in The Soul of Latin America. He argues that the key to understanding Latin America, especially its political evolution, lies in its Iberian background. He sees Latin America as saddled with virtually all the vices of its two principal colonizing powers. The values inherent in such characterizations are summed up in a series of descriptors ("medieval," "feudal," "corporatist," "Habsburg model," and "neoscholastic"), which fill the volume. His argument is that Latin America, like its colonizers, missed both the Reformation (instead they got the retrogressive Counter-Reformation) and the Industrial Revolution, which left them lagging behind (neither democratic nor capitalistic) the modernizing nations in North Europe and the United States. Above all, argues the author, Latin America lacks the essential element of pluralistic liberalism; it was adopted only in a truncated and partial [End Page 152] form in the nineteenth century. Instead, Latin America absorbed large doses of positivism and corporatism, which did little to speed modernization. Therefore, it is hardly surprising, the argument goes on, that Latin America is bedeviled by military coups, inefficient bureaucracies, low productivity, and insufficient civil spirit.

Although Wiarda acknowledges that any explanation on this scale must be multicausal, he has made little effort to relate his thesis to other factors—including such important ones as demography, geography, disease, or resource endowment. Furthermore, his excessively abstract argument includes too few examples of the effect of ideas on key institutions—such as educational curricula or industrial standards—to be convincing.

Finally, Wiarda posits as his continuous point of reference the society, polity, and economy of the United States, seeking thereby to refute the commonly ethnocentric (and thus uncomprehending) approach of the gringos. Ironically, however, this emphasis gives the book the very ethnocentric bias that the author ostensibly opposes. Wiarda begins virtually all of his inquiries by asking why Latin America differs from the United States. Why doesn't he also ask why America is different? The ethnocentric focus becomes particularly distorting when the author takes as his chief variable the presence or absence of democracy. As a result, Wiarda's otherwise interesting analysis has more the flavor of a briefing paper for usaid than a scholarly work.

As with all meta-approaches to history, the "cultural" thesis has some truth to it. In Wiarda's case, it provides only a limited number of insights. It fails to account for, and even distorts, much of Latin American history. More subtle scholarship on the role of culture in the shaping of nations is available, for instance, in Camilla Townsend, Tales of Two Cities (Austin, 2000), a discussion of early nineteenth-century Ecuador and Maryland.


Thomas E. Skidmore
Brown University


1. David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York, 1998); Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, 1996).



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