- Argentina: A Short History
Colin Lewis structures his history of modern Argentina around a very clear question: Why did Argentina, after a period of rapid economic growth and institutional change, fail so badly during the second half of the twentieth century? Although he does not provide the reader with a definitive answer (and no fair reader could truly expect one), he has written an intelligent examination of the question. He emphasizes international relations and economics but gives some attention to politics. The book offers no information on social or cultural factors, however. The work is based on what appears to be a wide reading of the secondary literature; although it has no footnotes, this assumption is based on the bibliography and the awareness of most of the current debates. The only major bibliographic weakness is his failure to consult some of the newer works on political history, such as those by Hilda Sabato and Paula Alonso.
The book is structured topically and divided into three sections. The first deals with international relations broadly conceived, the second with economics, and the third (by far the shortest) with politics. This awkward arrangement leads to some repetition, but more importantly, it leads to the key question for any brief history: who is the intended audience? The answer is not clear. If it were intended for historians or social scientists, presumably there would have been footnotes. Students without an already solid knowledge of Argentine history will find this work difficult, and for those without a basic grasp of the fundamentals, the coverage is unusual. Although Lewis mentions Juan Manuel de Rosas numerous times, he never fully explains the nature of his regime, and he assumes that the reader knows who Eva Perón is. There is more coverage of the British invasion of the Río de la Plata region in 1806 and 1807 than there is of the wars for independence. Because of these types of issues, I do not believe that this would be a very useful book for someone without some prior knowledge of Argentine history.
The book's structure also presents a different set of problems. It is difficult, at least for this reader, to attempt to account for Argentina's failure to maintain its [End Page 561] economic position in the world without taking into account cultural and social issues that helped shape economic and political problems. Although Lewis is well aware that politics and economics influenced one another, the book's structure tends to downplay this. However, economic policies for well over half a century directly reflected, in part, the political demands being made. It also is difficult to understand the Argentine decision to maintain neutrality during World War I, especially after the entrance of the United States and the sinking of various Argentine ships, without a reference to Hipólito Yrigoyen's belligerent pro-neutralist stance. Lewis spent a considerable amount of space on this issue but does not mention Yrigoyen in this context. Despite the importance of large personalities, which the author does argue is one of the key political problems of recent years, we learn very little about these figures; we fail to get any idea of what drove them to do the things that they did.
The most original part of the book, and in the reviewer's opinion, the most interesting, is the section on the international context. Lewis divides Argentina's relationship with the outside world into four basic periods and shows quite successfully how this affected the development of the economy. This type of analysis works particularly well in the post-World War II era, when the failure to achieve a better relationship with the United States exacted a heavy price in both the long and the short run. The section on the economy is by far the longest, which should not be surprising, as the question that the author is trying to answer is economic in nature. The discussion is somewhat technical and very solid, and it appears to pull together material from a wide...