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  • Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America by Dennis Merrill
  • Florence E. Babb
Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America. By Dennis Merrill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2009. Pp. xvi, 327. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00 cloth; $22.50 paper.

Historians, anthropologists, and other scholars in recent years have examined tourism in Latin America as both subject in itself and as vehicle for understanding broad developments over the last century, by decade or over the century as a whole—ever since leisure travel became fashionable. In this historian's account of more than a half-century of travel from the United States to Mexico between the wars, Cuba in the Cold War, and Puerto Rico in the Commonwealth era, Dennis Merrill is intrigued by tourism as an alternative to the tenets of Manifest Destiny. He argues convincingly that [End Page 408] tourism enabled the United States to exert "soft power," a form of quiet diplomacy that helped maintain U.S. influence abroad.

Merrill locates his work within his field's "cultural turn," so it is not surprising that his interests include non-state actors and differences of race, class, and gender among tourism's guests and hosts. He avoids simple assumptions about power relations, showing that while U.S. travelers to Latin America may be known for their sense of entitlement, their hosts were equally likely to have expectations of their own cultural encounter with tourism, whether it was economic advancement or the assertion of national identity. He ably shows both sides of the growth of tourism: U.S. influence was further extended into the daily lives of nations and at the same time culture at home was internationalized as a result of travelers' exposure to Latin American societies.

Merrill's prose, much like good travel writing, is clear and engaging throughout the book, which is divided into six substantive chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. A pair of chapters is devoted to each of the three nations under discussion, and these are organized in a roughly chronological way. A chapter on the development of tourism in the postrevolutionary Mexico of the 1920s is followed by one on the 1930s that points out the emergence of closer ties with the United States. A chapter on tourism in Batista's Cuba of the 1950s is followed by one that examines the changing orientation to tourism following the 1959 revolution, and a chapter on tourism in 1950s Puerto Rico is followed by one that considers the vicissitudes of tourism there in the 1960s and 1970s. While these portions of the book are fairly discrete, Merrill usefully employs a comparative frame as he returns to his main argument to suggest how both time and place figure in the strikingly different trajectories of tourism in these areas.

Merrill cites and builds on the work of several other scholars who, like himself, have crafted historical accounts of tourism in the region. To this he brings much original archival research and many references to popular culture of the eras he has chosen, providing a treasure trove of fascinating material. As an anthropologist, I found the descriptions to be exceptionally vivid and detailed, and perceptive in their ethnography, for example, the account of Fidel Castro setting up his residence and working quarters immediately following the revolutionary triumph on a floor of the luxurious, newly constructed Havana Hilton—and soon mingling with tourists there. I had to remind myself at times that the work was the result of a painstaking weaving together of bits and pieces drawn from many archival sources rather than from first-hand observation. It is to Merrill's credit that he makes his historical material come alive to this degree through the crafting of compelling narratives.

Merrill directs his work by and large to scholars in international relations and diplomatic history, aiming to persuade them that tourism is a valuable lens for examining economic and political exchanges across international borders. By examining tourism in three nations during the course of the twentieth century, he sheds light on key moments in U.S. and international history, from the interwar...


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