Everyday Economics: Food, Consumption, and Natural Resource Struggles in 20th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 118
Conference on Latin American History 20
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room A706 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Heidi Tinsman, University of California, Irvine
Heidi Tinsman, University of California, Irvine

Session Abstract

This panel explores the embeddedness of daily “economic life” in the social and cultural history of twentieth century Latin America. It uses the histories of food, consumption politics, and natural resource development to investigate how the production, exchange, and consumption of basic goods generated understandings of citizenship, economic development, and racialized and gendered political identities since the Second World War. Through complementary papers that focus on grassroots struggles for food, water, and other consumer goods in Bolivia, revolutionary Cuba, Salvador Allende’s Chile, and post-dictatorship Argentina, the panel demonstrates the political importance of everyday economic questions in processes of state and nation formation in at least three ways.

First, the papers illuminate how everyday consumer life has shaped and reproduced popular understandings of citizenship and rights. Papers by Michelle Chase and Joshua Frens-String detail the role that a Jacobin-style politics of basic needs played in constructing notions of economic citizenship and economic democracy amidst two of Latin America’s most important twentieth century revolutions. Similarly, in her paper investigating a food scandal in post-dictatorship Argentina, Jennifer Adair demonstrates how food production and distribution became key litmus tests for democratic restoration in the 1980s. In all three cases, the authors move beyond a focus on labor activism as traditionally defined, showing how the home and market were as important as the shop floor in constructing new notions of social and economic rights, as well as a form of citizenship that was inextricable from state guarantees of the most basic levels of human well-being. 

Second, the papers on this panel suggest that a critical approach to everyday economic life helps to reconsider the origins, consequences, and contradictions of state capitalism and developmentalist ideologies. In her paper on the Miscuni Dam, Sarah Hines shows how popular demands for farmland irrigation, drinking water, and electricity first compelled the Bolivian government to pursue a major infrastructure initiative. At the same time, Hines demonstrates how the interests of financiers and the state later subverted the popular hope of the dam project. Such questions are also examined in Jennifer Adair’s paper, which traces how social perceptions of the exhaustion of Keynesian policies ultimately legitimated the divestment of state controls on the eve of the region’s neoliberal turn.

Finally, our collection of papers situates everyday economic life as a critical locus of gendered and racialized notions of nation and respectability. In both Joshua Frens-String’s paper on consumer politics during the Chilean Revolution and Michelle Chase’s paper on the Cuban Revolution, consumer shortages and inflation opened new space for women to assert political agency in grassroots politics. In Sarah Hines’s paper, meanwhile, the contested politics of dam construction and water scarcity transformed indigenous peasant communities and the frameworks of popular politics and mobilization.

The ultimate goal of the panel highlights a need for historians to more deeply explore the political, cultural, and ecological salience of economic questions. Moreover, we seek to insert Latin America into the center of global debates about the history of twentieth-century capitalism, social democracy, and the environment.

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