New Histories of the Americas: Empire, Power, and Connection in the Western Hemisphere

AHA Session 99
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Karin A. Rosemblatt, University of Maryland, College Park
Karin A. Rosemblatt, University of Maryland, College Park

Session Abstract

These papers offer new perspectives on the Americas in the twentieth century. They are designed to open conversation among historians of the hemisphere, as well as those interested broadly in the study of empire, foreign relations, social movements, political economy, and race and gender. They focus specifically on two questions.

First, how should we understand the relationship between the US and Latin America? In part, this is a question about empire: how can we account for US power without obscuring the protagonism of Latin Americans within the hemisphere and beyond? How can we analyze inequality within the hemisphere without reproducing stereotypes of North and Latin America as exceptional, incomparable regions? These papers explore multiple forms of exchange, collaboration, subjection, and subversion that grew from imperial, national, and social inequalities. Katherine Marino analyzes inter-American feminist circuits and argues for the importance of Latin American and Afro-Latin American women within them. Focusing on the career of Felicia Santizo (1893-1963), Afro-Panamanian feminist, educator, and leader of Panama’s Communist Party, Marino shows the wide-ranging work of leftist feminists who battled US military power while advancing their own insurgent demands for women’s suffrage, education, jobs, and welfare. Daniel Rodríguez reinterprets the legacy of US colonialism in Cuba, arguing that the island’s twentieth-century medical system was a creative response to imperialism. While living under US occupation from 1899-1902, Cubans made their own uses of imperial public health programs, and after independence, they reframed health policy as an instrument of nation-building. Cuba thus became an international pioneer in establishing medical care as a responsibility of the state and health itself as a social right. Amy C. Offner argues that US development aid in Latin America after 1945 had the unexpected effect of reshaping the welfare state at home. Focusing on Colombia, she shows how the country’s housing projects, river valleys, and universities became international laboratories for new thinking about political economy. By the time the United States declared a War on Poverty in 1964, many North Americans were convinced that knowledge of poverty lay abroad, and they drew on foreign experience to remake their own housing, education, and job-training programs. In all these ways, Latin America was a consequential source of ideas about feminism, social rights, and state formation.

The papers further ask how we should periodize the twentieth century. Marino identifies underappreciated links between “first” and “second” wave feminisms. The Cold War, she argues, did not silence left-wing feminist demands of the 1930s and 1940s but breathed new life into them. Rodríguez suggests that the idea of social rights was not born in the postwar North Atlantic; it has forgotten roots in the Caribbean during the Age of Imperialism. Offner unearths the midcentury, developmentalist lives of practices known today as hallmarks of neoliberalism—state decentralization, for-profit contracting, privatization, and austere systems of social welfare provision. Tracing the uses of these practices before and after the 1970s, she argues that neoliberal reform was a parasitic phenomenon: welfare and developmental states generated the very tools that dismantled them.

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