Born in Blood and Fire Background

Born in Blood and Fire Background

John Charles Chasteen, born in 1955, is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. Rejecting much of the neocolonialist depictions of Latin America commonly found in history texts, he saw a need for a textbook that presented Latin American history in a less racist and less simplistic way.

The book, containing maps, a timeline, and ten chapters, proceeds in a chronological fashion beginning with the indigenous groups, cultures, and empires that existed prior to European colonization. However most of the book focuses on the development of individual Latin American nations after the collapse of the colonial system.

Due to the remarkable diversity among Latin American nations, Chasteen uses the chapters chiefly to discuss broader historical trends. Between the chapters are more detailed accounts of specific individuals, movements, ideas, and events. Chasteen attempts to discuss each of the major regions and coutries. There is a great deal of emphasis on Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile with nods to key events that shaped regional economies, such as the development of the Panama Canal.

Chasteen drew on his own research, extensive primary sources, and also the input of his peers and students. Prior to publishing the book, he had it reviewed by over a hundred of his own students. As a result, the book contains a great deal of quantitative information in the form of maps that show national debt, the movement of various national boundaries, and the development of key industries.

In an attempt to counteract the effect of previous US and European historians who presented an excessively ethnocentric and neocolonial perspective on Latin America by concealing the negative consequences of US interference in Latin American politics and economics, Chasteen glosses over examples in which colonial interference by Spain, France, Portugal, England, and the US were beneficial. For example, he is rightly critical of Roosevelt's approach to shady negotiations surrounding the separation of Panama from Colombia and US acquisition of canal rights, but he does not discuss the building of the Panama Canal or the way it created a global revolution in shipping. Nor does he mention the fact that the Canal created lasting benefit to the Panamanian economy, insulating it in part from the drug cartel violence that crippled Colombia for many years. He also does not mention that the US gave the Canal back with a treaty signed in 1977 that provided for gradual assumption of ownership in conjunction with maintenance responsibility, so that Panama owned and controlled the Canal exclusively in 1999 well before this book was published.

Accordingly, although Chasteen never reaches Zinn-like criticism of the United States that departs from the historical evidence to venture into the realm of rumor and pure conjecture, and although he does not use his book to endorse any particular political position or ideology as others before him have done, his position on US influence in Latin America cannot quite be regarded as balanced.

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