Telling it straight

Politics Latin America by Gavin O’Toole is the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to this complex region yet published


Politics Latin America
Gavin O’Toole
2007, Pearson Longman
600 pages

Reviewed by Richard Bartlett

POLITICS LATIN AMERICA is the most comprehensive and accessible addition to date to the somewhat uncrowded bibliography of introductory texts about the region by British scholars, and is welcome not merely for its depth of coverage but for providing a focus on Latin America that is not distorted by the lens of American scholarship yet able to draw upon it.

At last teachers and students of this complex region of the world have access to a blockbuster of a textbook – 600 pages, each brimming with essential information – that is written to inform and not to opine. Moreover, Politics Latin America unashamedly places institutions – badly neglected by scholars in Europe – at the heart of the study, feistily taking the fight to US scholars on academic ground they have long claimed as their own.

Self-contained undergraduate course

Structured cleverly to provide a self-contained, off-the-shelf undergraduate course on Latin American politics and society of 17 units, Politics Latin America is likely to be with us for some time – indeed, perhaps even as long as the textbook that so often seems to crop up as an introductory favourite, Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith’s Modern Latin America (OUP), now in its sixth edition.

Gavin O’Toole must be praised for adopting an approach that makes no apologies for reaching out to all students, regardless of which institution they are studying at, and for employing a didactic style that is clearly influenced by his own experiences in the classroom. If all teachers took such an approach to disseminating knowledge about the region with such evident enthusiasm, Latin American history and politics would probably find their way on to the school curriculum and would not be confined to the dusty corridors of a handful of elite institutes.

O’Toole divides the study of Latin American politics into five main sections: history; institutions and actors; international relations; political ideas; and economic ideas. In each area he provides a comprehensive overview of the main teaching issues and much up-to-date material for students to employ or take their investigations further. This remains, at heart, an introductory text, and the author makes no bones about letting each chapter run its natural course, and no further.

Wisely, O’Toole has eschewed an approach dominated by political history and sociology, presumably mindful of how this can divert students once in the classroom from the real business of learning about and exploring institutions. Indeed, his section on institutions and political actors provides the best comparative focus upon this aspect of Latin American politics available. We learn, for example, not just about Latin America’s failed presidencies, but about presidentialism and alternatives to it.

The sections on international relations and political ideas in Latin America will be of great interest to students, not least because similar treatment of these areas cannot, in general, be found in comparable introductory texts. The sections on Latin America’s relationships with Europe and Asia, on ethnic and racial themes such as Afro-Latin America, and on feminism within the region, are also particularly welcome in this respect.

If the final part on economic ideas gets a little bogged down, it may be because this is a rough terrain for most students to endure, and O’Toole has done a fairly good job of guiding them through it. The concluding chapter on “Redistributive Models” is very timely and shows great foresight – it is, again, likely to be of great interest to students and reveals O’Toole’s instinctive sense of what attracts young people to the study of Latin America in the first place. Inequality, as the author does not shirk from telling us, is right at the heart of the region’s politics.

All in all, Politics Latin America is the textbook that teachers and students of this region have been waiting for, and it must surely become an essential addition to reading lists for courses on the politics, society, culture and history of this fascinating part of the world everywhere.

Richard Bartlett is a journalist whose translation of Casa de Caba by the Brazilian novelist Edyr Augusto will be published later this year