My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve assigned this book for my first semester teaching Latin American History on my own. When I team-taught the subject two years ago, we used the second edition, and I liked it then.
Chasteen’s narrative is very readable and is a great introduction to the history of Latin America. In 10 chapters, he arranges the history of Latin America’s large number of societies into chronological themes like colonial society, independence, post-independence struggles, and the liberal age of Progress (Chapters 2-5).
A major theme is how the “original sin” of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests and the white-dominated societies that they set up has affected the history of the region. Societies with few rich people with great power and privilege, many poor with seemingly little chance to improve their lives, and a small middle class are the rule in the region, while economic opportunity and real democracy have been rare.
Chasteen pretty clearly favors the left-of-center welfare states of the twentieth century as an important part of the solution to these problems. But while these states often moved toward embracing the cultures that had grown up among the average people of Latin America (a move away from the embarrassment with which many Eurocentric liberal elites regarded Latin American populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), these governments had pretty unimpressive economic records.
Latin America is a fascinating region, and Chasteen tells its story well. There is also a companion book called Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices with a lot of literary sources from the period. It looks quite good.
Another book to look at that has a different take is Forgotten Continent by The Economist‘s Michael Reid.