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Looking Back at the Cold War in Latin America

November 28, 2016

History graduate students Tim Lorek and Andra Chastain organized “Traveling Technocrats: Experts and Expertise in Latin America’s Long Cold War,” a two-day international conference that convened at Yale in October.

The conference explored the role played by experts— agronomists, veterinarians, conservationists, community organizers, architects, engineers, artists, economists, and more — who had a significant political, economic, and social influence on Latin America in the 20th century. On a practical level, these experts aimed to increase crop yields, eradicate disease, build low-cost housing, increase literacy, and more. On a political level, their programs were often aimed at stopping the spread of Communism or bolstering progressive alternatives to U.S. hegemony

Tim and I realized that our individual research interests aligned in exciting ways; we were both studying the role of foreign experts in Latin America and their attempts to ‘modernize’ agriculture and urban development in Colombia and Chile during the Cold War,” says Chastain. “We were working within the framework of environmental history, in Tim’s case, and the history of technology, in my case, and we realized that these subfields were asking similar kinds of questions about how knowledge is produced and how ostensibly apolitical experts are implicated in broader geopolitical processes.”

“We likewise realized that there is a particular timeliness to the study of the Cold War in Latin America and, in particular, the role of foreign experts,” adds Lorek. “In just the past year, we have been following the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and the ongoing Colombian peace negotiations with the FARC guerrilla group. Such current events reflect the contemporary task of reckoning with the legacies of the Cold War across the region. But other, less-headline grabbing processes continue to link the present to the Cold War. For example, the types of development projects often supported by the contracting of foreign experts during the Cold War in Latin America continue to affect present-day politics and society, whether through the construction of new hydroelectric dams, the expansion of the subway system in Chile, or the reach of international agricultural science institutions in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil. Yale has become a center for the study of the Cold War in Latin America over the past few years, and we thought this might offer an opportunity for us to probe further into these themes.”

Conference presenters came from Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom, and from California, Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Attendees came from Yale, Columbia, NYU, Wesleyan, Cornell, MIT, and Harvard.

In coordinating the event, Lorek and Chastain say they “learned how to write grants for collaborative ventures like this, and we also learned very quickly how complicated it is to organize and administer an event with so many moving parts.” Going forward, they are planning to publish an edited volume on the role of science, technology, and expertise in the Latin American Cold War.

Both Chastain and Lorek are working on dissertations under the guidance of Gilbert Joseph, the Farnam Professor of History. Chastain’s project focuses on the development of the metro system in Santiago, Chile, which began as a collaboration between Chilean urbanists and French metro experts during the democratic, reformist years of the 1960s. Construction continued during the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973), and survived the violent military coup in 1973 that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. Lorek is writing about the history of agricultural science in the Cauca Valley in Colombia, the country’s primary sugarcane producing zone. It is also the site of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). He explores the historical processes that led to the region’s dual agendas, one corporate and the other dedicated to the diversification and improvement of the world’s tropical food crops such as rice and cassava.

Chastain is a native of Oregon. She earned her BA from Reed College and MA from the University of California, Berkeley. Lorek grew up in Wisconsin, earned a BA from Ohio University, and MA from the University of New Mexico.