Historical Persistence, Possibilism and Utopias in Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter from the forthcoming book Roots of Underdevelopment: A New Economic (and Political) History of Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Felipe Valencia Caicedo.

Recent scholarship in the historical political economy of Latin America and the Caribbean seeks to understand social, economic, and political processes as being primarily driven by human agency, shying away from historical predetermination or structural inevitability. Current work considers the possibility of alternative scenarios (counterfactuals), embracing the potential outcomes framework in econometrics, and rigorously testing hypotheses with painstakingly reconstructed historical data. This scholarship traces the hinderances and blockages to development in the past, usually exploring how formal and informal institutions have made historical legacies persistent. In order to further advance in this agenda, I make a plea for researchers to provide a better understanding of the ethnically diverse and heterogeneous makeup of Latin American and Caribbean peoples, tracing their historical origins. I also suggest that future progress will require taking greater care in assessing and reconstructing past units of analysis, away from the emphasis on contemporary nation states or the use of latitude and longitude grids or anachronistic modern local jurisdictions. The paper concludes by considering the long tradition of Latin American Utopias and its survival today.