Agrarian societies in Latin America and the Caribbean have accomplished some of the most important and influential innovations in agricultural knowledge and practice in world history—both ancient and modern. These enabled indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes to attain some of the highest population densities and levels of cultural accomplishment of the premodern world. During the colonial era, produce from the region’s haciendas, plantations, and smallholdings provided an essential ecological underpinning for the development of the world’s first truly global networks of trade. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the transnational activities of agricultural improvers helped turn the region into one of the world’s primary exporters of agricultural commodities. This was one of the most tangible outcomes of the Enlightenment and early state-building efforts in the hemisphere. During the second half of the 20th century, the region provided a prime testing ground for input-intensive farming practices associated with the Green Revolution, which developed in close relation with import-substituting industrialization and technocratic forms of governance. The ability of farmers and ranchers to intensify production from the land using new cultivars, technologies, and techniques was critical to all of these accomplishments, but often occurred at the cost of irreversible environmental transformation and violent social conflict. Manure was often central to these histories of intensification because of its importance to the cycling of nutrients. The history of the extraction and use of guano as a fertilizer profoundly shaped the globalization of input-intensive agricultural practices around the globe, and exemplifies often-overlooked connectivities reaching across regional boundaries and between terrestrial and aquatic environments.
Gregory T. Cushman
In the final decades of the 19th century the Central American nation of Guatemala represented some intriguing employment and entrepreneurial possibilities from the point of view of US citizens. The lure of coffee cultivation, mahogany harvesting, even mining was real. Additionally, the promise of employment building an inter-oceanic railroad resulted in significant numbers of African Americans journeying to Guatemala. The relocation offered good pay and many apparently believed that it would also take them to a place where Jim Crow racism was not the predominant and limiting factor that it was in the United States. For at least one of those men however, railroad work was not the primary enticement to the region. By 1893, such alleged opportunities in Guatemala had attracted the black athlete, entrepreneur, and entertainer Billy A. Clarke. During his two years in the country, with his sometime business partner and sparring mate, Rod Lewis, also an African American, Clarke operated a gymnasium where he taught the “Art of Pugilism,” staged several prize fights, and, for a time, captured the imagination of the capital city with the example of modern, imported entertainment and professional sports. Between 1892 and 1898, Guatemala was ruled by, first president, and later, dictator, General José María Reina Barrios. A globalizer enamored of modernization, European architecture, and North American technology, the environment fostered by Reina Barrios attracted not only contractors and African American workers from the United States to build railroads but also other foreigners who made for the Central American nation, bringing the outside world to the mile-high capital of Guatemala City. Into this setting came Billy A. Clarke, drawn by the same baseline possibilities of solid work and the prospect of less Jim Crow as his African American railroad compatriots, but with the additional promise that his individual skills as a fighter and promoter might reap even bigger rewards. The story of Clarke in Guatemala is one of race, identity, and creative self-promotion. Building an image that combined ideas of the exotic and powerful African with ideas of the North American armed with “know-how” and scientific fighting skills, Clarke became a Guatemala City celebrity and was eventually known as the “Champion of Central America.”
The years immediately following World War II constituted a watershed in Mexico’s political development: the national government, controlled by the recently renamed Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and led by a new generation of civilian professional politicians, made rapid industrialization its top priority. In a matter of decades, the nation transformed from a predominantly rural to an ever more urbanized society. Significant social and cultural changes followed. The middle classes became the dominant voice in national politics and the beneficiaries of the government’s economic policies, while earlier efforts designed to ameliorate the suffering of the majority were suspended or even reversed, leaving urban workers and the rural poor to wonder what had happened to their revolution. Gradually, a consumerist culture eclipsed the cultural revolution of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite official claims to the contrary, Mexico in this era shed its revolutionary identity and replaced it with a modernizing zeal. Through the 1960s, scholarly assessments regarded the nation as a model of Third World development. In the estimation of foreign and domestic observers alike, the combination of aggressive capitalist development, state protectionism, and foreign investment had created an economic miracle, while the 1910 Revolution had produced a relatively benign, paternalistic form of “soft” authoritarianism. But in the years following the devastating massacre of students in 1968 at the Plaza de Tlatelolco just days before the Mexico City Summer Olympics, scholarly assessments soured. In the coming decades, more and more evidence of political violence, media manipulation, and official corruption would surface, leading to a crisis of political legitimacy that would be severely aggravated by economic crisis in 1982. For these reasons, the period from 1946 to 1982 is a distinct and important chapter in the nation’s 20th-century development.