REV: Conference summary: "Traveling Technocrats: Experts and Expertise in Latin America’s Long Cold War”

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Review of the conference “Traveling Technocrats: Experts and Expertise in Latin America’s Long Cold War”

by Timothy W. Lorek and Andra B. Chastain


            On October 14-15, 2016, a group of twenty historians from North America, Latin America, and Europe convened at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut for the conference “Traveling Technocrats: Experts and Expertise in Latin America’s Long Cold War.” The event, organized by Yale Department of History Ph.D. Candidates Andra Chastain and Timothy Lorek, served as the latest installment in Yale’s initiative to study the Cold War from Latin American perspectives.

            The study of experts and expertise presented the conference organizers with a unifying analytical lens for the reexamination of Latin American Cold War experiences. Although foreign “experts,” among them botanical collectors, cartographers, and engineers, had traveled to and across the Americas since the colonial era, the events and internationalism of the twentieth century diversified and multiplied this work. The global upheavals of the Great Depression, World War II, and finally the Cold War, not to mention the rise of the United States as a global power, combined with the emergence of new transportation linkages such as the Panama Canal, the Pan-American Highway, and air travel to lend new urgency to foreign expertise in the region. Rival political ideologies and professional interests were made material through the creation of agricultural experiment stations, social science think tanks, and infrastructure such as dams, metros, defense systems, and housing projects, among others. Regional, national, and foreign experts interacted and collaborated to build new institutions and economies. In the process, they forged networks that at times reinforced, and at times defied, the North-South and East-West axes imposed by international geopolitics.

            Conference participants delivered papers that dialogued across thematic and regional specializations and critiqued the meaning of the terms “expert” and “expertise” in the context of Latin American political and social history. They asked, who constitutes an expert and why? Where do experts originate? How do they travel and who funds their work? How were experts and expert knowledge shaped by ideology, geopolitics, and social unrest? How were questions of race, class, and gender addressed—or silenced—by experts? To what extent did Cold War dynamics shape the circulation of expertise in Latin America?

            For this event, Chastain and Lorek invited participants to dialogue across three thriving but often separated historiographic fields: the cultural Cold War in Latin America, environmental history, and histories of science and technology. The three speakers comprising the opening Keynote Panel each represented one of these subfields and collectively laid out the conference’s historiographic foundations. Gilbert Joseph offered a detailed chronicle of the scholarship on the “long Cold War” and the “cultural Cold War” in Latin America. He charted the history and contours of the Yale initiative in cultural Cold War studies for the region, broadening the periodization and cast of characters typically observed in foreign relations histories of the Cold War. Eden Medina reflected on the insights of science and technology studies in Latin America. In particular, she identified competing narratives that would each contend to interpret the history of science and technology for the region. Mark Carey then highlighted scholarly examples reflective of a maturation in the field of environmental history in Latin America, wherein historians have begun to abandon declensionist narratives in favor of more dynamic interpretations that understand nature as inherently cultural.

            Each of the keynote scholars observed critical achievements in their respective subfields, while also recognizing a need to further engage with other scholarship. For Joseph, this task requires renewed attention to scholarship emanating from international and foreign relations history circles, as well as a commitment to incorporating the nuances presented in non-U.S. based academic communities, especially those in Latin America and southern Europe. Medina seconded this call for dialogue with international academic communities, noting the problematic dominance of English-language scholarship for both Latin American and science and technology studies. Carey, for his part, championed the possibilities inherent in interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarship, particularly between historians and scientists.

            The first panel, “Genealogies of Environmental Science,” began with Emily Wakild presenting on the work of a biological field station in Peru’s Manu National Park. The blurred boundaries between expert and popular forms of science, or “residential knowledge” in Wakild’s paper, linked to anthropologist María Pérez’ presentation on “civic science” in Venezuela’s amateur speleological associations. Javiera Barandiarán rounded out the panel with a paper on CENMA, Chile’s National Center for the Environment, and the work of its scientists in navigating policy and funding changes in the transition from Pinochet’s authoritarian state to the return to democracy guided by the Concertación. Barandiarán dissected the distinctions in the Chilean context between scientists and technocrats and this thread reappeared often throughout the conference. In his commentary, Paul Sabin challenged the panel to consider the extent to which the Cold War matters in their respective narratives beyond providing a timeline. This question, like Barandiarán’s careful distinction, provoked extended audience discussion.

            Panel Two, “Bodies and Organisms as Circulating Technologies” examined agronomists and veterinarians and similarly resulted in thoughtful audience participation. Gabriela Soto Laveaga and Rebecca Tally each presented on local antecedents to Green Revolution agronomy projects in Mexico and Colombia, respectively. Soto Laveaga’s paper posed a critical evaluation of capitalist versus socialist forms of experts and expertise, a tension that Reinaldo Funes Monzote explored further in his presentation of the revolutionary Cuban state’s efforts to modernize the island’s beef and dairy industries and partner with capitalist and temperate Canada. Another theme for the panel emerged when Tally, in tracing domestic precedents for the Rockefeller Foundation’s post-1950 agricultural development initiatives in Colombia, invoked the work of Steven Palmer and his assertion of a “transnational republic of public health.” As Tally turned this phrase for agronomy, Thomas Rath suggested a transnational republic of veterinary science. Rath examined how Cold War geopolitics shaped the circulation of foot and mouth disease eradication vaccines between laboratories in the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, and Brazil. James C. Scott offered a lively commentary on agronomists and the “platonic potato” with the backdrop of Funes’ resounding image of Fidel Castro posing with Cuba’s champion dairy cow, Ubre Blanco.

            The third panel, “Rural Development and Community Mobilization,” kicked off the second day. Mary Roldán offered a paper on Catholic education campaigns and radio in rural Colombia and the savvy adaptability of its leadership to appeal to a variety of international funders in the Cold War climate. Staying in Colombia, Mark Healey explored Bogotá-based housing organization CINVA (Centro Interamericano de Vivienda y Planeamiento) and its efforts to construct affordable housing in rural Colombia. Like Roldán and Healey, Javier Puente similarly described a transnational network of funding and operations in his examination of international agricultural organizations and their effect on the direction of the Peruvian agrarian reform of the 1960s. Marcela Echeverri offered comments and tied together the papers’ shared pursuit of transnational linkages and the tensions brought by the lived experiences of race and class in the local contexts described.

            Panel Four, “Design, Material Culture, and Cold War Imaginaries,” offered creative perspectives on built environments and their embedded meanings. Manuel Rodríguez discussed fallout shelters in Puerto Rico and the role of civil defense experts in instructing the public on intangible threats, such as radiation. Fernando Purcell similarly examined the task of making visible otherwise invisible forces; in his case, he showed how electricity was made visible through social and cultural mediation in the case of hydroelectric dams in Chile, Peru, and Colombia. Finally, designer Hugo Palmarola traced the layered intentions in the changing designs for NASA insignia excavated at a Chilean satellite tracking station. Andra Chastain led the audience in a discussion of the papers’ innovative approaches to the study of expertise and the Cold War.

            The final panel, “Traveling Experts: State and Non-State Actors,” explicitly traced the itineraries of foreign specialists and the effect of their recommendations and observations on state policy. Ricardo Salvatore followed the tracks of economist Theodore Schultz in his sojourns through Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, including his culturally-situated critiques of those countries’ cattle industries and the effects of the trip on his later career. Tore Olsson reminded everyone of the multi-directional flow of travel and knowledge, examining Mexican politicians’ observations of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the southern United States and the application of its model to two politically-divergent projects in Mexico. Margarita Fajardo positioned the critical conjuncture of the 1960s and the Alliance for Progress amidst a broader transformation in the theories of leading economists involved in the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), connecting the decline of import substitution industrialization to the rise of dependency theory. Scott Crago then traced the work of a UN Food and Agriculture Organization consultant in a Mapuche community in southern Chile who advised and sometimes challenged the Pinochet regime on its indigenous policy, unsettling narratives of the so-called Chicago Boys and their neoliberal platforms as the singular basis for such programs. Paulo Drinot offered insightful comments on the panel’s individual papers, as well as the conference as a whole. His remarks segued into a dynamic audience discussion of what is gained through a focus on expertise. Debate ensued on the specificity and usefulness of the term “technocrat,” the effects of the Cold War, and the significance of periodization.

            The conference received funding through various channels internal to Yale, including the Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies at the MacMillan Center, the Kempf Memorial Fund, and the Mellon Fund for Latin American History. The event was also co-sponsored by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The organizers are currently working with conference participants to craft an edited volume based on the proceedings.


Conference Overview:


Opening Remarks

Andra B. Chastain (Yale University)

Timothy W. Lorek (Yale University)


Keynote Panel: Bringing Experts and Expertise into the Study of Latin America’s Long Cold War

Gilbert M. Joseph (Yale University)

Eden Medina (Indiana University)

Mark Carey (University of Oregon)


Genealogies of Environmental Science

Emily Wakild (Boise State University), “An Ecological Orientation: How Natural Field Science Became Important in the Peruvian Amazon”

María Alejandra Pérez (West Virginia University), “Yearnings for Guácharo Cave: Affect, Class, and Science in Venezuelan Speleology”

Javiera Barandiarán (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Chilean Scientists in Transition, 1980-2010”

Discussant: Paul Sabin (Yale University)


Bodies and Organisms as Circulating Technologies

Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Harvard University), “Traveling Seeds, Stationary People?: Contesting Narratives of Agricultural Expertise in the Era of the Green Revolution”

Rebecca Tally (CUNY LaGuardia Community College), “The Body of Experts: Masculinity, Agronomy, and the Rockefeller Foundation in Colombia”

Thomas Rath (University College London), “A Tale of Four Laboratories: Animal Disease, Politics and Science in Cold War Latin America”

Reinaldo Funes Monzote (University of Havana), “Challenging Climate and Geopolitics: Intensive Cattle Raising, Exchanges with Canada, and the Dilemma of Animal Protein in the Cuban Revolution, 1959-1989”

Discussant: James C. Scott (Yale University)


Rural Development and Community Mobilization

Mary Roldán (CUNY), “‘Communication for Change’: Mass Media, Economic Development, the Catholic Church and the Cold War in Colombia’s Radio Sutatenza/Popular Cultural Action Network, 1947-1974”

Mark Healey (University of Connecticut), “The Shelter of Expertise: Planning, Politics, and Praxis at Colombia’s International Housing Lab, 1951-1966”

Javier Puente (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile), “‘Tierra para el que la trabaja’: Rural Expertise and Agrarian Technocracy in Cold War Peru, 1960-1970”

Discussant: Marcela Echeverri (Yale University)


Design, Material Culture, and Cold War Imaginaries

Manuel Rodríguez (University of Puerto Rico), “Radioactive Designs: Expertise and Fallout Shelter Programs in Puerto Rico, 1960-1968”

Fernando Purcell (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile), “Dams, Electricity, and Technology: Circulation of Knowledge and Technological Imaginaries in South America, 1945-1970”

Hugo Palmarola (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile), “NASA in Chile: Towards an Archaeology of Branding”

Discussant: Andra B. Chastain (Yale University) and Audience


Traveling Experts: State and Non-State Actors

Ricardo D. Salvatore (Torcuato Di Tella University, Argentina), “Potato Economist in the Southern Cone: Theodore W. Schultz’s Visit to Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay in 1941”

Tore C. Olsson (University of Tennessee), “Transplanting ‘el Tenesí’: Mexican Planners in the American South during the Cold War Era”

Margarita Fajardo (Sarah Lawrence College), “Autonomy in Question: How Latin American Economists Made ISI History”

Scott D. Crago (New Mexico State Archives), “A Stateless Cold Warrior: Cristobal Unterrichter, the FAO and Contested Indigenous Reform under the Pinochet Dictatorship”

Discussant: Paulo Drinot (University College London)


Abstracts, participant biographies, and more information at