Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth Century Latin America
The sun-drenched American tourist sipping cerveza on a Mexican beach does not instantly invoke images of empire or serious diplomacy. Instead, the tourist represents escape, leisure, triviality, and artificiality. His actions are his own and are driven by motivations that stray far from official foreign policy objectives. This connotation surrounding the tourist explains, in large part, why historians of diplomatic history have stayed away from the topic. Over the past five years, however, diplomatic historians have given the tourist a well-deserved second look and have determined that he is a crucial actor in economic, cultural, and strategic foreign relations.
Dennis Merrill’s Negotiating Paradise, which expands his 2001 article on U.S. tourism to Puerto Rico, is an innovative and colorful contribution to the small but significant library of histories examining the intersections of tourism and foreign relations. In six distinct but cohesive essays on Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, Negotiating Paradise posits that the story of U.S.-Latin American relations is incomplete and skewed if tourists are not among its major actors. Most significantly, viewing U.S.-Latin American foreign relations through the lens of tourism challenges the traditional, simplistic depiction of U.S. imperialism throughout Latin America. As opposed to a one-sided, inequitable relationship in which a juggernaut of military, economic, and political power flowed from the U.S. metropole toward the Latin American periphery, U.S. tourism and empire played out in a series of “cultural negotiations,” in which hosts and guests embraced, debated, rejected, and hybridized the products of their encounters. By telling the “everyday” story of imperialism, Merrill challenges the work of realist and dependency theorists alike – who diminish the agency of host nations – constructing a remarkably nuanced and convincing model of empire that contains give-and-take, mutual benefit, and mutual frustration.
To its credit, this story does not ignore the reality of U.S. hegemony in Latin America. Merrill, in fact, sees little room for debate over whether the United States maintained an empire in Mexico and the Caribbean in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor does the book suggest that tourism – and other forms of “soft” power – somehow served as a rejection of or antidote to “hard” power imperialism. Tourists, Merrill asserts, often facilitated the construction of empire. By promoting racist views of Anglo supremacy, depicting Latin America as exotic or backwards, and “gendering” their Latin American hosts as feminine, tourists often played the part of imperialists without the use of guns or explicit political power.
At the same time, however, Merrill demonstrates how tourist discourse often conflicted with the policies of empire and took U.S.-Latin American relations in new, unanticipated directions. Parochial and domineering attitudes from some tourists were muted – or at least balanced – by an overwhelming sense of internationalism and neighborliness. Friendly tourist relations between the United States and Mexico, in fact, preceded FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy by a decade. In another example of how the foreign relations of tourism developed independently from – and often conflicted with – more traditional patterns of empire, officials of the Hilton Hotel chain showed a great deal of interest in Castro’s Cuba and pursued friendly relations with the dictator long after Washington policymakers had given up on the Caribbean island.
On the other side of the equation, tourism served as a platform from which host governments and peoples could reject, reform, and voluntarily embrace empire. Most explicitly, the economic benefit of tourism – often discarded by dependency theorists as a form of exploitation – brought significant wealth to Latin American economies and host governments actively sought out foreign investment and foreign travelers in order to bring in coveted U.S. currency. To this end, Latin American governments relied on a complex network of public-private partnerships – both local and foreign – to fund and build hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. On a cultural level, host governments and local tourism planners were able to shape their society’s “image” in a way that displayed pride, independence, and tradition. Even at the lowest levels, local peoples possessed a good deal of agency in their negotiations with incoming tourists. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, police officers, and artists – all of whom encountered U.S. tourists on a daily basis – showed a remarkable ability to dictate the terms of empire.
Negotiating Paradise will no doubt appeal to a wide variety of scholars. Merrill’s contributions to the study of empire, along with his demonstration that tourism plays a central role in foreign relations, transcend U.S.-Latin American history and will thus be welcomed by diplomatic historians of all stripes. His focus on the “everyday” face of foreign relations will be appreciated by social and cultural historians, who have employed this methodology far longer than have diplomatic historians. Like Christopher Endy, Neal Moses Rosendorf, and others who have recently examined tourism and U.S. foreign relations, Merrill has done a wonderful job of expanding the arsenal of primary material for diplomatic historians. In addition to his multi-archival research that spans the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, Merrill pores over periodicals, travel guides, popular advertisements, hotel blueprints, and postcards in his examination of cultural representations of tourism and Latin America. These nontraditional sources not only offer a lively and fresh perspective on U.S.-Latin American relations, they also open up diplomatic history to postmodernist inquiry and widen the field to include new actors and new narratives.