If I could change one thing about my approach in moving to Latin America, I would read as much as possible about Peru. I recommend any aspiring expat read at least one under the Latin America category and four from your destination country. This isn’t an exhaustive list, just the most important ones I’ve found thus far.
The Penguin History of Latin America
Catholic monarchy, Spanish and Portuguese history, stratified society, controlled economy, no organic independence movement but external circumstances led to the end of colonial system … This book explains everything you scratch your head about in Latin America.
Why are some countries rich and others poor? The thesis in a few words: political pluralism and open economies create wealthy, powerful societies. The book includes plenty of examples of how behind Latin America was (and still is in many ways) in terms of “political pluralism” and “open economies.”
Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America
Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze profiles characters who most shaped or represented lines of thought in Latin America. I really enjoyed the first two chapters on the role of the Spanish American War and how it kickstarted anti-Yankee sentiment in the region. Also, it was nice to see Mario Vargas Llosa heralded for his neoliberal politics while Gabriel Garcia Marquez is taken to task for never abandoning the Castros.
Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto’s work on red tape and informal markets prompted the World Bank to create the Ease of Doing Business rankings. This book earned him an assassination attempt from the Shining Path, for whom the book was named. Important for understanding Latin attitudes when it comes to business. Follow up with “The Mystery of Capital.”
This book details a tiny band of Spaniards’ discovery and subjugation of the Inca Empire, as well as the factional Spanish warfare over who would reap the benefits of enslaving them. Most problems in Peru come down to the palpable divide between the indigenous highlands, the Creole coast and the giant mestizo majority between the two. It all goes back to the same story, the conquest of the Incas. Another great account is the more recently published “The Last Days of the Incas” by Kim MacQuarrie.
The Latin American Studies department at Duke publishes the Latin American Reader series for most countries in the region. They select book passages, news articles, and speeches from all the eras in an attempt to offer a concise look at the country’s history. If you’re only going to read one book on your Latin American country, I recommend the Latin American Reader series.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s memoir focusing on his failed presidential campaign in 1990, which he lost to Alberto Fujimori. The book also chronicles MVLl’s youthful flirtations with socialism, and why he ultimately turned away from it. This is the best modern history of Peru. If, like me, you couldn’t get enough of this one, follow up with “Fujimori’s Peru.”
The upper-class elite of Lima through the eyes of a young boy in San Isidro. Absolutely scathing critique of “pituco” culture. Even if you’re not living in Peru, and no matter how long you’ve been in Latin America, this book will open your eyes about Latin society.
One of the most comprehensive looks at the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency. A little scatterbrain and difficult to get through, but the book is full of gems if you can stick with it.
Vargas Llosa’s most celebrated novel offers a great look at the Manuel Odria dictatorship — just one of many in Peru’s history — and a great sense of Lima in the 1950s. Vargas Llosa can be difficult in how he jumps around between eras and characters, but stick with it.
From the jacket: “An eccentric, mother-obsessed prosecutor, newly returned to his hometown from the capital, Lima, is asked to investigate a series of grisly murders … The lines between good and evil blur as civilians are caught between Shining Path terror and the brutal military response … corruption, impunity and racism in Peruvian society served up with irony and black humor.”
Nineteenth-century Peruvian author Ricardo Palma is the continent’s most successful of the era, the Latin Mark Twain if you will. The collection of vignettes is an excellent complement to those already familiar with Peruvian history. Mildly interesting for those not. The book captured the imagination of Spanish readers, prompting many to emigrate. While historically significant, this is last on the list.
A fictionalized account of Colombian history — the geographic isolation, the superstition, the unending war. Infinitely readable, although the names can be confusing but they make a literary point. This classic appears on the book lists of notables from Bill Clinton to Oprah.
Best look at the now-ended FARC insurgency I’ve read. According to one review, the book “lays out the complex web of narco-politics in Colombia through the story of three ‘gringos’ shot down over the jungle interwoven with the strange adventure of the Colombian special forces team who were sent to find the Americans.”
While Law of the Jungle covered the guerrillas, Oblivion is the best read I’ve seen on right-wing paramilitary terror in Colombia, which some have suggested killed more innocent people than the leftist rebels did. Great nuggets of paisa culture in Medellin. It also beats out Conversation in the Cathedral for having the most compelling personal/human story on this list. See my review.
Despite Colombians’ attempt to change the image of narcotraffickers, cocaine is an important part of the economy and culture. Journalist Toby Muse followed a brick of cocaine from the coca fields in guerrilla territory through the distribution network until its export out of the country for a compelling look at the illicit ecosystem.
The Pablo Escobar saga illustrates the scale of influence that drug traffickers have in Colombia. The joint operation between the Colombian military and U.S. special forces laid the groundwork for Plan Colombia. See my review of the book.
Sex and blood and more sex and blood. This captivating book will draw you right in and hold on until you finish. Set in a mythical version of Cartagena, the story follows a man who never forgets his love for his teenage sweetheart who dumped him for a prominent doctor. He embarks on a remarkable task in waiting for her to become available again.
Mad Outta Me Head
This memoir of Christopher Kavanagh, written by me, is an on-the-ground look at Colombia’s underworld. Christopher did a few bids in Irish prison before coming to Bogota a full-blown heroin addict and got popped his first attempt at smuggling. Some ugly depths of humanity (murder, prison rape) in addition to Colombian culture and history. See sample chapters and extra materials.
Feast of the Goat (Dominican Republic)
Also by Mario Vargas Llosa, this fictionalized history chronicles the dictatorship of Dominican Republic’s former President Rafael Trujillo, who kept a tight grip over the country with a brutal secret police, torture and murder. The story examines power and how men and society allow such domination and abuse. See my review.
Blogging the Revolution (Venezuela)
Published the year before Hugo Chavez died, this collection of articles from the Caracas Chronicles blog is an excellent modern history of Venezuela told by two Venezuelan economists. Sometimes a little wonkish but balanced out with jokes and hilarity, this is important to understand the “pink tide” that has culminated in spectacular catastrophe. Read my review.
The War of the End of the World (Brazil)
An account of War of Canudos, a civil war largely inspired by slavery and racism in Brazil’s northern desert state of Bahia. MVLl considers this he best novel.
The House of the Spirits (Chile)
This is basically One Hundred Years of Solitude for Chile, illustrating the history of Chile through several generations of a unique family. Read a transcript here.
Marching Powder (Bolivia)
Story of an English drug mule who served four years in the largest prison in La Paz. The book describes how prisons in Latin America operate. There is a method to the madness. See my review.
A Wicked War (Mexico)
The Mexican American War was little more than a footnote in my high-school education, but it’s one of the more fascinating chapters in American history. I read it with all the biases of an ugly American. And while I can attempt to justify America’s land grab of what is now the western states with all my ugly American reasoning, nobody can deny that this war was simply a land grab.
The Fish that Ate the Whale (Central America)
Biography of Sam Zemurray, an American immigrant, hyper-capitalist, domineering gringo imperialist, benevolent philanthropist and Zionist. His meddling in Central America to build and protect his banana business is an amazing story also sheds light on the troubled history of the region. Read my review.