Founded in 1977, LAB has marked 35 years of work as a publisher committed to research and action which could aid progressive change in the Region. To mark the launch of our new website the author provides a panoramic view of LAB’s work and aspirations.
The 1970s were a strange and often neglected decade, sandwiched between the revolutionary momentum of 1968 and the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s. It was a period of progressive movements which were increasingly focused on social and cultural issues such as gender, sexuality and race. But international solidarity thrived, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the movements against dictatorship and authoritarianism in South America. The brutal responses of the armed forces of Latin America backed by the United States—this was not the Arab Spring of four decades later—had stirred activists and mobilised trade unions who saw many Latin American workers fall victim to repressive regimes.
Latin America Bureau, which was founded in this decade, saw its role as publishing research which would feed these activists and help build the movements, as well as increasing consciousness amongst those concerned with what at the time was still known as the ‘Third World’.
Human rights had barely registered on the international agenda until the 1970s. The Chilean road to socialism had given way to a military government, and a diaspora of Chileans who had escaped torture and imprisonment reached Europe, to be followed by similar waves of Uruguayans and then Argentinians. Strong solidarity groups emerged to support them, divided over the politics of armed or political struggle, but very active. Amnesty International raised the banner of human rights, while many groups emerged to draw attention to abuses in particular countries. Some felt more comfortable with humanitarian issues while others focused on the radical agendas and political struggles in the region.
The emerging social and political crisis in Central America was less well-known amongst activists who were drawn to the struggles of workers and the left in the Southern Cone countries. In Central America, dictatorships and oligarchies were under challenge for the first time from armed and popular movements. It was around this Central American uprising that Latin America Bureau was born.
The Catholic Institute for International Relations (today known as Progressio) played a major role in setting up LAB in 1977, to raise awareness of the brutality of the military/oligarchic regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala and the Somoza dictatorship of Nicaragua. LAB’s first publication was an account of the horrors taking place in El Salvador in 1977 under President Carlos Humberto Romero, data gathered at great risk and smuggled out of the country. It proved a powerful tool for raising awareness about this small country which was shortly to become the site of a major civil war.
The successful Sandinista revolution of 1979 put Central America on the map round the globe, and Latin America Bureau became a major source of information to feed this interest. The publication of Under the Eagle in 1982 coincided with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as US President and the unsuccessful general offensive of the FMLN in El Salvador. It traced the systematic interventions of the US in a region it called its ‘backyard’ and sought to explain the US effort to prevent radical change in the 1980s.
The Nicaraguan revolutionary government and the FMLN’s growing strength in El Salvador reignited global passions around Latin America’s social and political movements that had emerged first under the Allende government in Chile. At the same time, the Reagan-Thatcher alliance, with its hostility to the Central American struggles, fuelled even stronger support amongst new generations of radicals in Europe and North America. LAB responded to the demand for arguments, analysis and information in this pre-Internet age, publishing books on a wider range of issues facing the region, from the role of the IMF (The Poverty Brokers: the IMF and Latin America, 1983) to the struggles of trade unionists (Unity is Strength, 1980), to the collapse of tin in Bolivia (The Great Tin Crash, 1992).
There were long debates on how to write accessible books, to make them tools for change as well as scholarly enough to convince. The link between research and action for change was embedded in the organisation and each new researcher brought more issues of concern, so that LAB extended its scope to the Caribbean as well as responding to events, such as the US intervention in Grenada (Grenada, Revolution in Reverse 1990) and the Falklands/Malvinas war. LAB produced the first critical analysis of that war (The Falklands/Malvinas: Whose Crisis? 1982). It also produced a history of the peasant movement in El Salvador, from the ‘front line’ (Promised Land, 1986).
By the latter part of the decade, LAB had begun to tackle the more complex countries, such as Colombia and the violence facing social activists and social movements in that country (Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth, 1990). Into the 1990s, Faces of Latin America (1991) offered an overview analysis of the challenges facing the region as neoliberalism replaced military authoritarianism as the focus of activism, and this became an important introduction to Latin America that went into a number of editions and is still widely used in schools and universities today.
LAB stimulated interest in Latin America in the UK and elsewhere, and provided a focal point for those seeking to understand the background to the region’s many conflicts and struggles for social justice. Working in LAB was an intense and meaningful experience for many of us, and the idea that research can contribute to change is a legacy I have never abandoned.
*Jenny Pearce is Professor of Latin American Politics and Director of the International Centre for Participation Studies (ICPS) at the University of Bradford. She worked as a researcher at Latin America Bureau from 1979 to 1990 and was author of a number of LAB’s best-known titles.