LAB’s roots date back to 1977 when the Catholic Institute for International Relations (today known as Progressio), together with a group of journalists, activists and academics, recognised the pressing need to report on and denounce state violence throughout Latin America. In its first decade, LAB’s primary objective, in the pre-internet age, was to publish in book form reliable, first-hand research on repression and resistance. LAB’s early publications, such as Guatemala: Unnatural Disaster, Roger Plant (1978), Under the Eagle, Jenny Pearce (1982), and Bolivia: Coup d’Etat, JamesDunkerley (1980), reported on the brutal violation of human rights in Central and South America. Our investigations, often conducted in alliance and solidarity with Latin Americans fleeing or exiled from the region, raised awareness on a range of issues: trade union struggles, social movements and conflicts, authoritarian governments, the role of the US and international bodies, such as the World Bank and the IMF.
LAB’s second strategic function was its role as a Documentation Centre. LAB received and stored much original press and newsletter material that detailed state repression, and the activities of social and political movements. LAB’s growing library, organised by Raquel Caravia, became a resource for students and researchers visiting London and helped us to publish books that often exposed issues for the first time in English, as in the case of El Salvador under General Romero (1979).
By its second decade, LAB was becoming more than a book publisher as we organised conferences not only on politics and the economy, but on the politics of memory and truth, cultural changes and the issues facing new social movements. Some of the main topics included:
- The legacy of conflict: Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth, Jenny Pearce (1990); Promised Land: Peasant Rebellion in Chalatenango, El Salvador, Jenny Pearce (1990); Picking up the Pieces: Corruption and Democracy in Peru, Nick Caistor & Susana Villaran (2006).
- The environment and indigenous peoples: Fight for the Forest—Chico Mendes in His Own Words, Mendes & Tony Gross (1992); Murder in the Rainforest, Jan Rocha (1999); Green Guerrillas ed. Helen Collinson (1996); Return of the Indian, Phillip Wearne (1996).
- Women: Women in Brazil, Caipora Women’s Group (1993); Out of the Shadows, Women, Resistance and Politics in South America, Jo Fisher (1994); Companeras, Voices from the Latin American Women’s Movement, Gaby Kuppers (1993); Women of Maize, Indigenous Women and the Zapatista Rebellion, Guiomar Rovira (2000); Benedita da Silva , An Afro Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love (1997), Reyita, The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century (2000);
- Neo-liberalism: Chile, the Pinochet Decade: the Rise and Fall of the Chicago Boys, Phil O’Brien & Jacqueline Roddick (1983); The Dance of the Millions: Latin America and the Debt Crisis, Jacqueline Roddick (1993); The Silent Revolution, Duncan Green (1992)
- Urban issues, including crime and the drug trade: Latin American City, Alan Gilbert (1994); Hidden Lives, Voices of Children in Latin America and the Caribbean, Duncan Green (1999); Born to Die in Medellin, Alonso Salazar (1990).
- Popular culture: The Beautiful Game, a Journey through Latin American Football, Chris Taylor (1998); Cuban Music, Maya Roy (2002); Culture is Our Weapon, Afro Reggae in the Favelas of Rio, Patrick Neate & Damian Platt (2006); Salsa: Havana Beat, Bronx Beat, Hernando Calvo Ospina (1995).
We started to cooperate with other organisations both in the region and the UK, to bring authors, activists, journalists and campaigners to speak at book launches and take part in conferences, speaking tours and educational work.
The combined efforts of LAB’s writers and the works of specially commissioned research established the organisation’s reputation as a leading publisher on Latin America. Since its inception, LAB has published more than 200 books, many authored by leading thinkers on Latin America from within the UK and elsewhere, for a broad audience and on a range of issues. Duncan Green’s seminal Faces of Latin America (1991) is currently in its fourth edition. Our goal has never been to publish “research for itself” but as a contribution to action and change, based on a respectful understanding of the region’s 600 million inhabitants, whose nations are as diverse geographically and historically, culturally and politically, as they are in terms of class, ethnic and race, and gender politics.
By now, LAB was playing a significant role in education, providing material and speakers for schools, and books (especially Faces of Latin America, Green, 1991) which became text books in sixth forms and universities. LAB ran courses and language classes at the City Lit adult education centre in London. Much of the publicity, conference organising, reviews, education and outreach work was coordinated by Chris Lee who also developed an activist network of LAB supporters.
Some LAB staff moved on to hold distinguished roles in universities (Jenny Pearce became Professor of Latin American Politics and Director of the International Centre for Participation Studies at the University of Bradford; James Dunkerley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary College, University of London and is a former Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas). Others took prominent roles in NGO aid agencies (Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Advisor and former Head of Research at OXFAM-UK; Helen Collinson became a campaign manager at Christian Aid), or in broadcasting and publishing (James Painter became an Executive Editor at the BBC World Service and is head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute, Oxford; Jim Ferguson went on found the independent publisher Signal Books; Marcela López Levy a communications consultant at phpList).
Many others who came to LAB meetings and conferences, took LAB courses or became LAB supporters, went on to visit, work in, write about or migrate to the Region, becoming active members of a large, and still growing band of Latin-Americanists.
In 2007, LAB underwent a major overhaul to take advantage of the digital age. With the support of a loyal team of experienced journalists, LAB became a news outlet for the latest pressing issues through its website, e-mail newsletters and social media. With more than 10,000 monthly visitors to the site, LAB now offers regular news on topics as diverse as:
- femicide and violence against women, particularly in Central America, and the work of organisations that seek to end impunity on these issues
- drug-related violence, its effects, through gang culture, on young people, urban communities and women and the culture of corruption linked to it
- the devastation of natural disasters and the politics of international aid
- agribusiness and the impact of its farming methods on land tenure and peasant families, indigenous communities and rural labourers
- alternative developmental practices that contest the policies and investments of national and international corporations
- the construction of large hydroelectric dams, illegal logging and mining, and the social and political movements that challenge them,
- the impact of climate change on indigenous and peasant communities.
- Human rights abuses, past and present, and the fight for the truth, for memoria, and against impunity.
While our main focus in recent years has been our on-line presence, LAB continues to publish books, including ‘K’, Bernardo Kucinski (2013), a dramatic novel-testimony describing a father’s agonised search for his daughter, disappeared during the military dictatorship in Brazil; and Brazil Inside Out, Jan Rocha & Francis McDonagh (2014) –the first in what we hope will be a new set of country guides to replace our best-selling, but now outdated In Focus series. Future publications, like Brazil Inside Out, are likely be in both print and e-book formats.
In January 2015 LAB embarked on a publishing partnership with Practical Action Publishing with whom we will co-publish all future LAB books and who will be the sole distributors of existing in-print LAB titles. Practical Action has begun digitising almost the entire back catalogue of LAB books. These will soon be made available as e-books, either for individual purchase or by subscripion to the complete collection.
None of our work would have been possible without the generous financial support of UK aid agencies especially, in recent years, Oxfam.