Sunday, April 19, 2009

Paul Gootenberg's "Andean Cocaine"

Paul Gootenberg, a former Rhodes Scholar, is a professor of Latin American History at Stony Brook University in New York. He wrote a number of notable academic books on Andean economic history before moving into the emerging and considerably more exciting field of global drug history.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug, and reported the following:
Does Andean Cocaine, my new century-long global history of the drug cocaine, really pass the "Page 99 Test"? Like a typical university professor, let me at least argue that it might.

Page 99 of Andean Cocaine depicts the complex political activities of one Augusto Durand–an eastern Andean political boss and notoriously rebellious national political figure in turn-of-century Peru–who also happens to have been the era’s leading world producer of legal cocaine, then a wonder drug coveted in world medicinal markets. It ends on Durand’s attempt in 1911 to organize local Peruvian coca growers into a union-like "Trust" to offset the commercial power of German pharmaceutical firms. Perhaps not the most felicitous passage in my otherwise page-turner of a book, it nicely illustrates the book’s key themes and innovations.

What does page 99 reveal about the larger and deeper message in Andean Cocaine?

First, the story of Durand here is a new narrative, based on mounds of new evidence (including interviews with Durand descendants), about the hitherto unknown Andean actors and forces involved in making cocaine into a historical world commodity--both in its legal phase (the 1880s to 1940s) and during its birth as an illicit recreational drug (from 1945-1975). This fresh Andean viewpoint corrects a trite brand of Western "great man" coke history, obsessed with figures ranging from Sigmund Freud to John Belushi.

Second, the story of Durand captures the way that "politics" have always been at the heart of the drug’s saga. Andean Cocaine is a commodity history, about South America’s most infamous and lucrative export product of the late 20th century. Yet, cocaine has always been a highly politicized and politicizing commodity. Even cocaine’s ultimate transformation into an underground good, I argue, was an essentially political process, wrapped up in the passions and calculus of hemispheric cold-war politics.

Third, the story of Durand is about the initiatives and activities, or what academics love to call "agency," of South Americans. They deeply shaped cocaine’s history, a history deeply set in its regional cultural context. Today, it’s tempting for us to promote simple drug policies (such as overseas interdiction and eradication) or perhaps criticize them (as mere U.S. "imperialism"), but both of these views overlook the drug’s complex living roots in Andean history.

I hope this argument entices readers and consumers of Andean Cocaine to go way beyond "page 99"--to the far end of the book--for it is truly a fascinating story that sheds new light on our ongoing struggles with global illicit drugs.
Read an excerpt from Andean Cocaine, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue