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June 23, 2016

Pitt continues major role in Latin American Studies Assn.

The 50th anniversary of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), headquartered at Pitt for the last 30 years, is an auspicious moment, marking “the transformation of the organization,” says Ariel Armony, senior director of international programs and director of the University Center for International Studies.

Armony, a member of LASA since 1990 when he was a graduate student, this year co-chaired LASA’s annual conference, which drew more than 6,000 attendees — greater than half of LASA’s 12,000 members — for the presentation of research and other scholarly papers.

“In the last 30 years, the association has grown dramatically,” he says, becoming the largest professional organization for its region in the world. “It has dramatically changed its demography” as well. Originally dominated by U.S.-based scholars, LASA’s membership now comes 60 percent from Europe, Asia and Latin America — 45 percent from the latter region alone. The next two congresses will be in Peru and Spain.

The LASA congress brings together students and professors, public figures and politicians to discuss regional issues for Latin America and its relations with the world. This year’s speakers included political theorist Noam Chomsky and the past presidents of Costa Rica and Chile, as well as some of the major players involved in establishing relations between Cuba and the United States recently. Its 900 sessions included panel discussions on everything from the current politics in Brazil to those “disappeared” in Mexico.

Scott Morgenstern, head of Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies, also is part of the leadership team for a LASA section for directors of Latin American studies centers. He says the organization, and particularly the conference, are vital for members to network and work toward collaborative projects. At last month’s LASA conference in New York, for instance, he worked with other Latin Americanists on a large project that will study China’s impact on the region just south of the U.S., linking Pitt and its Asian Studies Center here with Renmin University in Beijing and National Autonomous University of Mexico. The aim is to hold a conference on the subject in Mexico, then a smaller workshop here at Pitt, eventually compiling a volume about the economic impact of China on Latin America.


“LASA over the years has also taken a position in terms of very important and controversial events happening in Latin America,” Armony points out.

In the 1980s, for instance, following the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, President Ronald Reagan’s administration supported the contras, or counter-revolutionary army. In response, a LASA observation team traveled to Nicaragua to observe the Sandinista-run election, since the U.S. wasn’t accepting the results.

This year, LASA voted to send a delegation to observe the upcoming impeachment of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, and produce a report assessing the process.

In 2004, Cuba banned 65 academics from traveling to a LASA conference in the U.S., where they were planning to help launch the publication of a scholarly work on the Cuban economy. LASA protested by placing 65 empty chairs prominently at their event.

LASA also created the Otras Saberes (Other Knowledges) program that helps scholars of particular issues team with people living those issues on the ground in Latin American countries, in the hopes that both perspectives can lead to a better solution. Otras Saberes “has been received really well by scholars, since they get a really good view of the problems,” says LASA operations manager and congress coordinator Pilar Rodriguez Blanco, one of six Pitt staff members among LASA’s seven-person staff, including executive director Milagros Pereyra-Rojas.

LASA also publishes the Latin American Research Review (LARR), which Armony calls the most prestigious journal on Latin American studies. A new editor from Pitt, political science faculty member Anibal Perez Liñan, has just been chosen.

Morgenstern also points to other important LASA efforts, such as the news magazine Panoramas, which publishes popular, accessible versions of LARR research articles.

LASA’s presence also attracts Latin American scholars and programs to Pitt, he says, since LASA board members visit campus for meetings and often give presentations while here.


LASA responds to the latest trends in Latin American scholarship, and it helps to shape them, Armony says.

Faculty are studying the transition from military rule to democratically elected governments in the region since the 1980s, developing literature on how regional countries have handled the rights of citizens, the rule of law and issues of representation.

Latin American studies scholars also have been examining the condition and cultural impact of marginalized groups, such as indigenous peoples, and adding new gender perspectives on issues, he says. They also are continuing to study Latin America’s shifting relationship with the world, traditionally with the U.S. — “a very controversial relationship, particularly during the time of the Cold War,” Armony notes — but now increasingly with China, “and how that affects the role of Latin America in the world and of course its relationship with the United States.”

LASA members, especially during the congress, also discussed the future of area studies. In fact, Armony says, it feels as if they and other prominent regional studies organizations have been talking about “the crisis of area studies” for 10 years. That’s because a variety of academic departments, including some at Pitt, have been replacing retired regional scholars with new faculty who emphasize global studies, viewing single issues across regions. Universities also are decreasing their focus on foreign language scholarship — witness the recent proposal to change Pitt’s suspended German language PhD program to one more focused on the European Union — and are less often requiring foreign language study for entrance or graduation. And the U.S. Congress repeatedly has tried to decrease funding for Department of Education Title VI national resource centers focused on regions, of which Pitt has many.

“Area studies continues to be very strong,” Armony counters. “It seems to me it’s not indeed a crisis … or we are rethinking the role of area studies.

“Essentially what we need to look more at is … how the field is going to take new directions that are going to make it more and more relevant” by looking at global issues in terms of how they affect individual regions.

At the congress, Morgenstern says, center directors from around the world met to discuss their roles in strengthening area studies and plan to continue the debate on LASA’s website.


LASA plans to aid in strengthening area studies in several ways, Armony says. Thanks to the increasing membership of Latin America-based scholars in LASA, the organization has a chance to help Latin American universities increase and improve their capabilities and level of scholarship. “LASA has a tremendous opportunity to play a leading role in that process,” he says.

He also intends for LASA to “engage in a much more fruitful dialogue with policy makers” in the region concerning how new laws are decided upon and implemented. “If that becomes an emphasis, I think this organization will have a much stronger impact in the region,” he says.

In general, he hopes that LASA can become “a beneficial bridge between the north and the south” of the Americas.

“It’s a really big deal that Pitt is the home to the association and that we have such a big presence,” with dozens of Pitt faculty and students attending the conference and playing important roles in sections, he adds.

According to Rodriguez Blanco, LASA also will aim to increase the number of Latin American publishers who put out scholarly works; LASA even is looking to publish some Latin American-based publications at Pitt.

With its strategic plan for 2016-20, she says, the organization will provide better services to members, bring in more student members and use social media to connect people better about Latin American affairs. Concludes Rodriguez Blanco: “It’s going to rearrange LASA.”

—Marty Levine 

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