Cole Blasier, founder of the Center for Latin American Studies and a former diplomat, died on June 6, 2021, at 96.
Blasier had met Pitt’s then-Chancellor Edward Litchfield in Moscow in 1956 while Blasier — who spoke Spanish, Russian and French — was giving a State Department tour of the city to U.S. executives. In 1964, Litchfield asked Blasier to start the Center for Latin American Studies at Pitt, where Blasier also taught political science and international relations until 1987. He was the academic dean of the Semester at Sea program in 1984, traveling the world with his students. Blasier also co-founded and was president of the U.S. Latin American Studies Association in 1986.
Carmelo Mesa, an emeritus economics faculty member and former center director, recalls being hired as the center’s assistant director in its fourth year.
At its inception, Pitt’s Latin American center already faced competition from academic centers at other universities amid much larger Hispanic populations, such as Florida, Texas, New Mexico and California.
“It was not easy to establish a center in Pittsburgh,” Mesa says. “He managed to put Pittsburgh on the map. Today the center is one of the finest in the world. We have a significant endowment and about 200 faculty members covering every discipline and profession. That became the core of a group that became extremely influential — and made the center great.”
Blasier created the graduate certificate in Latin American studies, which had a unique field research component for students to undertake in a chosen country, and teamed with the University of Pittsburgh Press to develop a Latin American studies series.
Blasier also recruited Argentine literary bibliographer Eduardo Lozano to the center in 1967 to begin amassing what would become the extensive Lozano Latin American Collection at Hillman Library.
Mesa recalls Blasier leading a delegation to a conference in then-Soviet Moscow in 1982, where they were confronted by their Russian hosts, who were trying to prevent Mesa from presenting his paper on Cuban economics. “It was problematic for the Soviets that an American was presenting a paper on Cuba,” Mesa said — even with Mesa a native Cuban. “Cole told them that if I was unable to give my paper that the delegation would stop immediately and return to the United States. That’s one indication of his character. He was not intimidated.”
“Cole traveled all over the world,” Mesa added, recalling the world map Blasier kept that was eventually ablaze with red pushpins marking all his destinations.
“It was an honor for me to work with him for so many years,” added Mesa. “He was an amazing person.”
Born March 16, 1925, in Jackson, Mich., Blasier was valedictorian of his high school class and then president of his class at the University of Illinois. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in New Guinea and the Philippines in World War II. Graduating from the University of Illinois in 1947, in 1950 he received a Ph.D. in international relations and law from the Russian (now Harriman) Institute of Columbia University in New York.
He began his career as a foreign service officer in political, economic, consular and intelligence positions for the U.S. State Department (1951-1960). In 1960, he joined Colgate University, both as a faculty member and as executive assistant to the president (1960-63). He then taught at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia (1963-4) while acting as a political/economic advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Buenos Aires (1964).
After his work at Pitt, in 1987 he became chief of the Hispanic Division of the U.S. Library of Congress until his retirement in 1993. In 1992, he was knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain and awarded the Order of Isabella for contributions to the Hispanic community.
He published several books on U.S. foreign policy, most prominently “The Hovering Giant: U.S. Responses to Revolutionary Change in Latin America” (1976), and wrote more than 60 articles on U.S. foreign policy.
Blasier also held adjunct professorships at many institutions, most recently the Center for Interamerican Relations at the University of Miami (2003-05). He was a consultant to the U.S. State Department, the International Executive Service Corps in Egypt and the International Research and Exchanges Board, for which he chaired the joint US/USSR Project on Latin America.
He is survived by a son, Peter, and a daughter, Holly; grandchildren Emily, Louisa and Gavin; and daughter-in-law, Molly.
A memorial service is planned for a later date.
Memorial contributions are suggested to the Center for Latin American Studies, University Center for International Studies, 4200 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, 230 South Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260, or www.ucis.pitt.edu/clas/donate.
— Marty Levine