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Paul GootenbergThe Latin American Connection

SUNY Distinguished Professor Paul Gootenberg Uses His Research to ‘Connect the Global Dots’

Paul Gootenberg is addicted to cocaine.

To be clear, his preference for the drug is not as a user but as a scholar intrigued by its long and now illicit history. But before his fascination with cocaine, Gootenberg, who was recently named SUNY Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at Stony Brook University, shared a similar interest in guano — dried bird excrement — a potent export from Peru once used around the globe as a major fertilizer.

What do two disparate substances such as cocaine and guano have in common, and why is Gootenberg so interested in them?

Both are prized Latin American commodities dating back to the 19th century — the kind of stuff that “a recovering economic historian,” as Gootenberg calls himself, likes to study.

As with any historian, Gootenberg immersed himself in the topics he loves, much of which became fodder for the numerous works he has authored, edited, reviewed and translated during the course of a stellar academic career that began three decades ago as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.

His 442-page tome, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), was hailed as a pioneering work that carved out a new area of inquiry — the global history of drugs — and garnered him the distinction of being the nation’s foremost scholar of Latin American drug history.

And his first two books, Between Silver and Guano: Commercial Policy and the State in Post-Independence Peru (Princeton University Press, 1989) and Imagining Development: Economic Ideas in Peru’s “Fictitious Prosperity” of Guano, 1840–1880 (University of California Press, 1993), broke new ground for their interdisciplinary analyses of Latin American republics.

These days, Gootenberg is engaged in even more worldly endeavors. He recently testified at two national intelligence summits on Andean cocaine and travels the world speaking about global drug reform. Along those same lines, he is the selection chair of the Social Science Research Council’s Drugs, Security and Democracy (DSD) fellowship program, supported by the Soros Open Society Foundation, which aims to promote innovative research about the problems of drug violence in the Americas.

“The DSD fellowship program is so critical,” he said. “It brings Latin American researchers together, many of whom are trained in the top U.S. universities, and gives them the opportunity to develop studies and policy alternatives that can become part of a larger debate about the future of drugs and drug-related violence in the Americas.”

The program analyzes issues such as the United States’ role in the global drug war and the effect that good research from Latin America can have on today’s vibrant policy reform debate. “That’s important because for the first time ever, there is a great deal of questioning about the kind of global drug war paradigm that our government has been using for the past 50 years or more,” he said.

Some of the bigger questions DSD fellows mull include: What are the social causes of violence that have emerged in Latin American countries like Mexico? Are there more workable policing strategies? Can anti-crime measures lessen drug violence even if the drug trade persists?

“At the DSD we’re very interested in that type of research and promoting it. It’s the leading edge of policy change,” he said.

Conducting and promoting research comes second nature for Gootenberg. When he was gathering information for Andean Cocaine, he spent years declassifying forgotten papers crammed into boxes at the U.S. National Archives, sifting through records at the Drug Enforcement Administration, and combing dusty old journals at medical libraries as a way to “draw out a prehistory of today’s drug war,” he said.

His travels took him to Britain and Peru, where he dived into archives in Lima and Huánuco, a small city on the fringes of the Amazonian tropics where the cocaine industry came of age.

Callout quote“What was difficult in this research was connecting all the global dots,” he said. “How do you connect the story of cocaine in the United States and Europe and Asia to the story of cocaine in Peru? How do you connect the spread of illicit cocaine to Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Colombia to the story in Peru and Bolivia? It was a big puzzle that took many years to put together.” 

His fascination with all things Latin American began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s — a time when there was a lot of attention on human rights in Latin America. “It was a region and a time that saw a lot of people involved in progressive causes,” he said. “I realized then that the academic study of a region like Latin America could contribute to broader understandings.”

Gootenberg’s academic work brought him to Stony Brook in 1990. “Stony Brook has always been a draw for scholars around the world,” he said. Between 2000 and 2005 and again in 2011 he was the director of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, an interdisciplinary center of the College of Arts and Sciences. These days he teaches a class on Latin American global commodities and another on developing proposals for grants and dissertations — a course that builds on the strengths of Stony Brook’s Department of History and its high-achieving students.

“Latin American history is one of the regional fields in History at Stony Brook that is among the top PhD training centers in the country,” he said. “Our students get prestigious grants, our students get the jobs, and they are well-represented throughout the profession.”

Gootenberg, who has always used his research to monitor worldwide trends, is noticing another kind of movement taking place — public universities like Stony Brook are becoming much more global in scope.

“Long Island has become a major site of new immigration,” he said. “We also get scientists and doctoral students from all over the world. As we get more internationalized in the region, it will help Stony Brook to evolve into a true global university.”

He considers his recent appointment to SUNY Distinguished Professor as evidence that Stony Brook is acknowledging eminent work across many disciplines.

“Stony Brook is a well-rounded university — it’s an excellent place for scholarship in the biological, physical and medical sciences, but we also have distinguished professors and cutting- edge research programs in the social sciences and humanities,” Gootenberg said.

By Susan Tito; photos by John Griffin


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