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Reappraising the transformation of Chile-US relations


Image of lobby of the Rockefeller Archive Center.
Rockefeller Archive Center. (c) Cristóbal Bywaters

Small-state status dynamics have received increasing attention from International Relations (IR) scholars as part of a renewed interest in status as a social phenomenon in recent years.


In Latin America, Chile stands out as a successful case of upward international mobility. Indeed, in only a few decades, it turned from an isolated, low-income authoritarian regime during the Pinochet years into an upper-middle-income, liberal democracy that has often punched above its weight in world politics. Looking at this experience, in my doctoral thesis, I research how small-state foreign policy elites manage the interaction between the external and domestic dimensions of their country’s international status.


A critical aspect of my work focuses on explaining the transformation of Chile-US relations after the 1990 restoration of democracy, a moment in which past conflictive ties gave way to a new cooperative engagement. While academics explain this shift as a result of both international- and domestic-level structural transformations of the age, I instead trace its roots back to the late 1970s and 1980s, when a new generation of centre-left IR experts responsible for the transformation of Chile’s international standing emerged as a foreign policy cohort in waiting. During their exile, many developed both a more sophisticated understanding of US society and dense networks with various US institutions. A key actor in this regard was the Ford Foundation (FF), whose politically driven financial support oriented towards transforming hemispheric relations provided vital infrastructure to the new foreign policy elite. In so doing, it helped set the stage for the US to become democratic Chile’s primary status referent and source of external support to the new liberal internationalist agenda of its past foes.


The Society for Latin American Studies PG & PD Research Grant provided me with crucial support to conduct archival research at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) in Tarrytown, New York, where the FF institutional repository is stored. Therein I accessed valuable undigitised documentation on the FF’s activities to promote IR in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Chile and Mexico. I sifted through a rich documentation series, including research proposals and funding, correspondence, background memos, and recommendations for grant actions.


Besides its historical materials, conducting research at the RAC is, by all standards, a remarkable experience. The archive, for one thing, is placed in a beautiful house amidst great natural wonder only a 45-minute train ride from the isle of Manhattan. Everything is designed for users to make the best of their visit, from basic facilities to archival support. In-place guidance by knowledgeable and friendly archivists is undoubtedly one of RAC’s hallmarks.


Now that I am at the last stage of my doctoral research, the materials collected will help me fill in the gaps and develop a thicker interpretation of small-state status dynamics. A thorough examination will serve as the base for academic publications shortly.


I thank SLAS for its support and encourage all Latin Americanists to get involved and apply to the various SLAS funding opportunities.


Cristóbal Bywaters

Department of Politics and International Studies

University of Warwick

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