International History and Politics
24 November 2020

Historicising the Financial Dimensions of Authoritarianism in Latin America

An interview with the Ambizione Grant Visiting Fellow Carlo Edoardo Altamura on the importance of studying Latin America and the challenges the region is facing today.

Carlo Edoardo Altamura is a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione Research Fellow at the Department of International History since March 2019. He is the Principal Investigator of the research project entitled Business with the Devil? Assessing the Financial Dimension of Authoritarian Regimes in Latin America, 1973-85


What is your research focused on?

As an international economic and financial historian, I am particularly invested in examining the political mechanisms behind economic and financial phenomena. After graduating in finance from Bocconi University in Milan and a short career in banking between Milan and Geneva, I decided to pursue my doctoral studies in economic and social history at the University of Geneva and Uppsala University in Sweden. After witnessing the havoc caused by the financial debacle of 2007-2008, I became interested in understanding how we got to that point. More specifically, I decided to consult a wide range of primary sources from European commercial banks, central banks, national archives and international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the OECD to investigate how finance – a relatively obscure and safe line of business in the immediate post-war years marked by extensive capital controls – had become such a dominant industry in our lives able to bring entire countries and their citizens to their knees. 

The core of my thesis focused on the period that followed the first oil crisis of 1973 until the developing world’s debt crisis of 1982. The thesis’ conclusions were that the ‘rise of finance’ of the post-1973 years was not only the result of unstoppable market and technological developments but that accommodating policymakers had accelerated the process. I argued that to limit the impact of financial crises in the future the nexus between financial institutions and political power had to be severed. My dissertation resulted in a book published in 2016, European Banks and the Rise of International Finance – The Post-Bretton Woods Era.

After obtaining a dual Ph.D. from the universities of Geneva and Uppsala in 2015, I continued investigating the interactions between politics and finance. This time I decided to broaden the scale of my analysis to include regions in the global south often understudied by financial historians. My attention gradually focused on Latin America, a part of the world that has suffered greatly from continued economic and financial instability.


What brought you to the Department of International History at the Graduate Institute? 

During my postdoctoral years spent at the Department of History at the University of Cambridge and El Colegio de México, thanks to a scholarship from the Société Académique de Genève, I started developing a new research project focused on international finance and authoritarian regimes in the period from the 1970s to the 1980s. I submitted the project for a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione Grant and the International History Department at the Graduate Institute quickly emerged as the best possible fit in Switzerland. The Institute and the Department, located at the heart of the Genève internationale, where so many global decisions are taken, provide the ideal location to conduct my research. At the Department of International History, I attend stimulating conferences and found a wonderful network of scholars and students, which has allowed me to broaden my research interests and develop new academic interactions. Thanks to the Chair of our Department, Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou, I had the opportunity to design and launch a new course titled “Authoritarianism and Democracy in Latin America: From Independence to the 2010s” and thanks to our students, the course has quickly become a lively forum to discuss and reflect upon the challenges that Latin America countries have faced in the past and are still facing nowadays.


What is the current project you are leading on?

My SNSF Ambizione Grant (2019-2023) is titled “Business with the Devil? Assessing the Financial Dimension of Authoritarian Regime in Latin America, 1973-1985”. With the support of my colleague and collaborator at the Department of International History, Dr. Kim Seung-Woo, we use an extensive range of primary sources, disclosed at our request, to document for the first time the interactions between authoritarian regimes in Latin America and financial actors during the ‘golden age’ of authoritarianism in Latin America when all of the region, with the exceptions of Colombia and Venezuela, was under the rule of repressive and non-democratic regimes. Starting from the oil crisis of 1973, large amounts of dollars (known as ‘petrodollars’) were accumulated by oil-producing countries; this capital was deposited in American, European and Japanese banks that extended colossal loans to developing countries and, especially, Latin American countries until most of those countries defaulted on their debt in the early-to-mid 1980s, a decade known as la década perdida or the lost decade. Despite the vast economic literature on the debt flows to Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s, the strategic role of non-governmental financial actors in the legitimation and consolidation of authoritarian regimes remains a critically understudied topic in international contemporary history. 

The first article based on the project (Business History Review, 2020) makes use of previously unavailable archival evidence to examine the interactions between international banks and South American governments in Chile, Brazil and Argentina. One of the findings was that these interactions intensified once military rule was established and that capital that was used for a wide variety of purposes, including arms imports. When global banks cut loans once the debt crisis erupted in 1982, they aggravated the economic crisis but also fostered democratic change. A second article, written with Professor Juan Flores Zendejas from the University of Geneva (Business History Review, forthcoming) highlights the relationship between international banks, their home governments, the IMF and international regulators during the years that preceded the debt crisis of 1982. We have found that the decisions of commercial banks to lend were largely based on the home governments’ preferences, competition and the assumption that home governments and international organisations would provide lending of last resort functions to support borrowing governments. Two articles currently in progress with Professor Claudia Kedar (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr. Kim Seung-Woo, focus on the different attitudes of international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World bank towards the Brazilian government before and after the military coup of 1964 and on human rights activism against banking activities in repressive regimes in the 1970s. Given the current economic and political challenges that Latin America is facing, I believe that the need to analyse the region’s recent past is more important than ever.