Forrest Colburn

Position: Professor
Degrees/Diplomas: Ph.D. Cornell University
Research Interests: Latin America, developing nations, revolution

Prof. Colburn currently serves as the Chair of the Department of Latin American Studies at Lehman College. His books include:  The Vogue of Revolution in Poor Countries Princeton University Press, 1994;  My Car in Managua. University of Texas Press, 1991;  Managing the Commanding Height: Nicragaua’s State Enterprises. University of California Press, 1990; and Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy .  University of California Press, 1986; and Latin America at the End of Politics.  Princeton University Press, 2002. He has also edited Everyday Forms of Resistance.  M.E. Sharpe, 1989; and Centroamérica: Estrategias de desarrollo.  Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1987.


Forrest D. Colburn and Arturo Cruz S., Varieties of Liberalism in Central America: Nation-States as Works in Progress (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

Why do some countries progress while others stagnate? Why does adversity strengthen some countries and weaken others? Indeed, in this era of unprecedented movement of people, goods, and ideas, just what constitutes a nation-state? Forrest Colburn and Arturo Cruz suggest how fundamental these questions are through an exploration of the evolution of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica over the last quarter of a century, a period of intriguing, often confounding, paradoxes in Central America’s development.

Offering an elegant defense of empiricism, Colburn and Cruz explore the roles of geography and political choice in constructing nations and states. Countries are shown to be unique: there are a daunting number of variables. There is causality, but not the kind that can be revealed in the laboratory or on the blackboard. Liberalism—today defined as democracy and unfettered markets—may be in vogue, but it has no inherent determinants. Democracy and market economies, when welded to the messy realities of individual countries, are compatible with many different outcomes. The world is more pluralistic in both causes and effects than either academic theories or political rhetoric suggest.

Forrest Colburn, Latin America at the End of Politics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002).

After decades of ideological struggle, much of it in the service of an elusive socialist ideal, Latin America has embraced liberalism–democracy and unfettered markets. But liberalism has triumphed more by default than through exuberance. The region’s democracies are fragile and lethargic. Despite pronounced social inequality, widespread poverty, and other difficulties, the populace is not engaged in deep discussions about state and society. The end of ideological contests has dampened political conflict, but likewise lessened the sense of urgency for solving trenchant problems. Political fatigue and devotion to acquisition have smothered egalitarianism as even an ideal. There is an uneasy social indifference.

Latin America at the End of Politics explores this period of circumscribed political passions through deft portrayals of crucial political, economic, social, and cultural issues: governance, entrepreneurs and markets, urban bias, poverty, the struggle for women’s equality, consumerism, crime, environmental degradation, art, and migration of the poor. Discussions of these issues are enriched by the poignant narratives of emblematic individuals, many of whom are disoriented by the ideological void of the era.

Forrest Colburn’s highly original analysis draws on his deep scholarly and personal familiarity with Latin America. The collage of issues discussed, set in a provocative framework, offers a compelling interpretation of Latin America in the aftermath of the last century’s ideological battles–and a way to begin to talk about the region’s future.

Forrest Colburn, The Vogue of Revolution in Poor Countries (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994).

In the aftermath of World War II, revolutions upset a surprisingly large number of poor countries, among them Vietnam, China, Cuba, Algeria, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua. Revolutionaries in these geographically and culturally disparate countries came to power through different routes, but once in power they had remarkably similar ideas about how to remake their states and societies. In this passionate analysis of the course of these revolutions, Forrest Colburn suggests that shared institutional and policy choices of revolutionary elites arose from a fashionable political imagination. Paradoxically, in an era marked by the demise of European colonialism, it was Europeans – mainly Marx, Engels, and Lenin – who supplied the vision of what could replace colonialism. Colburn traces the diffusion of this intoxicating political imagination not to the Soviet Union, but instead to Western Europe and North America, where socialism was rarely more than political fantasy. In Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, this imagination inspired revolution, but more importantly led to sadly flawed ideas about how to eliminate poverty and inequality. The vogue for revolution in poor countries withered away in a descent accelerated, but not initiated, by the East European events of 1989-1991. This lucid book clarifies why so many countries were so profoundly wrecked in the frenzied pursuit of a dreamt-up world.

Forrest Colburn, My Car in Managua (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991).

Histories of revolutions often focus on military, political, or economic upheavals but sometimes neglect to connect these larger events to the daily lives of ‘ordinary’ people. Yet the peoples’ perception that ‘things are worse than before’ can topple revolutionary governments, as shown by recent defeat of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the governments of Eastern Europe. Providing the kind of prosaic, revealing details that more formal histories have excluded, My Car in Managua offers an objective, often humorous description of the great difficulties and occasional pleasures of life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution.

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