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Image: CLAS end-of-year garden party, 2003


Interview with Dr. David Lehman: Director of the Centre of Latin American Studies, 1990-2000

What was the Centre like at the beginning?

The first Director was a man called Jack Street, then they appointed Christopher Platt and later Brian van Arkadie. Brian was originally an economist who came from Development Studies. After him came David Brading, who was there for 15 years. There was a lot of enthusiasm around Latin America which was thought to be the next great hope for social revolution; he helped in setting up the MPhil. When the Centre started it had three 5-year postdoctoral positions and a lot of the people who had them, like David Rock, Sarah Radcliffe and others, then went on to make major contributions, so that was extremely worthwhile. I arrived in 1973, but initially I was in Development Studies. For people like me, the Centre was a point of reference, a place to go and feel at home. For a time I think I even had an office there, but I only became Director in 1990.

Do you think the MPhil is a particularly important part of CLAS?

MPhils didn’t exist in Cambridge until the 1970s; the idea of a postgraduate taught course didn't exist. All other universities had Masters courses but our structure is very focused on undergraduates. The colleges are still very much dominated by undergraduate life, but there's now a whole world of research that is incredibly powerful, like CLAS. The Centres of Latin American Studies and Development Studies were pioneers in inventing a taught, 9-month MPhil course. CLAS was an unusual outlier in that it only taught postgraduate students.

Are there any conferences or seminars that particularly stand out for you?

It is sad really because the ones I remember best are the ones that caused the most trouble, although they were all worth it. We had a big Amazonian conference that Françoise Barbira-Scazocchio ran with me and the papers were published in Land, People and Planning in Contemporary Amazonia. That was a great success; we took over much of the Sidgwick Site and had a lot of people came. And we also had a series of events on the Andes, which gave rise to a book I edited called Ecology and Exchange in the Andes.

Another event I remember was in 1976. There had been a coup in Brazil in 1964, a coup in Argentina in 1966, and another creeping coup from about 1972 in Argentina with the full seizure of power in 1976. Pinochet came to power in 1973, and there was Uruguay as well; those really were very dark days: it seemed that some sort of fascism had installed itself definitively. So we had this idea that we would do a seminar on the state and economic development in Latin America and it turned into a big event with about 150 people. It was just a series of lectures but all the top people were there: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Guillermo O’Donnell, Ernesto Laclau. It had been planned as a small seminar but mushroomed into a series of big lectures. That event had a big effect on Latin American Studies in the UK.

Another event for me was the Brazilian conference in 1996. That was when Julie Coimbra started working at the Centre, helping to organise the conference. I booked King’s College two years ahead. What was going to be a small thing ended up really quite big. And then there was a meeting in 2007 entitled Mestizajes. That's when I met Mónica Moreno Figueroa [now a Lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge]. It was about race issues in Latin America. As a result of that I did a big project on multiculturalism, which I’m still writing up.

Cultural Studies has really come into its own in more recent times. We had Dawn Ades who came to speak about Frida Kahlo, I remember. I was at college with her. She’s extraordinarily effective, she’s organized many exhibitions, Latin American exhibitions and also on Dada and Surrealism and set up the Essex Latin American Art Collection.

The Centre’s open seminar has been a terribly important institution; it has been going every week for as long as anyone can remember. It’s always well attended, amazingly well attended. I think that’s been a really important feature.

Would you consider yourself purely a Latin Americanist?

The work I've been doing recently on religion takes me to the US, to Brazil, and to Israel but I identify very strongly with Latin America. I’m more interdisciplinary than most – I’m not a very loyal sociologist and I was also attracted to anthropology. From my point of view the Centre allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. 

Do you think the Visiting Fellows and the Simón Bolívar Chair have been key elements of CLAS?

We had both Simón Bolívar professors and Visiting Fellows and not many institutions have that. The turnover really has been important because otherwise the same people just keep talking to each other. We’ve been fortunate that those resources allowed us to attract a lot of delightful and creative people to Cambridge.

Who were the most memorable Simón Bolívar Professors for you? 

It is an invidious question. Guillermo O'Donnell (2002-2003) was an interesting figure for me. He was a leading political scientist who received numerous awards, but his ideas ranged far beyond his discipline. He always seemed to be ahead of the game, predicting what was about to happen. He was a friend of mine ever since the 1976 conference and influenced me enormously, and his death in 2011 has been a severe loss. In 1976 he wasn’t very well known but a paper had landed on my desk and I thought, ‘wow, this guy’s special’ so I invited him. Carlos Fuentes (1986-1987) took it really seriously. Uniquely for a Simón Bolívar Professor,he  gave a series of carefully prepared lectures as did Adrián Gorelik. There have also of course been some ‘folkloric’ moments in the Chair’s fifty-year history…

July 2016