Paul Gootenberg


On his book Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

Cover Interview of June 25, 2009

The wide angle

I like to think of Andean Cocaine as a hidden chapter in the history of globalization.  Today, cocaine, as part of a colossal global criminal enterprise, is the most valuable single commodity we get from Latin America, worth more than $35 billion yearly in street value.  Cocaine is arguably the most successful and “emblematic” of all South American commodities.  As a criminal activity, cocaine feeds into some of our basic anxieties and stereotypes about Latin Americans.  The drug also has had a massive social, political and even pop-cultural impact on our country, especially during its boom years of the 1980s.

The world is experiencing an upsurge of seemingly menacing illicit flows:  drugs, arms, sex trades, blood diamonds, piracy, illegal migrants, counterfeit goods, and the like.  How did such massive new illicit trades arise?  What do they tell us about the other side of globalization?  Andean Cocaine offers three answers to this riddle.

First, cocaine has always been molded by politics, even as a legal good until the 1940s in the Andes, and its remaking into a volatile illicit trade was driven by the politics of the U.S. Cold War.  It is no accident, I show, that the stalwart anti-communist and anti-drug Nixon regime, in actions both abroad and at home, spurred the 1970s age of cocaine.

Second, despite a surprising array of actors the book touches in cocaine’s history—the French, Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Cubans and Chileans—the most powerful if obscured influence has been the long relationship between the United States and the eastern Andes.  We’ve been involved with the drug since its beginnings—cultural amnesia about Coca Cola aside—and our exported drug policies lay behind the drug’s unexpected resurgence as an illicit threat after World War II.

Third, an intriguing aspect of cocaine’s story is how South Americans themselves acted as vibrant innovators with the drug—from the local science that established it as a modern 19th-century commodity to the bit-by-bit ground-up building of its trafficking networks in the post-war era.  Cocaine is a deeply entrenched regional enterprise — one reason why cultural outsiders (from the mob to the DEA) find it so impossible to control from abroad.

My own path to cocaine history is part of the story.  I’m a “recovering” economic historian of the Andes.  Some of my earlier books dealt with the even odder case of 19th-century guano, bird-dung fertilizer exports that made Peru wildly and temporarily rich in the 1850s.  Doing another Andean commodity came naturally, especially since as a sober and penurious grad student, I had totally missed out on the actual cocaine boom of my youth.  The exciting new fields I had to tackle for this study—from medical history and the anthropology of the illicit to cultural studies—made this book a truly addictive writing project.