BA English Literature and History

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Democracy and Authoritarianism in Latin America’s Twentieth Century

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST32372
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


The goal of this course is to identify and analyse the alternation between authoritarianism and democracy in Latin America from the late nineteenth century to our time. By doing so, we seek to uncover broad patterns of structural change over time in the region. After achieving independence, most Latin American countries found themselves plagued by social disparities which translated into institutional inequalities which, in turn, created a fertile soil for authoritarian governments. 

The course will begin by analysing Latin America in the late nineteenth century, a time when the region was characterised by the constitutionalism of liberal political leaders and the personal power of Caudillos. Then, we will proceed to address some of the most relevant elements of Latin America's economic, social and political history of the twentieth and early twenty-first century: from inter-war nationalism to the military rule of the 1960s and 1970s to the democratisation wave of the 1980s to the Pink Tide of the 2000s and the current political polarisation.  


Restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes (please check your programme structure for further details).


  • To develop knowledge of key concepts and events in the study of Latin America’s historiography 

  • To address key issues affecting the democratic tradition of Latin America 

  • To use critical frameworks and pericentric perspectives to challenge some of the traditional narratives on Latin America’s economic and political history 

  • To equip students with skills in reading, analysing and contextualising texts about Latin America’s social, economic and political history 

Teaching and learning methods

Introductory lecture on a subject, various seminar activities, presentations. 

Analysis of primary and secondary sources 

Knowledge and understanding

  • Apprehend the complexity and heterogeneity of Latin America’s complex experience with democracy and authoritarianism  

  • Demonstrate a broad understanding of the major processes affecting Latin American political trajectories 

  • Develop a critical understanding of existing narratives about Latin America’s political transformations 

Intellectual skills

  • Locate, interpret, and synthesise information and debates from a wide-ranging secondary literature on Latin America which includes writing from several disciplines – History, Politics, International Relations, Sociology – and use these to deliver coherent, persuasive, and original arguments in assessed work.   

  • Think critically about how Latin American political and economic history is produced and narrated. 

  • Analyse a range of complex primary and secondary sources from a variety of perspectives. 

  • Connect Latin American economic and political history with current debates about democratic backsliding in the region. 

Practical skills

  • Digital humanities skills developed through the use of online resources and archives from a wide range of actors in Latin America and beyond.  

  • Teamwork skills developed through developing and delivering a presentation as part of a group.  

  • Communicating your own arguments and interpretations in verbal and written formats. 

  • Contributing to group discussions on complex historical and theoretical debates in seminars.  

  • Independent research skills for seminar preparation and assessed work. 

Organisational and time-management skills developed through organising and managing independent study.  

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  •  Understand and clearly articulate complex topics verbally and in writing. 

  • Develop clear and coherent arguments that bring together and critically interpret information from a range of sources. 

  • Develop confidence in verbal presentation skills through seminar participation and group presentations. 

  • Carry out independent research on primary and secondary sources.  

  • Teamworking skills will be developed through group activities and group presentations. 

Employability skills

Group/team working
Group activities in workshops and the design and delivery of in-class group presentations will develop students’ project management, planning, and teamworking skills.
Oral communication
Presentations and in-class discussions will prepare students for effective communication in the workplace, in particular how to respond quickly and effectively to questioning and debate.
Independent research through written assessments will develop students’ ability to interpret, analyse, integrate, and present information from a range of sources in order to solve complex historical problems.
Given the current economic and political context in Latin America, where populist and authoritarian tendencies have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, this course will not only serve to shed light on the region's past but also provide students with the necessary critical tools to decipher future challenges looming on the region's horizon. The course will be of particular relevance to students who wish to enter careers in international development, foreign policy (e.g., think tanks), academia or the Civil Service (especially the Foreign Office).

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%
Oral assessment/presentation 50%

Feedback methods

Feedback method  

Formative or Summative 

Verbal feedback on group presentation and seminar activities. 


Written feedback on the literature review. 


Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultations and office hours). 


Recommended reading

  • Altamura, C. E., “Global Banks and Latin American Military Dictators, 1974-1982”, Business History Review, 2021, 301-332.  

  • Bertola, L. and Ocampo, J. L., The Economic Development of Latin America Since Independence, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 

  • Brands, H., Latin America’s Cold War, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 

  • Fajardo, M., The World That Latin America Created. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in the Development Era, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022. 

  • Htun, M., Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family under Latin American 

  • Dictatorships and Democracies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Carlo Altamura Unit coordinator

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