Peter James Hudson, “Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean”
Interview with the New Books Network
Histories of banking and finance aren’t particularly well-known for being riveting, adventurous reads: they tend to be technical at the expense of being strongly narrative-driven. Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (University of Chicago Press, 2017) defies this stereotype. An examination of private lending in the Caribbean by North American bankers between the 1890s and the 1930s, Hudson tells a colorful, albeit at-times disturbing tale of a few American bankers who were able to operate virtually without restriction or regulation. Acting almost as freebooters, they dreamt up new practices to try out on Latin American governments, usually not to their benefit, while reinforcing many North American attitudes and stereotypes about Latin Americans, most of all racially.
The result of this imperial lending was traumatic for Caribbean and Latin American governments. For much of this period, bankers enjoyed the official backing of the U.S. government, allowing them to operate with immunity and total security. Through President Taft’s policy of “Dollar Diplomacy,” they were able to operate as an arm of U.S. foreign policy. By making funds available to repressive governments, they helped to cement their place in power at the expense of their subjects, while the amount owed by these governments soon left them under the de facto control of banks and by extension the U.S. government. Ultimately, much of this system came crashing down with the Great Depression, which helped to expose these lending practices as dangerous and ill-regulated. Nevertheless, the effect on the region outlived these practices.