The scene is a subtropical state capital, somewhere in the Americas, in September 1935. At the absurdly grandiose new legislative building, the local caudillo is preparing to purge one of his opponents. With his aggressive style, populist rhetoric and contempt for constitutional niceties, he perfectly fits the stereotype of the South American strongman. A few years before, he surrounded the capital with troops to get rid of his successor and return to power. But now, like Bolívar before him, and like Perón, Vargas and Batista to come, he has run out of luck. Late that evening, shots ring out. In good magical realist style, the assassin is a suitably improbable figure: a disgruntled doctor, aggrieved that his father-in-law, a judge, is about to lose his job. The caudillo’s bodyguards shoot back – but too late. Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, is mortally wounded.
When Americans think about their political history, Long is not, perhaps, the first person they choose to remember. A blustering populist bully, he was arguably closer in spirit to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than to Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D Roosevelt. But as Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues in this clever, provocative and often very amusing ‘Hispanic history’, the United States has much more in common with countries such as Mexico, Chile and Argentina than many of its people