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Week 5 – Caudillos

Echeverria’s The Slaughterhouse was very hard to read. Not only was it told from the perspective of an elite with deeply rooted racist opinions, but the tone of the story is one of dejected acceptance of the inevitable loss of culture to “barbarism.” The depictions of, as Dawson puts it, the “dark skinned people of the countryside” are vile and unfair. They are presented as individuals capable of torture and murder, as completely lacking in social decency, and they repeatedly make a mockery of the revered Catholic church. In contrast, the light skinned European is pained as an innocent victim, destroyed by the barbarians. The text may offer us deeper insight into the mind of an elite in Latin America during this period, but at the same time, it is disturbing to read the embedded racism of the time in such stark language.

The emergence of the caudillos post-independence seems a natural progression. After decades of continued repression peasants, the indigenous, and the lowest classes, would certainly pounce on the opportunity to gain from the ineffectiveness of a weak state. Who wouldn’t rally behind a champion of the poor, after generations of oppression? If you happened to be a charismatic and militarily-minded man after independence, you were in a unique position to gain power and allegiance by forming relationships with the right people. And with an army of underprivileged, angry, non-elite people demanding an interlocutor to defend their interests, you could bolster your own might by appealing to them. It is difficult to ascertain the motives of these caudillos. Were they really championing human rights? Or were their actions driven by personal ambition? Either way, the political landscape of the region shifted away from the state and toward these, in a way, military powerhouses.

Of course, the rise of the state once again drove out these opportunists, or more appropriately, created infertile soil for the sort of domination caudillos practiced. With a move toward liberalism, as in the example of Mexico, the state gained stability and institutions appeared, but so did capitalism. And as Dawson points out, in the span of 50 years, 90% of Mexican land was owned by 1% of the population. Though I certainly support state intervention in the name of equality and aid for the poorest, I admit that I can understand the allure of a charismatic champion, fighting for the rights of the poor, despite that champion’s own motives.

How did the end of the caudillo era affect other states in Latin America?


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Week 4 – Independence

It’s not hard to imagine that after several generations following the mythical point of origin of Latin America, 1492, that residents of the Americas would begin to feel the itch for independence. I found it interesting to consider how the different social classes approached the idea of breaking free of European rule, and the concept that some stood to lose mainly power and wealth, whereas others stood to lose very basic rights. Those who were most oppressed had a healthy fear of independence because there were some (if limited) protections for them while the crown was in place. But what if the landed elites wrested the power from the Iberian Peninsula? How would the new, independent, state treat those in the lowest positions? The prospect would be frightening. But elites also feared independence because of the uncertainly of their continued power and governance once severed from Europe. Despite these fears, the desire for independence was nearly universal across the Americas.

I enjoyed reading about the various regions approach to independence, and how varied the experiences were. In Haiti, for example, slaves succeeded in overthrowing the colonial presence, and this led to the eventual emancipation in 1793. Compare that to Brazil, where the Portuguese Emperor actually settled after fleeing Napoleon. The emperor’s son then declared Brazil independent and slavery was further entrenched. Both states came to independence from Europe, but carry vastly different histories and struggles. The people who directly feel the consequences of these contrasting roads to independence would understandably form vastly different identities. We can see why a simple description of Latin America is elusive, and reductive.

The accounts of Bolivar, the Great Liberator, were fascinating. He had grand ideas of independence, and was eloquent and persuasive. Though his lifetime achievements certainly were not on the scale of his dreams, he grew to be a figure as important as Columbus in shaping the Americas. We also get the sense that his story is equally mythical. Could we discuss Bolivar more in class, especially the reception of his ideas following his death?

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