Week 7: “Modernizing” forces in Latin America

This weeks content focused on the idea of modernity Latin American. Modernity in Latin America and a difficult concept that continues to be debated today. As such a broad idea, it seems to tie into many subjects that we have covered so far in this course. It can be thought of in the context of civilization vs barbarism, in the context of citizenship, the relationship between racism and modernity or Caudillismo vs liberalism and many others.


I think the main idea that my post will follow is from Dawson’s interview from this week’s syllabus; the idea that Latin America’s elites wanted the “look and feel” of modernity, rather than what real “modernity” might actually be. Dawson in his interview explains this as the expansion of infrastructure, global fashion, technology, while continuing to ignore the injustices that were (and still are) so prevalent in Latin American society. He believes that real and advanced modernity is the investment in the whole populace and not in corporations or the aristocracy. To further relate this point to the points made in the first paragraph, Dawson states that the justification for the promotion of this type  of modernization was the chaos that defined post-colonial Latin America. Yet, He believes that the real reason for the superficial modernization was the rampant racism that still existed in these societies. For example, in this week, as well as past week’s readings the favorable immigration policies towards Europeans have been mentioned. In Argentina and Brazil 5 and 1.6 million europeans, respectively, immigrated leading to the desired whitening of these countries. This racism translated into a fear of increasing rights for “uncivilized” peoples, thus a need to keep modernization superficial and exclusive.


As the textbook points out, a  great example of “look and feel” modernization lays within late 19th and early 20th century Mexico under Porfirio Díaz. during this era the country underwent a series of changes. the economy grew substantially for years, leading to increasing infrastructure and technology. The roads were populated with vehicles, streets were illuminated with electric lights, government buildings were popping up, sewage and drainage systems were created, and high end buildings such as opera houses began to appear. But, probably the most  important advancement, not just in mexico, but in the most developed parts of Latin America was the creation and expansion of railroads. On a side note: I think it’s super interesting how much Dawson stresses the importance of barbed wire. He claims that, along with the railroads, it help solidify and centralize state power. With the expansion of the railroads, so came an expansion of the middle class. Yet, this modernization is superficial in that in continued to emphasize the “Scientific” organizing of the social and political realms. Thus, with no surprise, those who continued to suffer were the historically marginalized indigenous and afro-latin communities. Inequalities persisted and even increased. “modernization” led to the theft of land from small family and subsistence farms and thus increased the concentration of land. In Mexico 1% of the population  owned over half the  land and 97% of mexicans were without land altogether. So, although GDP grew, wages fell and inequality increased. In hindsight, we now know that this laid the foundations for the Mexican Revolution.


On another yet related subject, I want to consider the role of Porfirio Diaz in the development of Mexico as my thoughts are mixed.  A prominent way of thought in Latin America was order before democracy. Or, in other words, authoritarian led development before the spread and equalization of rights. To this, Diaz seemed to adhere strongly. James Creelman emphasises this point when he says that Diaz is “one who is said to have transformed a republic into an autocracy by the absolute compulsion of courage and character, and to hear him speak of democracy as the hope of mankind.”  Diaz himself acknowledges this when he said that “We were harsh. Sometimes we were harsh to the point of cruelty. But it was all necessary then to the life and progress of the nation. If there was cruelty, results have justified it.” He strongly believed that he had done wonders for the country, which he may have done. He had a long period of economic growth, he believed in education for all, although he might have had a note of racist assumptions when he spoke to this, he created trade across Mexico and across state borders, and for his long rule brought relative stability to the country. Yet, in light of the past section, he also helped increase the concentration of power, wealth and land, laying the foundation for the ensuing revolution.


As mentioned above, he also seems to had a deep respect for democracy. In Creelman’s writings, he claims that he would full heartedly support  the creation of an opposition party. He felt that, after his long tenure, the country was indeed ready for a transition to democracy. He wanted country wide education to fuel this process while also stopping and further violence.


So my question for this week relates to this. Who was Porfirio Diaz? Was he a stepping stone to Mexican democracy, which in reality did not arrive for almost 100 years. Or was he simply a egotistical dictator that did not much more then push the country into further political violence?

1 thought on “Week 7: “Modernizing” forces in Latin America

  1. Leobardo Elizondo

    I understand your mixing feelings, in Mexico historians have basically thought us to spit in Diaz name, but i do believe, that between all his cruelty, he did good. In my point of view not only did he bring advancements in arts, transport, etc but for me it feels as if he sacrificed his whole life waiting for a moment for mexicans to strike back and achieve what he calls “true democracy”, yet again, maybe this was all for “aesthetics” and prevent the population from rebelling and stay longer in power.


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