week 9

Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion and America’s Empire

This week, we looked into the complex relationship between the U.S. and Latin America – the many shapes and sizes in which the North influenced the South, and all the justifications given by the American government for exerting its power in the continent starting in the 19th century.

Dawson highlights how influence and domination over Latin America was necessary if the US wanted to become a global power. However, that didn’t necessarily go with the ideals of freedom and self-determination that were pillars of American democracy, so there had to be some sort of pretext for their aspirations of control over the South. Their claims were that they were champions of democracy in the continent, but that hardly hid the fact that the main motivation was purely economical. The Panamanian independence is an example: the US funded rebel groups to fight against Colombian rule and declare independence, with the sole purpose of taking away the construction and control of the Panama Canal from Colombia. This gave the US extreme control over the region.

Still, American influence was very complex. Take the growing and selling of bananas, for example. United Fruit Company monopolized the production and selling of that commodity in countries like Guatemala, and while it developed infrastructure (in the form of roads, electricity etc) in that country, its employees worked in terrible conditions, subject to disease, alcohol abuse and violence. In addition, they owned a massive amount of land while only growing in a small part of it, raising questions of fair land and wealth distribution.

In 1945, after a coup overthrew the government and called for elections, the new president, Jacobo Arbenz, threatened to expropriate UFCO’s railroads, which lead the US to launch a propaganda campaign to paint him as threat to the nation, as well as impose trade sanctions. After Arbenz doubled down, introducing a law expropriating unused lands and redistributing them to peasants and paid a lower price for the lands than what UFCO saw fit, the US government trained a rebel group to overthrow the government.

This complex relationship is also seen in the cultural flow between the two regions, through which American products and their aura of innovation and progress were marketed to specific Latin American audiences by appealing to specific local tastes – highlighting just how intricate the web of influence and consumption was (and still is). For the discussion question, it could be interesting to consider how that influence stretched into current days, and how the optics of it has changed – do people view the US just as unfavourably, or has there been a change in the way American presence in Latin America is viewed?

week 8

Week 8 – Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age

This week, we looked at how the export boom and economic progress affected Latin American societies, particularly Mexico. The readings point out how fragmented the social classes were as a reflection of how the wealth from the boom was distributed between groups: the profits were concentrated in the hands of the urban elites and landowners, and the working class was not heaping the benefits of its labour. Unions, strikes, or anything that undermined the order of the factory was seen as immoral, therefore making it impossible for the workers to gain any sort of leverage in negotiating a better position for themselves.

This concept of fragmentation is very interesting, and Dawson points out how it’s still a reality in the continent. In what he calls “hybrid culture”, we observe the “ultra-modern” (visible in the urban landscape of big capitals such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and São Paulo) and the “deeply traditional” (especially evident in the social aspect of Latin American life I’d say, when we look at the reactionary wave in politics and the vast influence Catholic values have on politics). For the discussion, it’d be interesting to analyze in which other ways we can observe this inconsistency throughout Latin America.

Dawson points out how, along with the fragmentary society, came violence, especially in the countryside. Under Díaz’s rule in Mexico, peasant’s lands were taken away under dubious legal basis, and the author outlines the options left for the rural people: migrate to the cities, work for the big landowner’s estates, or fight.

After political shakeups involving Díaz and the fixing of the election in his favour, the revolution started in 1910. Dawson call attention to the fact the Mexican Revolution is many revolutions in one, as there were divisions within the revolutionaries, as evidenced by the subsequent break between Madero, who eventually became president, and the Zapatistas.

In Plan de Ayala, Emiliano Zapata outlines how Madero hadn’t delivered on his promises, instead turning to violence and making alliances with landlords. An interesting aspect of the document is how he doesn’t target the United States and their influence on the region, a grievance very present within Latin America at that time (and still to this day). He instead focuses on which Mexicans were benefitting from the export boom – the landowners and latifundiarios, and stresses the importance of land redistribution and of the right to local authority.

These divisions within the Revolution are representative of the overall fragmentation within the Mexican (and Latin American in general) society, and how different groups with different goals shaped a complex and nuanced narrative of rebellion.

week 7

Week 7 – The Export Boom as Modernity

This week’s topic discusses how the history of the Latin American continent was shaped by the role exportation played in the economics of its countries, as well as all the socio-cultural changes that came from an increasingly connected and interdependent world economy.

The chapter takes a close look at the place Latin American countries occupied in the scheme of world trade and how that influenced their domestic economy. Sometime after these countries had gained their independence and emancipation had come for a significant part of the population, they entered the international dynamic through exporting their raw materials and commodities to the developed economies of the North (Europe and the United States), and importing industrialized and sophisticated products. The usual take on this dynamic for some time had been that Latin America had been on the “wrong side of the international division of labour”, as Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch put it: the countries’ exports were based on one or two raw materials such as cotton, sugar and coffee, creating a dependency on these materials that made it difficult for production of other items to develop. What’s more, the increase in GDP from the exportation wasn’t distributed more or less evenly among the population, instead being heavily concentrated among the land-owning elites.

Dawson argues for a more comprehensive and nuanced look at the matter. He discusses how the countries that used revenues from its exports to invest in and promote economic diversification benefited from the increase in wealth, as well as how the foreign capital infused in the Latin American economies allowed for important economic and social developments such as railroads and telecommunications systems that might have taken a long time to be implemented otherwise. Clearly, this topic is not black and white – different interpretations based on different values will yield multiple differing opinions on the gains or losses from the export boom.

The exports were not only material products – they also included cultural aspects. As the text points out, the Latin American elites highly valued the European aesthetic, modeling their urban architecture and landscape on their Northern counterparts. In my experience back in Brazil, I think, up until some time ago, this was still a reality in our culture: European heritage was really celebrated, while Indigenous culture was left to the wayside as lesser than. More recently, this has been changing. More and more, nature has been valued and used as an inspiration in modern architecture, especially the natural landscapes and formations particular to Brazil. For the discussion question, I wonder if this recent valuing of local beauty and culture as pushback is something experienced in other countries of Latin America as well.


brazil, week 6

Week 6 – Citizenship and Rights in the New Republics

This week, we are looking into who was considered a citizen and enjoyed the privileges of that status in post-independence Latin America. In the beginning of the chapter, we’re asked to look back on the Casta paintings of Week 3 and to think about how the social and racial hierarchy portrayed in those paintings are still reflected in the social and civil structure of the Latin American societies.

After getting their independence, the countries had to write their own Constitution. The sector of the population that had the authority to do it was the liberal elites, whose liberal worldview didn’t extend beyond those like them: well-off men with European descent. The poor, the black and Native Americans and mestizos, and the women were all seen as less than, and not deserving to enjoy the rights those who belong to higher castes were to enjoy.

As Dawson points out in this chapter, the foundation for the discrimination had changed at this point, from the religious and spiritual reasoning of the past to the scientific racism of the present. Works of “scientists” such as Blumenbach and Gaulton that highlighted the supposed biological differences between races served as the basis for the active exclusion of those that didn’t fit the mold of white and rich, as Dawson puts it. The principles of universal freedom and equality so championed by the liberal elite weren’t so universal after all.

The chapter also goes into the struggle for the emancipation of women and slaves. It points out how the role those sectors of the population played in their own battle for equal rights is often not a part of the narrative, which usually glorifies the few liberals who fought for emancipation.

The textbook looks into the details of the process in a few countries, including Brazil. It discusses how the black population was never isolated within a social system, and how a part of that population owned land, were free labourers and even owned slaves before the official emancipation laws signed in 1888. It also mentions how blackness is defined differently when compared to a place like the US, for example, and its “one-drop rule” – in Brazilian society, there were gradations between being black and white, which the author points out as allowing for the acceptance of a more mixed society.

However, being from Brazil, it’s not difficult to notice how Afro-Brazilians are still undoubtedly affected by a racist society. After emancipation, there was no effort to integrate the recently freed slaves into society through formal jobs or education, and racist sentiment didn’t disappear into thin air. The effects are still seen to this day – 70% of the population in extreme poverty in Brazil is black, and the number of black people with 12 of more years of education is less than half that of white people (data from the UN website). While some measures taken by the federal government (such as quotas in public universities for self-declared black Brazilians) have been considered successful, there’s still a long way to go. For the discussion question, it could be interesting to consider what has been done around the world in terms of reparation and which of those initiatives were successful in addressing racism and making systemic and long-lasting change.

week 5

Week 5 – Caudillos versus the Nation State

Last week, we analyzed the political and social state of Latin America and its struggles leading up to independence from European rule. This week, we’re taking a look at what followed the independence process in the continent – how the vacuum in power left by the European authorities was filled, and which sectors of the population were benefitting from that.

This week’s reading (Chapter 2 of Dawson) paints the complete picture in order for us to understand how that vacancy came to be filled. It discusses how, from severing the political ties to the European colonizers, the new countries that were formed were vast and sparsely populated, making it hard to establish any sort of central control. What’s more, the rebellions continued, and the continent saw conflicts between newly established states (such as the War of the Triple Alliance, between Paraguay and Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, in 1864), as well as civil wars (such as the Uruguayan Civil War, in 1839), which contributed to the weakening of any figure of authority in Latin America.

This setup saw the rise of the caudillos to power, described by Dawson as charismatic figures who were able to defend themselves and their supporters through the use of violence and force, creating a “patronage network” in order to create stability. It’s easy to see the appeal of this system, called “clientelism”, especially to the poorest part of the population – its benefits are immediate, as the video lecture points out, and it fills the gap in authority left by the Europea rulers. However, it only appeared to be a functional form of government – the caudillos didn’t have the authority to collect taxes or enforce laws, for example.

At the same time Latin America dealt with the consequences of its struggle for independence, Europe and North America saw liberalism as an ideology be generally accepted by the population. It involves a commitment to rights and freedoms based on a social contract, and while the elites in Latin America became enamored with the liberal ideal, it never quite took off with the majority of the population. The people felt belittled by the liberal elites, which only drove them more toward the protection of the caudillos.

An interesting discussion question could be to consider why liberalism was so unpopular. While in some ways it’s easy to comprehend why the most vulnerable part of the population didn’t take to it, the video lecture points out how violence and corruption are prevalent in a system of patronage – which makes me wonder if they could have been more popular if the liberal elites had had a different attitude towards the rest of the people who weren’t as privileged.

Work Cited: Latin America Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources by Alexander Dawson