Week 13 – Towards an Uncertain Future

This week, the chapter talks about how the aftermath of the dirty wars in Latin America and the political cycle the majority of the countries went through.

After the dirty wars, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Latin American countries were for the most part in bad economic shape: poor economic management along with corruption at almost all political levels led to extremely high inflation and high foreign debt. This led to a drift to the right – a lot of the states elected more conservative (particularly fiscally conservative) leaders, who had to renegotiate the external debt with the International Monetary Fund in order to continue in the world market. The conditions imposed by the IMF prioritized debt repayment, so the governments had to impose austerity measures, open their borders to trade and foreign investment, and decrease their role in the economy.

These measures made it more difficult for the economies to recover. In addition, the decrease in social spending and the competition with foreign industries led many people leaving in the countryside to go the urban centres in search for a job, or to try and migrate to other countries with more and better opportunities.

Ultimately, these austerity measures, combined with the perception that they were favouring the wealthy, acted as a catalyst for a new swing to the left in politics. These new leaders promised to keep commitments to free trade and to the global market, reassuring financial institutions and states across the world, at the same they promised to increase social spending and to reduce extreme poverty.

Dawson argues that both right and left wing governments were very similar in practice: inequality and poverty declined more or less at the same rate in countries with right and left-leaning leaders alike, due in a huge part to the sustained economic growth that had been happening since the 1990s. This growth happened thanks to the commodity export boom: demand and prices were both high for minerals and crops such as soybeans, supporting an increase and social spending. Even though this reliance on commodities tends to distort local economies and cause inflation, governments had few other options, and ultimately relied heavily on them to ensure economic growth in Latin American countries.

Finally, Dawson talks about indigenous peoples and their newly strengthened role in the political sphere. Because the extraction of commodities such as minerals and oil immensely affects indigenous communities and their land, they found power and tried to guarantee some rights for themselves. However, even though a lot of politicians campaigned on doing just that, ultimately they barely kept to their promise: even though some political and cultural rights were ensured, subsoil goods were still legally owned by the state, which gave them permission to extract and harvest those commodities. But not without resistance – indigenous peoples have been fighting back in order to guarantee their land and livelihood are not exploited with no repercussions. It hasn’t been easy, as the mining companies have a lot more resources and connections to the political and judicial system. However, the Lago Agria case in Ecuador illustrates how these Native peoples are still willing to fight for their land.

brazil, week 12

Week 12 – Speaking Truth to Power

This week, Dawson delves into some of the ways Latin Americans have resisted oppression and violence, particularly in the way they have worked to garner attention from the international community (especially the U.S.) as a tool for making a change in their reality.

One of the examples the author discusses is the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who occupied a central square in Buenos Aires as a form of protest for their missing children during the dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. At first they were left alone, but as soon as the government realized the women were undermining its claims that “family values” were the foundation of their regime (as a justification for their actions), they started being persecuted. The Madres, however, did not back down. They testified in a report for the Organization of the American States, which mobilized NGOs such as Amnesty International and built pressure on the U.S. government. After it failed to support Argentina in its play for the Falklands against the British, the governing junta became unpopular and civil government was reinstated.

Another example explored by Dawson is the Caravan for Peace, which crossed the United States during the summer of 2012 to bring attention to the repercussions of the war on drugs. The Caravan pushed for the end of the militarization of drug control and called for a new approach to drug control, placing importance on the treatment of addiction and not punishment of users.

The author discusses how drug trafficking is a huge business in Latin America and how this started when the countries in the region were in bad shape economically. Since the people, especially the rural and urban poor, didn’t have many economic opportunities, and the state didn’t provide social welfare policies to keep these people from the informal sector, drug trafficking ended up being a way to relieve the burden of economic distress.

This is a very common reality in Brazil. One recent example that helps to illustrate this reality is the story of Nem (told in this article), who was in charge of the entire drug dealing operation in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha, the biggest favela in Latin America, from around 2000 until his arrest in 2011.

Antônio (his real name) lived with his wife and baby daughter at Rocinha, and his daughter got very sick as a nine-month baby. He had a job that didn’t pay enough to cover her medical bills, and as a slum-dwelling family, there was nowhere he could go to get a loan except to the then kingpin of drug dealing at the favela. He offered to work for him as a way to pay back the loan and, after a couple years and conflicts involving other favelas, he ends up being the head of the operation. Under his command, the street sellers were ordered to not extort or threat any of the residents, minors were prohibited from working for them, and he offered economic assistance to the residents, paying for medical treatments and for trips for them to go see family in other parts of Brazil.

In 2011, Nem was arrested at a police checkpoint, while trying to leave Rocinha in the trunk of a car with suitcases full of money. His story helps us understand the context in which the urban poor, in particular, live in, and prompts to try to think about ways to address this problem. In Brazil, the one thing the vast majority population agrees would make a difference is providing quality education and opportunity to disadvantaged kids. My discussion question: what do you think it’s the first thing the government should invest in in order to revert this scenario?

short research assignment

Short Research Assignment

My group’s Week is number 9 – Commerce, Coercion and America’s Empire. It discusses the history of the North American influence in Latin America, driven by an ambition to control the region and increase wealth. It talks about how that was done through a division of labour that favored the North Americans and put the Latin Americans in a perpetual disadvantage – they latter were to be exploited by foreign companies who would buy raw materials, and Americans were to export industrialized products to these countries, not allowing them to develop a domestic industry of their own, and putting them in a position of dependency in relation to the North.

This dynamic is seen to this day. The article “Imperialism and Resistance:
Canadian mining companies in Latin America” discusses how Canadian mining companies in South America, responsible for up to 35% of the Latin American market in 2004 (63) have faced local resistance from the communities around the mines in response to their practices.

The authors talk about how mining involves controversial practices such as the displacing of local people and ecological degradation (63), and they believe the best way to analyze these practices is within the dynamics of global capitalism, in particular the relation between the global South and the global North (64).

The paper goes into detail about cases in which mining companies faced opposition from the local community in Chile and Colombia. In Chile, for example, they discuss the acquisition of the Pascua Lama gold, silver and copper mine in the Huasco Valley in the Andean Mountains by Barrick Gold Corp. in 1994 (74). Journalists uncovered plans to relocate glaciers in order to make mining the area viable, which was met with great resistance by a coalition of local organizations representing tens of thousands of inhabitants of the area (75), as well as protests from around the country and a petition from the Citizens’ Foundation of the Americas to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, claiming the mining efforts would violate human and indigenous rights of the Huasco Valley residents (76). The project was still greenlit in 2006 by Chilean authorities, but only under the condition that the glacier not be relocated (76).

In conclusion, the authors highlight other struggles across South America (in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru, just to name a few) against what they describe as “Canadian mining imperialism” (82). They reinforce how the examples of Chile and Colombia document how the affected societies have reacted to these imperialist efforts, reclaiming popular power over natural resources (83). This article clearly portrays how the struggles for Latin American sovereignty from centuries ago are at play still to this day, and looking at a current example of that dynamic helps to deepen our understanding of what was happening all those years ago.


Source: Todd Gordon & Jeffery R Webber. “Imperialism and Resistance:
Canadian mining companies in Latin America.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2008, pp. 63-87.

week 11

Week 11 – The Terror

This week, Dawson discussed the tumultuous period between the 1960s and the 1990s experienced by the majority of Latin American countries, due to the violent conflicts between the state and revolutionary forces.

The author calls attention to the fact that before the start of the period, democratic institutions such as free press and political opposition parties were relatively strong across the continent. However, after the Cuban Revolution, the governments started to deteriorate.

Dawson talks about some of the contributing factors, such as the the distributive distortions created by the Import Substitution Industry: as debt grew and growth slowed down, the governments couldn’t keep up their spending of social welfare programs, creating dissatisfaction among lower and middle-class sectors of the population. In addition, Latin America was ground for proxy battles for the Cold War, with both Soviets and Americans financing and training forces that opposed one another. By the 1960s, Dawson points out how the youth was joining the leftist that had long criticized the corrupt governments, forming a strong opposition. Around that time, governments across the continent suffered coups that led right-leaning and a lot of the times military to power. What followed was violent conflict between these governments and the organized left-leaning opposition, a lot of the time in the form of guerrillas.

The book calls attention to the fact that the violence was heavily used by both sides – he cites Peru as an example of how the guerrillas used indiscriminate violence, justified mainly by the fact that it was the only means to truly revolutionize the state.

Coming from Brazil, I have heard a lot about the military dictatorship the country experienced starting in 1964 with a coup. The horror stories are aplenty, especially of the torture experienced by members of left-leaning groups, including rape and castration. Many of our most important and celebrated artists were first arrested and then lived in exile in Europe, and many prominent figures told stories of what they suffered at the hands of the military government – one of our most well-known journalists recently talked about how she was locked in a dark room with a snake after being arrested, even after she told the officers who arrested her she was pregnant, and was left without food for long periods of time. Our former president, Dilma Rousseff, was repeatedly punched in the face, which left her jaw permanently damaged, and suffered electric shocks, and in the 2000s received a symbolic money restitution for what she suffered.

The regime lasted until the mid-1980s, and in the 1970’s experienced what is called the “Brazillian Miracle”: GDP was growing at a rate of nearly 10% every year, the inflation was decreasing and the urban centres such as São Paulo and Rio were booming. However, the government incurred an extremely high external debt to pay for all the growth, and when the US increased the interest rates on the dollar during the early 1980’s, the economy went into a recession, the popularity of the military government plummeted and Brazil was able to have a democratic elected president again.

Interestingly enough, there have been calls for military intervention recently, following a troubled period of corruption scandals that eventually led to the impeachment of the president in 2015 and economic difficulties for the country as a whole. The people calling for it seem to have a selective memory, praising the (short lasting) economic accomplishments of the dictatorship and forgoing the complete disregard for basic human rights experienced by those opposed to the government. For the discussion, it’d be interesting to consider if that has happened in other Latin American countries, and why. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder of the importance of knowing the history of the continent and informing ourselves about what happened all those years ago.

brazil, week 10

Week 10 – Power to the People

This week, Dawson discusses populist leaders in 20th century Latin America, and the role of social and technological change in the way these leaders connected with the citizens of the countries they commanded.

The book defines populists as “charismatic, nationalist and good at mobilizing industrial workers” (207), and as having come of age in an era of change, both in the social makeup of the population and the means through which ideas and policies could be disseminated across their constituency. The main change was the introduction of the radio in Latin American society, which acted as a channel to the urban crowd.

Dawson points out that, as countries modernized and industries were growing, more and more people moved from the countryside to the cities, chasing the opportunity of economic and social improvement that could come from factory jobs and the surrounding businesses in a booming urban centre. Radios acted as a force that constituted the national community, creating a common repertory of songs and radionovelas that connected the population as a whole and blurred social and geographical boundaries.

Populist leaders looked to capitalize on this new way of connecting to the population, one that, with enough charisma and social intelligence, could propagate ideas further and easier than ever thought possible. However, it wasn’t effective for all the leaders all the time.

The text discusses on a few different fascinating stories of Latin American leaders and how the radio affected their governance and their politics. On of them is that of Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and his state-mandated Hora do Brazil, a daily hour-long period in which didactic programming and public announcements would be played. The audience however promptly rejected it, and Vargas, even though he tried through multiple different avenues (including co-opting samba from the poorer urban class) never quite connected with the populace – differently from his rival Carlos Lacerda, who became popular as a talk show host criticizing the government. Lacerda was then targeted because of his comments, and after some political turmoil, Vargas killed himself. His suicide note was read on radio, and it riled up crowds as they realized they had been better than ever before, even though Vargas didn’t follow through on all of his promises and the changes he made (minimum wage and labour laws, for example) weren’t consistently enforced throughout Brazil.

His story illustrates the power of radio as a tool for spreading ideas and influencing individuals in the continually changing social and economic environment of 20th century Latin America. It also highlights the then-newly found power of citizens as consumers of entertainment and information – they were able to readily reject anything that didn’t feel authentic, and mobilize en masse for politicians and policies that spoke to and for them.

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