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.

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.