Week 9: On “Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire”

It has been hard for me to read the first half of this chapter calmly and unemotionally. As if China’s misery in the 19th and 20th centuries inflicted by European and American imperialism had not stung me enough, the similar experience that Latin America undertook reminded me of the interest-driven nature and ruthless measures of some if not all states. The claim that the US was at its core an anti-imperialist nation faced stark contradiction when the US annexed lands and veritably colonized parts of Latin America. It is even more ironic that domestic propaganda always justified the nation’s military and economic deeds. That US made considerable amount of interventions to the relatively small countries of the Caribbean but faced frustration when it came to stronger states like Mexico demonstrates the “law of the jungle”. Further proving this law, UFCO extended economic domination to political influence; CIA supported the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in protection of UFCO’s interest. It’s all about strength. You got the strength and you do whatever you want; humanitarianism and morality are diversions in good mood.

It’s arguable and naive to say that US presence in Latin America is all abominable. For one thing, life became better for a group of people, like the landed owners, the middle class, and the dictators supported by US. While some benefited more, however, the marginalized peasants and oppressed working class also suffered more. This is consistent with the idea from last chapter that “one person’s boom was always another’s crisis”. But American imperialism couldn’t care less about the welfare of the weak, could it? Let alone the sheer enervation (if not deprivation) of another nation’s sovereignty in Guatemala’s case. For another, US intervention was also a boost to regional economy. It might not have been the best route of development for those regions, but there was no other choice. From last week’s discussion we know that not all countries can follow the same route of development and with the presence of a superpower like the US the routes are more or less distorted.

The second half of the chapter, the culture part, is more complicated than a simple predator-prey scenario. In Latin America, we see rejection towards Americans, but more often we see desire for and dependence on America’s modernization and wealth, embodied in those industrial products. We see ambivalence in Brazilians’ mixture of pride and resentment about Miranda’s success, and further complication when the culture was monetized and benefited those “selling” the culture. We see Latin America being stereotyped but this stereotyping can be lucrative, and those being stereotyped held ambiguous feelings toward it. Such phenomenon, characterized in the book by “mutual consumption”, is something beyond right or wrong.

Week 8: On “Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age”

In this chapter, the crises of Latin America during a period of remarkable economic development were social unrests invoked by two underprivileged groups: the peasants, as in the Mexican rebellion, and the working class, as in the Argentine strike. However, it is the other group that became my center of interest: the elites, the statesmen, the constitutionalists, the liberals, the intellectuals, the modernizers…you know who I’m talking about. Generally speaking they are people who have a say in national decisions or who can exert direct influence upon the path the nation takes, and to simply I’ll just call them elites. They are of great interest also because they stand in the middle: on one side there are the underprivileged, to whom they pose as superior; and on the other side there are the Americans, to whom they feel inferior.

The peasants and the working class, by their nature, did not have so much interest in national movements as in their personal welfares. They shaped history with consequential events. The peasants fought for land, wealth, and freedom in the sense of regional autonomy, but they did not intend to rule even they had taken over the capital. The working class made strikes for better working condition and higher wages. These were all reasonable requests that the social elites should have dealt with properly, but what was proper is hard to judge. What actually happened involved much violence, where the elites eventually got the upper hand with military technologies. They would take the lesson, though, that enlarging hierarchical distance or maltreating and oppressing the lower class for their interest is not the wise way to govern a nation. They make mistakes, but the nation’s future still depends on them. Among them are the most patriotic nationalists who care the most about their nation’s future, or even the future of human kind. José Vasconcelos, for instance, engaged himself in the progression of the whole mankind. Despite his philosophical and quasi-scientific approach to the biological problem of heredity and sociological problem of civil unions, his interest and passion for a better race is admirable.

Latin American elites’ attitudes towards the United States are very interesting. Mostly it’s a mixture of admiration and despise, of acceptance and rejection. In Rubén Darío’s poem we see acknowledgement and praise of North American power, but also self-assertion about Latin America’s love and faith, which North America reportedly lacked. In José Vasconcelos’s essay we can taste some bitterness towards Americans that probably rooted in jealousy and sense of inferiority. The elites struggled with the inescapable gravity of American power, and also the inevitable responsibility to build a stronger state. That kind of struggle, I dare say, continues today, and not only in Latin America but also in many countries all over the world.

Week 7: On “The Export Boom as Modernity”

This chapter deals mainly with two topics–politics and economy–during the time when the majority of Latin America was progressing in modernity. Although having very poor understanding of economics and not so much better understanding of politics, I’m highly interested in the political part of this chapter. Although I’m aware that the document is a highly romantic eulogy of Diaz and brimming with ideological bullshit to some of you, my views upon democracy and governing agree to some extent with those of Diaz’s. Indeed, liberty and democracy are wonderful political and humanitarian ideals, but they are not just one step away for a nation debilitated by centuries of colonization and fratricidal wars and conflicts. Order needs to be established before progress can be made and the political theories turned into reality. The order implies not only social stability for economic prosperity but also a foundation for education that enlighten and prepare the mass for true democracy. No country can import a political idea and implement it disregarding the country’s reality. For Mexico, an exemplary in terms of modernization, Diaz’s rule proved beneficent in a way. The measures taken at the initial stage was harsh and even cruel, which Diaz himself also acknowledged. According to him, the bad blood was shed for the sake of saving much more good blood. I do not agree wholly with his executions, but I do think that certain price has to be paid because civilization and prosperity don’t come easily.

I think it’s very valuable lesson to take for some countries and regions nowadays that are struggling in their paths to liberty and democracy. Each country has its own course of development and each is at a distinct stage from others. Very often the influence of other countries can blind the state leaders’ insight to their own country. Without advocating authoritarianism, I think state leaders should be assertive on what they think suitable for their country after careful consideration.

As for the economy part, I can understand both of the opposing views mentioned by Dawson. Although one can argue for the latent problem of the export boom that proved correct, like economic dependency, the export boom was indeed the current optimization for Latin America countries at that time. There is never an all-advantageous method to take, and wise countries will find solutions for problems that ensue.

Week 6: On Citizenship and Rights

Unlike previous readings, Dawson’s Chapter 3 invoked very entangled emotions. I don’t want to be sentimental about the past , yet the history of Latin America, as well as many others, saddens and upsets me. In retrospect, it’s somewhat peculiar to me that people should have thought in a certain way in history. For instance, how could science be used to justify injustice and hatred? How could people think slavery was natural and moral? However I then start to ask, what is justice? What is natural? And moral? Their definitions are forever changing, and there is always a different perspective to what is right or wrong. While slavery was later deemed immoral, its contribution to economic development and even civilization was undeniable. What’s equality? Haven’t Animal Farm taught us the invariable truth that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”? What’s freedom and what’s its boundary, if any?

It’s also sad to see how people fought for their interest yet not obtaining it. Sometimes their effort was counteractive. For instance, “the more Afro-Cubans demanded rights, the more Cubans were subjected to stories of strange rituals and the kidnapping of white children.” There seemed no better way though. Would their demands be met more easily if they had not fought so undauntedly or perseveringly? Probably not either. Besides, sometimes the group is divided within on what they should pursue, as was the case of Argentine women. How could one female convince another with totally different standpoint?

Speaking of the feminism issue represented in documents 3.4 and 3.5, I would not argue, although it would be easy for us modern people to affirm that a woman can be both a professional and a loving wife and mother. The key idea, I think, is still “freedom”. Women, just as men, should be FREE to choose their path. They could opt to work if they were qualified, and of course they could opt not to and be a housewife.

From my perspective, it’s much more useful to debate and negotiate over “what is the right” than “what is right”. Ok sorry for the wordplay. I mean, it’s better to talk about what rights one can claim, than what is right for him/her to do. Such a problem exists in every period of time. The question should have been “should women have the right to work” rather than “should you, a woman, work”. And most questions asked in the first way should be answered yes, because greater freedom is always worth fighting for and the limitation is always necessary to discuss. But the second question is totally subjective. We human beings are so fond of imposing our opinions on others and trying to convince and convert others. But how on earth does it harm you that a woman works in the industry or a black serves the government? Or, considering today’s hot topic, a person loves the same sex?

We can find so many things in history that still resonate nowadays. Latin American history really inspires me to reconsider the current world we live in.