week 9

Week 9: Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire

What I found the most interesting this week was how Arbenz went about changing the way the United Fruit Company had control over Guatemala, mostly through the Agrarian Reform Law, “Plan 900.”

The UFCO, which in 1952 cultivated only 139,000 acres of its 3 million acres of property in the country, lost 234,000 acres as a result of the law. Worse still for the company, the government offered only $1 million in compensation for the confiscated lands, basing the offer on the company’s own tax filings, which were widely known to significantly undervalue their land.

I thought this was so clever of Arbenz; however, his wit alone wasn’t enough. The U.S. military backing of UFCO, despite its contribution to poverty and inequality, is a clear example of the U.S.’s imperialism in the region. It also highlights how powerful the rhetoric of the red scare was and how it could be used so easily as propaganda, as it fueled the narrative that anyone that was against UFCO was a threat to national security. Dawson calls this partly “the U.S. government’s inability to distinguish nationalism from communism.” This made me think about the Crucible, the play about the Salem witch trials. Arthur Miller wrote this during the time of the Cold War, and the fear of witches was meant to be an allegory to the red scare. This was such a big part of American culture at the time, so it makes sense to me that politicians would use this as a fear tactic to gain power. In ways, the red scare never really ended. The anti-communist sentiment definitely still exists in the U.S., especially surrounding Cuba.

I also thought it was interesting how document 6.4 described Disney as an invader, how they have the ability to make a revolutionary struggle look banal. As I grew up watching Disney movies as a kid, it feels weird to accept this dark side of Disney. Its hard to imagine that the films were made with the intentions of being propaganda but like Dawson said about U.S. intervention in Latin America, “American officials often believed that they were doing good deeds.” Their motives must be analyzed within the framework of North American culture. The effects of their intervention is complicated, because there were benefits, such as cures found for Malaria and other blood-born illnesses, but there were also many costs.


Week 8: Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age

I think that this week’s topic was another example of the multiplicity within Latin America and how different periods can mean such different things depending on who’s speaking. This is especially complex in reference to the Mexican revolution. When we think of “revolution,” we usually expect there to be a clear goal, yet this isn’t quite the case. There were the Zapatistas and the Villistas, who had more in common with each other than some of the other groups, yet they were still distinct from one another, each with their own hopes for the outcome of the revolution. Many Constitutionalists hoped that with the overthrow of Díaz, who had been in power for decades, their dreams of a democratic society could be attained.

Political upheaval wasn’t unique to Mexico, however. I thought that the formation of political groups in Argentina was really interesting and the idea of a “general strike” having such extreme implications. Those that benefited from the economic situation and didn’t want the transformations demanded by laborers on strike were quick to point to outsiders as being the issue. This, paired with the influx of immigrants, intensified the dynamic of xenophobia, racism, and anti-semitism. Time and time again this is the case in societies with a diversity of groups that have clashing interests. How can this be seen today?

José Carlos Mariátegui has a unique perspective, blending the localism of indigenous communities with the wider hopes of communism. He is a liberal intellectual from Peru, ideologically aligned with Marx, yet does not believe Peru needs to follow the route of capitalism to achieve an egalitarian society. Mariátegui, unlike Vasconcelos, thought that education and policy were actually not the solutions; he recognized that forced indigenous integration was against the harmony of the society and led Peru farther from the hopes of communism.


Week 7: The Export Boom as Modernity

This topic of the export boom and modernity is definitely a topic whose tone changes depending on who’s telling the story. A Mexican elite, a new factory worker, or an American investor might’ve spoken highly of Díaz’s presidency. On the other hand, these new benefits were only possible from the exploitation of so many who suffered during Díaz’s rule. One supporter and advocate of Díaz was James Creelman. As he put it,

There is not a more romantic or heroic figure in all the world, nor one more intensely watched by both the friends and foes of democracy, than the soldier-statesman, whose adventurous youth pales the pages of Dumas, and whose iron rule has converted the warring, ignorant, superstitious and impoverished masses of Mexico, oppressed by centuries of Spanish cruelty and greed, into a strong, steady, peaceful, debt-paying and progressive nation.

That is one way to look at it… And not a surprising perspective from a non-Mexican journalist, himself benefiting from modernity, who could easily appreciate the growth of technological advancement. Anything other than progress towards modernity and civilization fed easily into the “barbarism” rhetoric popular among his North American audience. Liberal elites found justification for Díaz’s cruelty as they believed that “their societies would never prosper, would never become modern, if order was not first established.”

On the other hand, many people’s livelihoods were disrupted, who were well off before the treasures of modernity arrived. Peasants’ land were taken away and they were forced into the workforce. I found something here in Dawson’s commentary that I want to question– he explained that “Industrial workers often found themselves able to take advantage of their new settings (concentrated in cities) to successfully agitate for better wages and living conditions, and they clearly had a higher standard of living than their rural counterparts.” Can that be said so confidently? How is this standard of living being measured? Maybe the ‘rural counterparts’ Dawson is referring to are those that lost their land during Porfiriato and were left to work on haciendas with low pay. I don’t think that they inherently had a lower standard of living though.

The transformation that took place during the export boom seems even more radical than colonial rule. Under the Spanish crown, some villages remained autonomous, but “by 1910 more than half the land in the country was in the hands of one percent of the population, and 97 percent of Mexicans were landless.” This might explain why the indigenous students in figure 4.6 decided to stay in Mexico City after being forced there originally. Maybe some of them felt that their old lives were lost as there was probably no land to go back to. 


Week 6- Citizenship & Rights

Citizenship and Rights in the New Republics is a topic that discusses propaganda and deception, but it also has bits of resistance and hope. Some marginalized groups worked within the law to find their freedom whereas some had no choice but to work outside or against the law. Cofradias, the fraternal societies organized by slaves and former slaves are a good example of manipulating the system for change. They would raise funds in order to “purchase” slaves to free them; they were staying within the law but finding an efficient way of rebelling. For others, however, the law only brought disadvantage, such as the communal villages that were broken up by liberal legislation.

I thought it was interesting to see the reasons why slavery crumbled- once a few nations were emancipated, it became clear that the eventual emancipation of the rest of the Americas was inevitable. Dawson explains that planters started reducing their reliance on slavery, “not because it was unprofitable, but because most believed that their long-term survival depended on finding new sources of labor.” So as the supply chain started to weaken, farmers knew they had to switch to other forms of labor because it was the smarter option, economically. This leaves the problem that many farmers freed their slaves not because of a change of moral conviction on the ethics of slavery, but simply because of economic motives. As slaves were emancipated, institutional racism still existed. This is true even more so in the United States, as Dawson explains, because of the differing conceptions of race. In the U.S., the one-drop rule existed as an accepted “truth” and still exists to this day, to some extent. Race was more complex in Latin America, but the heightened differentiation lead to complicated casts and hierarchies. Blackness was not just a racial category, it was also often times associated with African religions that were considered barbaric in comparison to Christianity.

“Moreover, because people of African ancestry could hope to move up the social hierarchy by acquiring wealth, prestige, and power, after 1889 a confrontational struggle for civil rights gave way to more individualized strategies of advancement. If you followed the rules of the system, you might get ahead. If you protested, you were certain to be left behind.”

This opportunity for advancement was a major difference between the emancipation processes in the U.S. and Latin America. Many former slaves in the U.S. did not have a chance to move up the social hierarchy, despite their ability to acquire wealth or follow the rules of the system.

How does Nina Rodrigues’s belief that blacks could become “civilized” through the intervention of the state still exist in many ways today? Not only in terms of racism against African Americans but in terms of indigenous groups as well.

week 5

Week 5: Federalists vs. Unitarians


“figures who entered the vacuum of power left by the collapse of the Spanish colonial state and who offered hope for stability through the force of their will and their capacity to vanquish their enemies.”

In this sense, the appeal of the strongmen makes sense: the individual leadership was a stark difference compared to the corporate entities that came with colonial rule. With all the turmoil surrounding Independence, it would make sense that people sought a different form of leadership than the failed bureaucracies of colonialism. Suspicion of liberalism fits in this narrative as people doubted the abstract notion of the state. The geography of Latin America is relevant here as well: “even when these countries were sparsely populated, vast distances and geography put the lie to all illusions of central control.” Local governance, then, was not only more popular, but was more suiting to the geographical conditions of Latin America. This was the  position of Federalists, described in Esteban Echeverría’s, The Slaughterhouse. Echeverría paints Federalists in a very unattractive light in his story, as brutal savages that couldn’t think for themselves. I think this his depiction of Federalists was extreme to the point of absurdity, but there might have been some truth to it. On the other hand, he attempts to depict Unitarians as educated saints, even going so far as to allude the Unitarian young man in the story to Jesus. 

This division between groups (Federalists and Unitarians) reminds me of the current political climate in the United States. In fact, the reading’s description of Rosas sounded a bit familiar…

“He spoke a language that resonated with the rural and urban poor, showing them that he was one of them. And he always divvyed up the spoils of power among his followers.”

This reminds me of the rhetoric around Trump and how he has gained such a following. Creating division between liberals and conservatives, Trump definitely “speaks the language” of his followers. When people are feeling voiceless and powerless, a strongman may seem like the only hope. This being said, it’s important to question narratives that are as extreme as Echeverría’s: how could his story itself be considered violent? Dawson explains that liberals’ idealization of civilization became “genocidal,” attempting to eliminate those who came in the path of modernity. This included many indigenous people who opposed liberal attempts to privatize communal lands.