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

I had always known that Latin America and the United States have had a tumultuous relationship, but I have never thought about how truly complex it was. Just by reading Chapter 6 in the textbook, I got a fair idea of how truly damaging yet necessary this relationship was.

I really enjoyed reading about the banana republics, because I like bananas; they’re a staple in many homes, so reading the history of how they gained popularity was very interesting. It is also a fantastic example of the conflicting relationship that Latin America had with their northern neighbours. The United Fruit Company (UFCO) became a critical entity in the south, especially in Guatemala. The banana business brought many benefits, including employment, and further investment into Guatemala’s infrastructure. UFCO also operated schools, hospitals, radio-stations, banks, breweries and hotels. Overall, it seems that UFCO was a great thing in Latin America! Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that it was made out to be.

Banana zones, while employing tens of thousands, brought about a lot of consequences, since they required a lot of migrant labour. The workers lived in company housing, with less than ideal conditions, away from their families, and often, they did not speak the local language. This lead to the banana zone communities to have high rates of alcohol abuse, prostitution and violence. As Dawson said, “workers often chafed at their own work conditions and pay” but being employed by UFCO was better than being employed elsewhere. This is the sad truth that many, including UFCO, did not acknowledge, and that is truly unfortunate. It makes me sad because nowadays, it is most likely still happening, and I think of places like Singapore, where migrant workers make up a significant portion of the construction industry. Could it be that imperialism still exists in a different form, one which nobody wishes to acknowledge?

I found the readings interesting because they made me look at modern commodities in a different light; acknowledging their history and how they became commodities in the modern day and age. It has also made me think of modern imperialism and if it still exists as an incarnate form. What are your thoughts? Do you believe a form of imperialism exists? If so, where? What do you think are the positive and negative effects of such situations?

Week 8: Signs of Crisis in a Gilded Age

This week’s readings were hard, and I honestly had a hard time keeping up with everything that the documents were saying (and that’s only if I actually managed to understand what they were saying…) So, I’m not going to go into much detail with regards to all the documents + the video, and rather, I’m going to talk about what stood out for me the most. “The Problem of the Indian” from Seven Interpretive Essays on the Peruvian Reality by José Carlos Mariátegui will be my topic of discussion today.,

As I mentioned earlier, the readings were hard. As I read this document, I was confused about what point he was trying to get across. However, after reading it over again, I understood a little bit more. Here, Mariátegui expresses what he believes is the root of the problems which Latin America, and more specifically, Peru, faces. He argues that the problems do not come from racism, nor religion, nor the lack of education, but rather, due to the land tenure system. He states that “the servitude oppressing the indigenous race cannot be abolished unless the latifundium is abolished”. I thought this was an extremely interesting point, and I found it very different to what I had originally thought, as it seems that the oppression Indians faced was largely due to factors such as greed, hunger for power, and corruption. Nevertheless, I also don’t fully agree with Mariátegui, because I believe that any problem a nation/village/anyone faces is actually a chain of events or a dynamic relationship between different factors, and in this case, a dynamic relationship between education, religion, education and the way that land is owned.

Mariátegui does bring up another very good point – “The colonial regime disrupted and demolished the Inca agrarian economy without replacing it with an economy of higher yields.” One could say that the Inca was an extremely organized civilization prior to the colonial period, especially if one considers that over 10 million people lived in the nation prior to colonial rule. This success, Mariátegui believes, is due to the concepts of agrarianism which the Inca adopted which “combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.” This system lead to an efficient ruling over the large territory. Post independence, about 300 years later, there was no more sign of this system, leaving the Peruvians to start over again, and hence, the arising problems of the land tenure system, with so many opposing views on how land should be used, divided, or owned. It is saddening to think that a nation of 10 million was reduced to 1 million, especially when the 1 million nationals are treated like inferior beings.

Which leaves me with my question for today – Considering that the Peruvian national population was decreased from 10 million to 1 million, how do you think the Inca would have developed if Spain had never arrived? Do you think that the Inca Empire would’ve been able to extend to the extremes of South/Central America? If so, do you think that their agrarian ideologies would’ve been enough to keep their territory under control?

Week 7: The Export Boom as Modernity

Originally, I was going to talk about the bulk of Dawson’s 4th chapter “The Export Boom as Modernity”. I was going to discuss Dawson’s interview and how he talked about the different features that constitutes a “Modern Society” (Innovation, ethos of emancipation, secularization, and universalism”… But then I read the excerpt in the textbook: James Creelman’s “Porfirio Díaz, Hero of the Americas”, and now I don’t think I have enough time to talk about anything else.

Before this day, I had never heard of President Díaz. Not because he is not a famous character, but because I simply never learned the history of Mexico (which is sad and ignorant of me, considering that I am half Mexican.) After reading this, I feel like I have learnt a lot. I want to start out by saying that it is evident that Creelman has a certainly biased view of Díaz, as the way he portrays him is extremely idolized. However, being able to read what Díaz says about Mexico and his hopes and dreams for her… It moved me a lot. It also made me sad, but more on that later.

Creelman talks about Díaz’s accomplishments. I have made a table:

Before Diaz

After Diaz


Bankrupt, divided, infested with bandits, a pretty to a thousand forms of bribery

Life and property are safe from frontier to frontier of the republic

Foreign Trade





34, assets of nearly $700,000,000 and capital stock of $158,100,000


4,850 schools, 163,000 pupils

12,000 schools, ~1,000,000 pupils


2 small lines

19,000 miles of railways

Revenues of the Government


$115,000,000 and reduced taxes

It seems like Díaz did a lot for the country, and in the interview it is clear that he has a passion for improving the country as a whole, wishing to advance it so that one day, it could become a modern and prosperous democratic society. However, as Alec Dawson said in the interview, some “came to believe that a miraculous transformation has taken place but ignored all the signs of crisis”. It is true that Mexico grew a lot under Díaz’s 7 terms, but his regime was much like a dictatorship, as it was violent and oppressive in the sense that people had their land taken from them, and there were large injustices throughout his rule. It was even explicitly mentioned by Díaz, as he admits “We were harsh. Sometimes we were harsh to the point of cruelty.”

So this clearly brings me to a dilemma… Díaz mentions that “If there was cruelty, results have justified it”, and I’m having a very hard time with this line. If mass suffering and cruelty built a magnificent city, does this justify the mass suffering and cruelty? I highly doubt it, because in that case, almost all cruelty could be justified. Slavery justified by growing economies. Child labour and poor working conditions justified by cheap clothes for many. Underpaid and overworked farmers justified by cheap produce and affordable meats. I’m happy that Mexico gained some order under Díaz, but I am saddened that many had to suffer for its growth. Yet, without him, Mexico wouldn’t be the home that I call today.

What are your thoughts? If Díaz is a villain and a hero, would you consider him more of a villain or more of a hero?

Week 6: Citizenship and Rights in the New Republic

This week, we learned about the people of post-Latin American independence fighting for their rights as citizens. As Dawson mentioned, race and caste were the most prominent categories in the early Latin American republican period, even before women’s rights became a topic of of debate. However, at this point in time, even something as straight forward as the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, can be arbitrary, due to the fact that it was difficult to define ‘citizen’.

Growing up, I learned about the slave trade and how they were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, however, we never truly covered how the slave trade was in Latin America, especially after independence. Considering that it wasn’t until 1888 that slavery was fully abolished in Brazil, and the slave trade lasted well over 3 centuries, it is easy to see why many effects are still visible today, only 129 years later (less than half of the length of time that slavery was present in Brazil!). In present day America’s, we see a lot of prejudice and social stigmas against people of African descent. There is unspoken and spoken racism that can be both discrete and evident. Hate crimes are prominent all across the America’s and this could be attributed to the history of imported slaves from Africa. Even though nowadays, there may be “equal rights”, socially, people of African descent continue to fight for equal opportunities and this will continue for a while, as the effects of slavery on contemporary America are long-lasting.

Because of this brutal history, tensions exist today. An example of these tensions that still exist today includes the tensions between Japanese and Chinese due to the Rape of Nanking in 1937. Growing up in Shanghai, a close proximity to Nanjing, it is clear that there is a lot of resentment. A lot of people will never forgive the Japanese, even though it occurred several generations ago, and meanwhile, many Japanese deny that the event ever occurred., Because of this, there is an underlying tension between the two peoples. Similarity, tensions exist in Latin America, and even in North America where slavery was also prominent.

I don’t believe that it is possible to do it justice. After all, how could anyone truly forgive such atrocities, deaths, or infringements upon people’s rights?  I do believe that, to a certain extent, we have to admit that it happened, however, we must remember that the past is not the fault of our current generation. All we can truly do is acknowledge history, not dust it under the rug, and keep history from repeating itself. For example, here at UBC,  it has become a custom to introduce the campus by saying that we are “located in the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. The land it is situated on has always been a place of learning for the Musqueam people, who for millennia have passed on in their culture, history, and traditions from one generation to the next on this site.” We do this acknowledgement because we cannot displace the many non-indigenous people living here and simply “give the land back” to the Musqueam people. Nevertheless, we recognize that it is their territory, which, long ago, was taken from them, rather than pretending that it was never theirs.

Week 5: Caudillos Versus the Nation State

This week’s lecture spoke about post-independence Latin America and the rise of Caudillos. Initially, one may think that life after independence would be great, but unfortunately, this was not the case for Latin America. In reality, Latin America was spotted with wars between different nations and neighbours. Independence left many people susceptible to harm, and this lead to the rise of Caudillos.

Caudillos are defined as military ‘strongmen’ who would gather support from their ‘clients’ by promising protection,  or land. In return, these caudillos gained political and even military support. With this support, they gained power. The lecture asks us why post-independence Latin America was fertile ground for the rise of said Caudillos; I believe this was because after independence, the poor and powerless were extremely vulnerable with worn-torn regions. Furthermore, the Caudillos were essentially leaders who could provide a sense of direction for the people, and as they advertised a form of ‘inclusive community’ and ‘fictive kinship’ to the indigenous peoples, (who were previously looked down upon due to the Casta system) they tended to be popular amongst them.

The Age of Caudillos reminds me of the saying “out of the frying pan, and into the fire”. I fount it slightly ironic that people fought for independence, only to find themselves lost and in need of a strong leader, ultimately holding centralized power. Granted, the new leader was not foreign which could’ve formed a sort of connection between the people and their leader. Nevertheless, foreign or local, corruption is still possible as we saw in the age of Caudillos.

After watching the lectures and reading the textbook, I was left wondering: were Caudillos seen as good, or bad? In a way, they did unify the nations and in a sense, created the foundation of a nation. However, they were both popular and unpopular amongst a vast majority of people, such as Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who, despite having been forced to retire or resign and was even exiled, was elected and re-elected a whopping 11 times and is even seen as a national hero. I feel like this type of irony that occurred in Mexico was representative of how tumultuous post-independence Latin America was. It was in need of direction, and Caudillos were the ones to provide it. Whether or not they did a mediocre, good or great job doing so, they indeed helped shape contemporary Latin America.

A question for discussion – What do you think of Caudillos? Do you think they did more harm than good? I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

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