Discussing the reasons that some countries have not yet achieved the success their citizens feel they deserve is a complex task. A country’s success is associated with a range of different factors that have influenced countries gradually throughout its history. In the case of Latin American countries that have strived to establish security and prosperity since the 1930s, several issues have prevented most of them from becoming successful or guaranteeing their citizens the high standard of living that Western Europeans and North Americans have enjoyed.
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While modern Latin America has achieved some positive outcomes in terms of living standards and economic success, the faulty model provided by colonization, racial strife, migration, illegal drug activity, lack of leadership, and the impact of the United States have all played a negative role in the establishment of the countries’ institutions and their social and economic progress.
Colonization of Latin America
At the outset, it is important to consider the faulty model provided by the colonization of Latin America as a precursor to the region’s subsequent history. In this assignment, Latin America will be understood to consist of the entire continent of South America, Mexico, Central America, and those Caribbean islands whose populations speak Romance languages. The overseas expansion under Spanish rule was initially started and accomplished by conquistadors.
The key purpose behind transferring the population of a Western European country to a completely new continent was to create a source of inexpensive labor and natural resources. Monopolistic trade relations emerged that benefitted the colonial powers, elevating the role of the colonial rulers in creating both the social and economic dynamics of the colonies. Because of pressure from the colonizers, the new territories were forced to develop monocultures that would focus on production for the benefit of the dominant countries instead of improving their economies.
This points to the fact that from the very start, Latin American colonies were caught in a vise to accommodate the needs of their colonizers. As mentioned by Koster in his Travels in Brazil, a foreigner arriving in the new land could have formed a very poor impression of the population and the land despite its natural beauty (94). Strict laws and measures of social control were established in the colonies to ensure that they would provide cheap labor and the resources that were lacking in Europe.
According to Chasteen and Wood, the colonization of new lands was a relentless movement to ensure that all land available for crops was taken over and could be used to achieve profitability through slave labor (60). There was direct pressure to put a Western European “mark” on the new lands. The colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese entailed sexual union between indigenous women and males who had arrived in the new lands for incorporating “populations into the culture, economy, and society of the invaders” (Chasteen and Wood 183). Subsequently, Latin American colonies were developed not only by the rule of state action but by the will of private individuals. The societies of the region were regulated not by racial and national consciousness, but by religious exclusivity.
Racial Relations in Latin America
The development of a successful European colony implied that it had to be predominantly European in the race. Both in Latin America and the United States, racial-class hierarchies were developed to regulate racial relations in the New World. While in the US, the hierarchy implied differentiation between white and non-white people, in Latin America, a case system was developed. It was associated with considering not only race but also the birthplace of citizens, with European-born Spaniards who lived on the peninsula being at the top. Spaniards born in the Americas were a step below them, with the division continuing to Africans and pure indigenous populations (Poma de Ayala 89).
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Such a system was alienating for Europeans living in Spanish colonies, which led to in-society mistrust and dissent. In contrast to Anglo-Europeans who aimed for the development of sustainable white colonies, Latin America could not establish a true colonial system, but rather only a corrupt hegemony over indigenous populations.
Impact of the United States, Guerillas, the Dirty War, and the Cold War
Latin America experienced a range of direct influences from the United States. The pattern of domination was created when the US took control of the benefits of economic exploitation initiated by the Conquistadors, and the pattern has continued to this day. The topic of the Cold War is relevant in discussing the relations between the US and Latin American countries because of the war’s significant influence on the future of international politics.
During the Cold War, when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, the US responded to the perceived threat in multiple ways. In its attempts to bring the regime down, the United States applied the strategy of economic pressure through establishing a formal embargo on trade (Wright 241). Castro was seen as a promise for a bright future for Cuba by its citizens: “And they wanted to continue in a cruel way conspiring against the people, and continue exploiting them… And then Fidel arrived” (Puebla). Despite the agreements with Russia not to invade Cuba, the US attempted to provoke social instabilities and uprisings against Castro, and also tried to assassinate him.
In return, Latin American officers quickly learned the strategy of guerrilla warfare that the US was implementing and “lived in and off of the jungle, set traps and ambushes, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat where necessary” (Wright 242). Nevertheless, the US wanted to achieve superiority and went far beyond the physical aspect of warfare. The training in which the US invested aimed to indoctrinate the Latin American elite in an anti-Communist and anti-leftist ideology to reorient their military thinking from an external to an internal focus. This implies that the US wanted civil instability to prevail in the territory of Latin America.
In the history of Argentina’s Dirty War, traces of US influence can still be found. The declassification of diplomatic and secret intelligence documents attests to the United States’ knowledge of the military junta’s takeover of Isabel Perón’s presidency.
The period was challenging for the population due to the abuse of thousands of civilians. According to Wright, the Dirty War was associated with the aggressive treatment of the opponents: “first we kill all the subversive, then we kill their collaborators, then… their sympathizers, then… those who remain indifferent; and finally, we will kill the timid” (283). The declassification of documents revealed that the US implemented a questionable foreign policy, during which the government condoned and sometimes supported the actions of the right-wing parties in Argentina.
Cocaine Trade in Latin America
The economic environment of Latin America has been significantly undermined by the impact of the drug trade. Instead of focusing on less profitable businesses that potentially could have improved the economies of Latin American countries, various nations have gone into the extremely profitable but illegal drug trade. Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia remain some of the most prominent countries that produce cocaine, with other related businesses spread throughout the majority of South America.
Thousands of peasant families grow coca leaves, while numerous drug barons direct the majority of the production, processing, and trafficking of cocaine. The earnings of the billionaire barons result in their enormous economic, social, and political impact in Latin American countries. Apart from this, the power that large cocaine dealers possess in the form of large sums of narcodollars encourages the corruption of the judicial and police systems, the elections of congressmen with drug-related funds, the creation of bankruptcy of banks by trafficking groups, and the sympathy and support of the state for the drug trade.
The coca leaf represents a traditional Andean product that bears important significance in the context of Latin American culture (Wright 313). However, the abuse of the significance of the product and the high demand for it led some countries to pursue illegal drug trade, especially due to the consumption of the drug in the US. The United States has been and remains the largest single-market consumer for illicit drugs, which is why the trade continues prospering.
False Promises of Populism in the Region
In Latin America, populists have challenged exclusionary forms of democracy and promised to give people power. Populism has emerged in oligarchic societies where the franchise was restricted and elites determined the destinies of their nations and in a context of severe inequality in which the poor and the excluded were considered threats to democracy, civility, and progress. Populist ideologies were established in the 1930s and 1940s when the majority of working-class citizens accepted authoritarianism as exercised by Domingo Perón, and Getulio Vargas, the whose stated goal was the material welfare of their peoples (Wright 326).
In his “Ode to Perón,” Alberto Marino wrote, “Argentina has a leader, an enlightened patriot that governs for the people.” This representation of the leader especially aligned with the promises of Perón to bring prosperity to the country. Populism was used as a force that promised to democratize the established authoritarian regimes, eliminate fraud during elections, incorporate the poor and working classes economically and socially, and return symbolic dignity to the excluded. When Perón and other populists were in power, they established policies to incorporate the excluded as well as policies that directly restricted their civil rights. Thus, while the citizens believed in the populists’ promises, they were trapped by the idea of a brighter future.
Human Rights Limitations
As a result of oppression and the continual promises that never became reality, Latin American countries suffered from violations of human rights under international law. Its citizens dreamed of “the kingdom of justice and equality” (Jara). The main issue was the lack of progress in this area. The societies could not move forward to reach a satisfactory level of democracy due to authoritarianism’ dominating rule. The political leadership of civil societies in Latin America had a large opportunity to build a lasting society; however, they failed to realize that it would not come about by itself. Lack of solid plans to implement human rights hindered the development of sustainable democratic norms and the fair treatment of the people.
Migration Flows: The Result of Misfortunes
Latin America was established as a result of Western Europeans migrating to a new land to extract raw materials, minerals, and agricultural commodities. Today, this pattern persists with Bolivia supplying tin, Central America producing bananas, Cuba exporting sugar, Chile providing copper and nitrates, Argentina exporting beef and wheat, and Brazil and Colombia producing coffee (Chasteen and Wood 149). Countries such as the United States and Britain were in the center of the neocolonial system both economically and ideologically, with cosmopolitism triumphing. Therefore, Latin Americans were captured in a trap consisting of continuous labor, human rights violations, false promises, and the drug trade.
The ideas of neoliberalism have influenced the decisions of many Latin Americans to escape their home countries, as severe debt crises resulted from the policies imposed by international economic institutions. Thus the migration of Latin Americans to the United States has become a pattern that still exists to this day. Extreme corruption and political striving for power, along with the violence caused by the illegal drug trade, lead citizens to flee their countries to find work and live in peace.
Escaping from an environment of extortion, organized crime, and bribery is a crucial motivation that pushes Latin Americans to migrate. However, since they are meeting opposition from the US government to their migrating legally, illegal migration has become a key trend that is making headlines in newspapers today.
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Chasteen, John, and James Wood. Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations. SR Books, 2005.
Jara, Victor. Plegaria a un Labrador/Farmer’s Prayer, Chile, 1970. Web.
Koster, Henry. Travels in Brazil. M. Carey & Son, 1817.
Marino, Alberto. Ode to Perón, Argentina, 1947. Web.
Poma de Ayala, Felipe Guaman. The First New Chronicle and Good Government: On the History of the World and the Incas up to 1615. University of Texas Press, 2009.
Puebla, Carlos. Llegó el Comandante, Cuba 1960. Web.
Wright, Thomas. Latin America Since Independence: Two Centuries of Continuity and Change. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.