Over the course of the past half-millennium, the 33 countries that now comprise Latin America and the Caribbean have gone through drastic change. Since the discovery of the New World in 1492, each country has gone through some level of colonization by a European power and transition to its current state. During this period the regions have seen political, social, religious and economic transformations of various degrees. Nevertheless, many scholars argue that regardless of the changes encountered, many are merely on the surface with little to no meaningful change instilled. A Variety of leaders have attempted to improve their country by both conservative and liberal means. Despite these attempts, though, the underlying foundation of colonial ideals remains.
The colonial period began with the discovery of Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and most Latin American countries gained their independence in the nineteenth century. The colonization of Latin America and the Caribbean was dominated by the Iberian countries with small colonies established by the French, English and Dutch. Regardless of the nationality of the colonizers, almost all of the colonies shared basic characteristics, which have persevered over time in some way or another. It is possible to organize the traits of these colonies into four distinct categories: economic development, religious and social mixing, racial and ethnic mixing and political structures.
There were two basic industries found in the New World that shaped their economies: agriculture and mining. Both of these required tremendous labor input to match the demand of continental Europe. Goods such as sugar, cotton, coffee, indigo, tobacco, silver and copper were produced and exported in great quantities. At a very early point in the development of the colonies it was understood that the European settlers werent willing to do the physical labor themselves; instead African slaves were brought to the New World in order to work on the plantations. When the situation arose that African slaves didnt adapt to the conditions properly, Native Indians were forced to labor.
This subjugation of Africans and the indigenous populations has had dramatic effects on society. As most regions emancipated the slaves sometime in the mid eighteenth century, a social pyramid developed where white elites at the top, mulatto landowners and poor whites in the middle and Blacks and Indians at the bottom. This social structure developed into the stereotypical and racist notions found in most regions today. Regardless of the change in government, sweeping social change has not occurred and almost all of these two groups remain poor.
The plantation was the center of the agriculture life. Large-scale agriculture is still important as many countries rely on these products as they put large strain on export oriented growth. Only recently has there been any significant attempts at industrialization and many countries are economically backward.
From the very outset of the exploration of the New World, members of the church have been side by side with the explorers and colonists. The church had a dual role in Latin America. The church was interested in saving the souls of the indigenous peoples found in the newly discovered regions and also they reinforced the control of the Iberian powers. A unique form of Catholicism emerged that was a mixture of the three cultures mentioned above. The most vivid example of this fusion can be seen in Brazil were dozens of religions have sprouted with African, indigenous and European roots.
The final topic of colonial legacies is politics. From an early point in the history of Latin America, the regions have enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. There was a tendency towards administrative centralism and regional/local decision making which was primarily due to the physical distances to Europe. This incomplete control led to the growth of regionalism, strongman rule and ineffective government that constantly threatened national unity after independence was granted. Nearly every province rebelled against their central government at one point after independence. Nevertheless, these were never social revolutions and the poor were never any better off afterwards. The pattern of privilege remained.
It is easy to see many of the aforementioned legacies in Present day Mexico. When excavating for the subway system near the cathedral square of the colonial capital the Great Temple of the Aztecs was unearthed. The juxtaposition of ancient religious structures is typical of the religion practiced by many Mexicans today. While they might be singing Catholic hymns there might be Indian icons or dances associated, and certain saints are coupled with ancient Indian Gods. The most sacred site in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, is built on a hill sacred to the Aztec mother goddess and the picture behind the alter is one of the Virgin Mary yet with distinctly Indian coloring.
Politically, Mexico is one of the most provincial and violent countries in Latin America as regions espouse autonomy granted from colonial times. This regionalism has led to frequent revolts, gorilla warfare and political instability (until the past half a century). Additionally, Mexicans have exhibited the migratory patterns first seen in the Indian conscripts of the Peruvian Andes. Some Mexicans left at will to the big cities while others were forced to depart, they rarely made the trip back to their ancestral homes if their dreams of a better life went unfulfilled.
The politics surrounding economic decision making is also important to view. As stated earlier, the Latin American economies were based on mining and agriculture. While mining has more powerful boom-bust cycles (as mines have finite amounts of material) agriculture has been a constant staple of the economy. Therefore traditionally, most technology and industrial products had to be imported. Such an economy made these countries quite vulnerable to foreign influences. The great depression, for example, affected Latin America hardest of all; Chile lost 80 % of its export income. Certain countries in the past half-century have attempted more liberal economic policies in order to spark industrialization, but none have attempted such radical change, with respect to their economy, as Brazil.
President Juscelino Kubitschek continued on the course outlined by former president Getulio Vargas for an attempt to perform import substitution and industrialization. This approach would move the country away from being an economy of deserts and develop its industry. Huge concessions and monopolies were given to foreign companies in return for the development of domestic suppliers of the required components. While all the points were reached, and industry began to develop at a rapid rate, the quality of product, such a automobiles, was both drastically hire then in other countries and the quality was dramatically lower. Nevertheless, few benefited from this growth except the owners of certain factories. An economic and political crises was feared.
When, in 1964, US investment was stalled for fears of political instability the military took over the government. They promised to stabilize the economy, grow industry and eventually restore democracy. Finance Minister Campos shifted the stress away from import substitution to export oriented growth. He controlled inflation by decreasing government spending and wage and when workers would strike many were jailed. From 1968 1974 there was a tremendous increase in growth, production and investment. This period was called the Brazilian Miracle for the astonishing rate of growth.
When the oil embargo of 1973 occurred Brazil decided to not enter into recession like the rest of the world, but to borrow large sums at variable rates in an attempt at debt-led growth. For the next five years this policy worked well surprising most economic pundits as he rate of growth exceeding the inflation rate. Nevertheless, the common Brazilian didnt notice any dramatic positive change in their lifestyle, but there were large social costs. There was a loss of personal freedoms associated with the military regime, environmental damage as large tracts of Amazon were cleared and the discrepancies between the incomes of the rich and poor grew.
In 1980 the second oil embargo occurred completely shattering the Brazilian economic framework. Interest rates roe to twenty percent and Brazil fell into a major recession with extremely high inflation, a rise in unemployment and a decrease in investment and income. There was a huge double debt for Brazilian society as the level of foreign debt rose past $65 billion and social debt was symbolized by the seven million street children. By 1992 the debt was over $100 billion and five different economic reform programs under civilian rule were tried and all failed. Like other countries in the region, the gains of the 1970s were reversed in the 1980s. Brazils forward looking vision of grandeza would have to be put on hold.
During the nineteenth century, many Latin American countries gained their independence. Once that goal was reached the difficult task of building a nation and a national identity was necessary. Most countries had underdeveloped economies focused on the production of a narrow range of goods. Additionally, the countries were a mixture of cultures and races with strong regionalism that would tug at the unity of many of the newly formed nations. Many countries attained some level of progress during the liberal period (1870 1930)
Argentina is the example of the great success story from this period. From an early stage of its development a strong leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas, emerged to lead Argentina into unity and progress while still maintaining the power for the ranch owners. Economic progress was also made as exports increased. To provide labor for the burgeoning industry there was a large migration from Europe to Argentina. Although this gave Buenos Aires a more European feel, the country would struggle with its national identity. On the other hand, certain aspects of Argentine society, the Pampas, the Gaucho Martin Fiero and the Tango helped find a distinct national identity even within the diverse population. Even though, some political progress was attained, the social strata were maintained with the elite landowner enjoying all the benefits of the Paris of South America. The first time in Latin American history where a liberal stance I taken in relation to labor is with Juan Peron who aligned himself with the nationalist movement and established programs to better the situation for the working class.
Even more so then the working class, womens roles and rights have been neglected. The issue of womens roles in society has been shared common characteristics in almost every recorded civilization, with any significant progress being made in the past one hundred and fifty years. This development is also seen in Latin America and the Caribbean with advancement in some countries only occurring recently. In present day Latin America, women have become integral wage earners in their families especially in the field of Maquiladoras. However, in Chile we can see the most important and widespread progress in the issue of womens roles in society.
In 1877 the first steps were taken in the path of equating the lives of men and women. Chile was the first country to have women professionals, admit women to university. Nevertheless, in the early 1900s women were still franchised to men and didnt enjoy suffrage. While they were now able to obtain higher education, they were unable to use this knowledge for the good of the country. One way women were able to express their views was through arpilleras? embroidered cloths that were used as a means of silent protest against various institutions. These cloths were an important method of expression used during Chiles military regime.
The issue of suffrage was tackled in the late 1940s. The Movement for Emancipation of Chilean Women, the first female-only Chilean group, emerged following the end of the center-left government in 1946. While in 1949 women were given the right to vote, few voted for the Feminine Party but instead voted for the establishment already in place, thus showing that much less progress had been arrived at then previously thought. On the other hand, in the years to follow women began to play a pivotal role in demonstrations against the government.
After the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, many citizens and were soon opposed to his radical reforms (many think sue to a conspiracy to sabotage his policies from achieving the desired results). When basic food and necessities began to become scarce, many women decided that they had enough; they united in a series of protests. The women, who united from all different classes and races, would bang on empty pots to signify the lack of food available. Allende was overthrown by a coup in 1973, in which woman played a significant role.
General Augosto Pinochet soon much political and social assumed power of the country and there was repression leading women to use arpelliras to voice their disapproval at the supposed human-rights violations occurring in Chile. In 1983 after Chile was facing economic tribulations, Women for Life, an all women organization was founded. There goal was to combat unemployment, hunger, torture and repression. The group would march, in 1985, under the slogan Somos Mas, we are the majority in an attempt to bring the dictatorship to an end. This group became a powerful element in combating the dictatorship, and in 1988 General Pinochet held a plebiscite to determine whether to continue with the dictatorial rule; it failed resoundingly and democracy returned. Once the group had attained their goals they soon disbanded hampered by a lack of a clear, unified direction.
It is clear that women have taken great bounds from their previous roles in society, but they often fall short of the expectations that feminists establish in order to bring true equality for the genders. In Latin America more than other regions it is possible that the male machismo plays a role in the necessity to make their wives subservient. Nevertheless important inroads have been made in the economic and social spheres.
One of the more muddled and confusing topics to analyze in Latin America and the Caribbean is that of race and ethnicity. Since the founding of the first permanent colonies in the early sixteenth century, a mixing of cultures and races has occurred between the European colonists, African slaves and indigenous Indians. In most Latin American societies the social pyramid of power was established by gradations of color with the white on top. These stereotypes persist to this day in many countries in the region. Some, like Mexico, have embraced Mestizos as an ideal for national identity. While others, such as Guatemala, have facilitated ways of crossing class distinctions.
A much different situation developed in the Dominican Republic. It contains the highest number of mulattos in the Americas and has a distinct classification of identity, but Dominicans would rarely use the word mulatto. We deny that we are mulatto, because we dont wan to say openly that we have African roots, one Dominican claims. Someone who is fairly light-skinned will say: Im white. A mulatto with medium skin will say: Im Indian. And blacks themselves will say: Im a dark Indian. Blacks are rteated badly in this country, so we dont want to be black (Winn P.285). There is a deeply rooted racism in the country which aligns skin tone with class regardless of ancestry.
The policies of General Rafael Leonides Trujillo between 1930 and 1961 perpetuated and exacerbated these issues. During his thirty-one year regime he attempted to redefine the Dominican history and dissociate them with Blacks and Africa. This ideology is symbolized by the term Hispanidad during the period of redefinition. Trujillo found that it would be most beneficial for the country to identify itself with Spanish and European ideals thus becoming the most Spanish people in the Americas. To achieve this redefinition, Trujillo was forced to discard any evidence that endangered his approach, and a policy of deafricanization and installation of Catholic values was adopted. Changes to accounts of history were created and blacks were now referred to as Indians who were descendants of an ancient tribe called Tainos, which went extinct 400 years earlier. Hispanophile intellectuals asserted that Dominican slaves came from northern Africa so they look like Indians while Haitian slaves were from sub-Saharan Africa. The amount of hate crimes against Haitians living in the Dominican Republic greatly increased and cultural ideas such as Voodoo were repressed. The country was openly racist to achieve a goal of becoming Spanish, Catholic and White.
Racism persists to this day in the Dominican Republic. It is difficult to say if any significant changes, outside of intellectual circles, have been made to quell the rampant racism encountered there. The most notable position to combat this problem might be from the experience of Dominicans who travel abroad and experience racism and return home. While the example of the Dominican is slightly extreme when compared to other countries in the region it is indicative of the attitudes exhibited in almost all countries in the Americas. Undoubtedly, such progress is miniscule and shows how little some aspects of society have transformed over almost five hundred years.
To judge the levels of modification to a region comprised of thirty-three countries is a lofty task. While the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean share a mutual colonial history, they have taken different paths to achieve their present positions in the world. However this common thread of colonialism has permeated through every aspect of society leaving a legacy with recognizable origins and characteristics regardless of the changes instilled by any specific government. As revisions to the economy, political structure, racial and gender situation and national identity are made it is impossible to escape the similarities of the past. Only drastic, social upheaval can cause the type of change activists dream about. Maybe the Spanish inadvertently left a trait that has hindered growth across their history, the concept of Manana (tomorrow), thus putting important policy decisions for another day. We can find examples in the histories of these countries where significant change is found, but it never has a contagious element allowing it to spread across the region, and it is rarely going to affect more then one aspect of society for any extended amount of time. Regardless, of the actual results we have witnessed in the past, there is one constant: a desire for improvement and the ever increasing number of leaders willing to take unorthodox steps to achieve these goals. As long as these characteristics remain, transitions to desired ideals will eventually occur.