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10-08-2015, 15:25

Change and Tradition in Latin America

In the three centuries following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, Latin America fell increasingly into the European orbit. Portugal dominated Brazil, and Spain formed a vast empire that included most of the remainder of South America as well as Central America. Almost from the beginning, it was a multicultural society composed of European settlers, indigenous American Indians, immigrants from Asia, and black slaves brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations and in other menial occupations. Intermarriage among the three groups resulted in the creation of a diverse population with a less rigid view of race than was the case in North America. Latin American culture, as well, reflected a rich mixture of Iberian, Asian, African, and Native American themes. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the various Latin American societies were ruled by colonial officials appointed by monarchical governments in Europe. An additional instrument of control was the Catholic church, which undertook a major effort to Christianize the indigenous peoples and transform them into docile and loyal subjects of the Portuguese and Spanish Empires. By 1800, however, local elites, mostly descendants of Europeans who had become permanent inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, became increasingly affected by the spirit of nationalism that had emerged after the Napoleonic era in Europe. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, they launched a series of revolts that led to the eviction of the monarchical regimes and the formation of independent states from Argentina and Chile in the south to Mexico in Central America. One of the goals of the independence movement had been to free the economies of Latin America from European control and to exploit the riches of the continent for local benefit. In fact, however, political independence did not lead to a new era of prosperity for the people of Latin America. Most of the powerful elites in the region earned their wealth from the land and had few incentives to learn from the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the previous trade pattern persisted, with Latin America exporting raw materials and foodstuffs (wheat and sugar) as well as tobacco and hides in exchange for manufactured goods from Europe and the United States. With economic growth came a boom in foreign investment. Between 1870 and 1913, British investments —mostly in railroads, mining, and public utilities—grew from £85 million to £757 million, which constituted twothirds of all foreign investment in Latin America. As Latin Americans struggled to create more balanced economies after 1900, they concentrated on increasing industrialization, especially by building textile, food-processing, and construction materials factories. Nevertheless, the growth of the Latin American economy came largely from the export of raw materials, and economic modernization in Latin America simply added to the growing dependence of the region on the capitalist nations of the West. Modernization was basically a surface feature of Latin American society; past patterns still largely prevailed. Rural elites dominated their estates and their rural workers. Although slavery was abolished by 1888, former slaves and their descendants were still at the bottom of society. The Native Americans remained poverty- stricken, debt servitude was still a way of life, and the region remained economically dependent on foreigners. Despite its economic growth, Latin America was still sorely underdeveloped. The surface prosperity that resulted from the emergence of an export economy had both social and political repercussions. One result socially was the modernization of the elites, who grew determined to pursue their vision of modern progress. Large landowners increasingly sought ways to rationalize their production methods to make greater profits. As a result, cattle ranchers in Argentina and coffee barons in Brazil became more aggressive entrepreneurs. Another result of the new prosperity was the growth of a small but increasingly visible middle class—lawyers, merchants, shopkeepers, businessmen, schoolteachers, professors, bureaucrats, and military officers. Living mainly in the cities, these people sought education and decent incomes and increasingly considered the United States as the model to emulate, especially in regard to industrialization and education. As Latin American export economies boomed, the working class expanded, which in turn led to the growth of labor unions, especially after 1914. Radical unions often advocated the use of the general strike as an instrument for change. By and large, however, the governing elites succeeded in stifling the political influence of the working class by restricting the right to vote. The need for industrial labor also led Latin American countries to encourage European immigrants. Between 1880 and 1914, three million Europeans, primarily Italians and Spaniards, settled in Argentina. More than 100,000 Europeans, mostly Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, arrived in Brazil each year between 1891 and 1900. As in Europe and the United States, industrialization led to urbanization, evident in both the emergence of new cities and the rapid growth of old ones. Buenos Aires (the “Paris of South America”) had 750,000 inhabitants by 1900 and two million by 1914—one-fourth of Argentina’s population. By that time, urban dwellers made up 53 percent of Argentina’s population overall. Brazil and Chile also witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of urban dwellers. Latin America also experienced a political transformation after 1870. Large landowners began to take a more direct interest in national politics, sometimes expressed by a direct involvement in governing. In Argentina and Chile, for example, landholding elites controlled the governments, and although they produced constitutions similar to those of the United States and European countries, they were careful to ensure their power by regulating voting rights. In some countries, large landowners made use of dictators to maintain the interests of the ruling elite. Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1910, established a conservative, centralized government with the support of the army, foreign capitalists, large landowners, and the Catholic church, all of whom benefited from their alliance. But there were forces for change in Mexico that sought to precipitate a true social revolution.

 

 

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