Scarcity and Abundance, Latin America

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Abundance and scarcity are crucial to Latin America because of the sharp disparities between the wealth produced in this region and the impoverishment of people and environment. Though ideas about causes differ sharply, Latin American social thought has revolved in substantial part around this axis. This entry begins with ideas from before the Spanish conquest, proceeds to key debates among the conquerors, moves then to ideas of progress and modernization, and finishes with recent, critical perspectives.

Pre-and Postconquest Thought

One risks overgeneralization in speaking of "pre-Hispanic" ideas as a unified entity since this covers so many cultures and geographic settings, but two themes stand out: to maintain abundance, communities engage in reciprocal exchanges with deities of particular places, set in broader spatial orders such as the four compass directions; and societies undergo great cycles of creation, destruction, and rebirth. Such visions once characterized official public thought but after conquest were submerged in the rituals of indigenous communities. The Spanish had a different set of concerns. They had conquered, with great self-confidence, a region of biological abundance and human wealth. Was this "natural" richness a sign of the backward state of the Americans compared to the rational, Christian Europeans? Or was it a paradise lost to pillage and enslavement by rapacious conquerors? The 1550 debate between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (taking the former position) and Bartolomé de Las Casas (taking the latter) carries into the present, in which the intellectual descendents of Las Casas posit a romantic ecology and anthropology of profound indigenous cultures in lush but imperiled habitats and the inheritors of Sepúlveda see underutilized natural wealth needing rationality for its proper exploitation.

Modernization and the Ideology of Science

From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, a broadly Sepúlvedan position held sway. After independence, political fragmentation and the decline of the colonial economy resulted in Latin America falling visibly behind industrializing western Europe and the United States. Capitalist pioneers from those areas after 1850 began to invest in Latin America in alliance with local landowners and businesspeople. Intellectual spokespeople for this process, the "científicos" (advocates of science and progress), saw Latin America as abundant and potentially wealth-producing but constrained by cultural and biological backwardness, especially on the part of darker-skinned lower orders. Scientific racism was in the air, making it easy to blame Latin America's scarcity on Native Americans, African-Americans, and people of mixed European and non-European ancestry. One example of this kind of thought, though not as biologically racist as some, blamed Mexico's underdevelopment on the nutritional deficiencies of corn tortillas, the millennia-old food of the Mexican people, and advocated instead the consumption of wheat bread, associated with Europe. There was little support for this seemingly "scientific" theory, and it ignored how inequality in resources led to nutritional shortfalls. But it seemed to explain Mexico's poverty, offering a suitably progressive path forward.

There were dissenters, however. Two Peruvians, the social theorist José Carlos Mariátegui (18941930) and the novelist-anthropologist José María Arguedas (19111969), stand out for revaluing indigenous cultures. Mariátegui interpreted the indigenous people of the Andes as a revolutionary class in Marxist terms, while Arguedas deepened attention to highland Peruvian culture per se, noting the continuities of pre-Hispanic thought described above. Generally, though, notions that Latin America should follow external models of progress continued into the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. The models had once been England and France, but in this period the economically and politically overwhelming United States provided the vision of power and abundance. Racist theories declined (though did not disappear), and the key idea was "modernization": that Latin America could engineer progress by discarding its traditional social structures and cultures. A new nationalism crept in, with the central state and local capitalists seen as modernizers as well as, or in replacement of, foreigners. This opened the door for a major reversal in thought.

The Radical Critique of Modernization

In the 1960s and 1970s "dependency" theorists (including, among others, Teotonio Dos Santos, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Anibal Quijano, and Andre Gunder Frank) argued that as Latin America entered into relationships with dominant economies like Spain and Portugal, and later Britain and the United States, it became poorer rather than richer. Various enterprises, from sugar plantations and silver mines to automobile assembly plants and pharmaceutical factories, did not advance Latin America but rather removed its wealth and stunted its own, self-determining progress. Furthermore one could identify elite classes and dominant areas within Latin America not as modernizers but as doing the work of extraction and control for outsiders. Backwardness thus was imposed from outside on a potentially self-sufficient, abundant region.

Dependency theory at its most radical called for class revolutions in Latin America. It identified a carrier of change in the peasantry seen as a class (rather than as indigenous cultures) and, to a lesser extent, in the urban poor and workers in new industries. These classes were seen as the creators of abundance but the sufferers of scarcity because the surplus product of their labor was taken away in unequal exchange with the world centers of capitalism (a heterodox Marxism focusing on relations of exchange rather than production). In spite of this radical diagnosis, however, dependency theory overlapped in practice with nationalist-capitalist industrialization and urbanization guided by the central state, which envisioned scarcity and abundance in conventional economic terms.

The Return of Modernization (Neoliberalism) and Its Cultural-Ecological Critics

The nationalist-capitalist project collapsed in the 1980s due to corruption and inequity in which enormous debts to foreign (mostly U.S.) banks resulted in retrenchment, job loss, and impoverishment. Neoliberalism is the intellectual movement that corresponds to the dismal era of economic retrenchment and return of U.S. domination in the period from 1982 to the twenty-first century. As a set of ideas, neoliberalism differs little from those advocated by "científicos" and modernizers of past epochs except, perhaps, in its emphasis on the example of U.S.. and East Asian business practices, such as private entrepreneurship. Again the assumption is that Latin America is characteristically backward and needs to import models for achieving abundance from more "successful" societies.

There are, however, two alternatives on the intellectual horizon. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto propounds the argument that Latin America has been hobbled by monopolies of economic and political power and that enduring prosperity will be created by the acts of millions of tiny entrepreneursstreet vendors, small businesspeople, and the like. This is clearly an idea of its time, related to neoliberalism and reflective of the retreat of the grand projects of the state and the proliferation of microscopic businesses among the unemployed, but it does touch on the persistent problem of stultifying monopolies of power in the region.

Meanwhile, welling up from innumerable social movements are the offshoots of dependency theory but with a new focus on indigenous cultures, women, and ecology. Like dependency theory, these diverse ideas (for which we do not yet have a name) locate abundance inside Latin America, in its forests and waters and in its pre-Hispanic and African-American legacies. They see globalization (economic and cultural) as threatening that abundance and thus form part of the international antiglobalization movement, centered on the World Social Forums held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Unlike dependency theory, these ideas emphasize an encompassing cultural vision of radical economy and ecology, drawing on 1960s forebears in liberation theology and Paulo Freire's "conscientization" approach to collective self-education. Fragmented as these tendencies are, there is no single intellectual spokesperson, but one might start with the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar. We look hopefully for a synthesis of the penetrating critique of political-economic power characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s and the richer attention to culture and nature characteristic of recent Latin American thought.

See also Capitalism ; Communism: Latin America ; Ecology ; Globalization ; Indigenismo ; Marxism: Latin America ; Modernization ; Neoliberalism ; World Systems Theory, Latin America .


Alvarez, Sonia E., Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, eds. Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. A compilation of work on modern Latin American radicalism.

Arguedas, José María. Yawar Fiesta. Translated by Frances Horning Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. A characteristic anthropological novel by Arguedas. Originally published in 1958.

Bulnes, Francisco. El porvenir de las naciones Hispano-Americanas ante las conquistas recientes de Europa y los Estados Unidos. Mexico City: Imprenta de Mariano Nava, 1899. A representative work of the cientifícos.

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, and Enzo Faletto. Dependency and Development in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. A nuanced statement of dependency theory.

De Soto, Hernando. The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World. Translated by June Abbott. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. An important work of neoliberalism.

Frank, Andre Gunder. Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution: Essays on the Development of Underdevelopment and the Immediate Enemy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969. An emphatic statement of dependency theory.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970. The classic statement of conscientization.

Gossen, Gary H., and Miguel León Portilla, eds. South and Meso-American Native Spirituality: From the Cult of the Feathered Serpent to the Theology of Liberation. New York: Crossroad, 1993. A useful compilation of pre-and post-Columbian indigenous thought.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Power of the Poor in History: Selected Writings. Translated by Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983. A valuable source for liberation theology.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Translated by Marjory Urguidi. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. The key work by this radical Andean critic.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Covers the SepúlvedaLas Casas debates, among other topics.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Modern Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Discusses the tortilla debate in Mexico and offers a fascinating culinary angle on that nation's history.

Josiah McC. Heyman