The Political Background of Countries in Latin America

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The latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century in Latin America can be characterized by the prevalence of widespread reform movements that completely changed the lifestyle and political thoughts of the general populous. The vast majority of Latin American people lived in rural areas and worked communal agricultural lands or raised livestock as their primary monetary subsistence. They were often trapped in the vicious and manipulative cycle of sharecropping, in which these unskilled workers toiling away at the land were referred to as “peons,” which possessed a somewhat derogatory connotation. These peasantry systems were the true backbone of the instrumental change that occured within Latin American society. The Liberal Project, neocolonialism, and nationalist movements shaped the history of Latin America from the 1850s until the 1940s by instigating a transformation of the economic and religious systems of the region, facilitating the emergence of popular class politics, and the establishment of a new inclusive cultural identity.

The transformation of the economic and religious systems that came as a result of these movements, particularly the Liberal Project and neocolonialism, was significantly influential in helping Latin America elicit increased economic and social prosperity in these countries. As mentioned previously, the harsh agricultural systems that were prevalent in the late 19th century resembled that of a shrouded veil of servitude, where these peons were saddled with extreme debt that was owed to their employer. This debt was often accumulated through sharecropping costs, in which a landowner would lease his property to an aspiring farmer in exchange for a share of the farmer’s crops to pay off debt. Peons were also frequently burdened with monetary loans that they took out in order to secure payment for basic living expenses, or debt that they owed to merchants who would give them items on a system of credit. Although extremely unfair to the lower class workers, this system proved highly beneficial to many Latin American economies, who took advantage of the increased demand in the European market for Latin American goods. The production and export of items such as beef, coffee, and grains brought significant monetary profit for Latin American governments, which spurred the development of the transportation industry and increased urbanization. This peon system was extremely widespread in Mexico, where the owners of large haciendas would openly take advantage of their workers in a malicious way.

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In Brazil, however, this kind of forced sharecropping servitude was not as prevalent in the late 19th century, since Brazil continued the institution of slavery until 1888, which made it the last Western country to outlaw the practice. Brazil, however, heavily embodied the ideals of the Liberal Project and neocolonialism, in which the country championed industrialist ideas that fell in line with their national motto, “Order and Progress.” These neocolonialist views regarding increased domestic production in Brazil and exportation to more developed European countries had the counteracting expense of decimating a significant portion of the country’s ecological assets, with deforestation and soil erosion becoming a widespread problem along the Atlantic coast of the country.

On a similar note, the religious transformations that were occurring in Mexico also implicated ideas from the Liberal Project and neoliberalism. Mexican writers such as Ignacio Altamirano was a strong proponent of liberalism, and his works of literature were largely influential in exposing Mexican society to these progessive thoughts. Conservatives and liberals in the Mexican government argued heavily upon the extent to which the roman catholic church should play a role in society. When the liberal party gained control in Mexico in 1855, there were significant pieces of legislation enacted that emphasized the progressive idea of separation of church and state in society. These laws stripped the Catholic church’s of its ability to collectively hold land, which expanded private ownership and in turn encouraged a society that was not predominantly controlled by religion.

The emergence of novel form of populistic policies in Latin America certainly embodied the ideals of the nationalistic reform movement that was sweeping the region in the early 20th century. This communal fervor for the embodiment of a national identity within countries had both economic and cultural effects on the region. First, there was a shift away from the economic practice of serving foreign country’s economic interests and importing goods. Instead, a new widespread development of national industry solidified a decreased reliance on foreign imports throughout Latin America, along with an increase in tariffs that were utilized to reinvest into emerging businesses. Additionally, the Great Depression in the United States had consequential ramifications in Latin America, with the economy significantly hurt as a result. This economic downturn caused many people to start to lose faith in the liberal governance that was so heavily petitioned for in the 19th century, and they turned to strong authoritarian governments to regain a sense of control and national pride in their respective countries.

The Afro-Cuban struggle for equal rights and protection under the law was undoubtedly one of the most vehement beacons of nationalism in the early 20th century. Emerging out of the influential literary works written by anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, the Afro-Cuban movement centered around the Cuban people embracing their African culture, primarily in regards to dance and music. The movement was met with strong opposition, with the United States going so far as to eliminate all Afro-Cuban people from political positions. However, this movement had extensive reverberations throughout the Cuban culture, and showed how a dedicated sense of nationalism can have a prolonged influence on society.

One of the strongest and most influential proponents of nationalism was Jose Vasconcelos, who was a prominent Mexican writer, politician, and philosopher. He wrote the book The Cosmic Race, which was published in 1925. The novel primarily proposed a central thesis which was centered around the belief that the people of Latin America had essentially evolved into a superior race that was mixed with a large number of ethnic blends. Vasconcelos predominantly focused on the finest traits of the European, Native American, and African races. Vasconcelos surmised that the ethnic convergence of these three subsets had yielded a human specimen that was capable of global dominance.

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