Mexico and its Latin American counterparts share in some ways a common history.
- Whether Mayan or Inca, the Central and Southern regions of the Western Hemisphere were home to similar Amerindian peoples.
- Some of these indigenous populations formed sophisticated civilizations that were later conquered by European explorers. As they would go on to do in other places in the world, European colonizers – Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French – often relied on a divide and conquer policy, turning different native tribes or groups against each other and reaping the rewards of the ensuing chaos.
- Many of these inter-ethnic and inter-clan rivalries outlasted their imperial innovators and contributed to the class systems that prevail today.
- Much of Latin America was subjected to a form of feudalism upon conquest and colonization, in which valuable land holdings were usurped by European elites associated with colonial governments and the Catholic Church.
- Nearly all countries experienced significant death rates among indigenous populations from European diseases and poor working conditions on hacienda-style plantations.
- Nearly all Latin American economies came to be based on a mercantilist system which relied on the production and export of natural resources.
- Most of Latin America experienced successful independence movements in the early to mid-19th Century. Post-independence societies tended to be unstable, marked by chaotic politics, debates over land reform, and reliance on foreign debt.
- Many came to be ruled by authoritarian leaders, and experienced dramatic political swings between Left and Right. Revolts by marginalized peasant populations were and have continued to be commonplace and destabilizing.
Corporatism, or the melding of state and select private economic interests, has developed throughout Latin America, causing significant economic divides between rich and poor, and limiting economic mobility and political reforms.
Economic inequality is entrenched and pervasive, and largely resistant to policies and movements attempting to correct it. The fight against it has led to the popularity of counter-cultural figures such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Author Michael Reid provides a helpful definition of populism as it pertains to Latin America:
It is first, a brand of politics in which a strong, charismatic leader purports to be a savior, blurring the distinction between leader, government, party, and the state, and ignoring the need for the restraint of executive power through checks and balances. Second, populism has often involved redistribution of wealth in an unsustainable fashion.
Democracy came to Latin America in a distinct wave; Latin America is now home to the world’s largest collection of democracies, though with their entrenched interests and the limited role of a free press and organizations of public advocacy, they do not function in the robust manner of many democracies. However, some observers such as Michael Reid, in his new book Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, caution the world not to write them off, citing what he calls the “stubborn resilience of flawed democracies.”
Difficulty with incremental reform is also a common feature of Latin America’s democracies. Latin American expert and editor of Foreign Policy Moses Naim, has written that:
Latin America’s most important deficit is patience. Unless governmental policies are given time to work, new policy efforts will fail before they are fully tested. Investors will continue to ignore projects that cannot offer quick returns, governments will only advocate policies that can generate rapid, visible results even if they are unsustainable or mostly cosmetic, and voters will continue to shed leaders that don’t deliver soon enough…Large scale social progress will require years of sustained efforts that are not prematurely terminated and replaced by a new, “big-bang” solution.
Next: Mexico in the Context of Latin America: Economics and Trade