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Latin America around 1850: societies, economies, policies

From Baripedia


We will see the contrasts between Latin America and the United States. These contrasts are growing in the mid-nineteenth century because of the strong differences that exist between these regions and during their independence processes, on the other hand, there are differences within these two great blocs.

In Latin America, economic liberalism is developing which benefits a tiny minority, but which makes the vast majority increasingly poor, landless, exploited and precarious.

In the United States, it is also the reign of economic liberalism while the gap between rich and poor is growing, it is also the gap between the North which is industrializing and modernizing in part thanks to the arrival of immigrants while the South called the "cotton king" produces cotton by a large number of slaves which will lead to the Civil War called "civil war" in the United States.

1825 - 1850: instability and adjustment[edit | edit source]

The Wars of Independence were followed between 1825 and 1850 by a long period of instability and adjustment. In 1822, Brazil became an empire under Pedro I, continuing to function at the expense of slavery without major political changes. For the former continental colonies of Spain, independence meant a great political break.

The new nations rejected the supreme authority of the King of Spain, which was supposedly protective and was justified by Catholic tradition and religion. Now, in principle, the supreme authority is the constitution, that is to say a document written for a population that is overwhelmingly illiterate, a document with which few people can identify, and even worse, it is a document that is often inapplicable, because it is often inspired by the constitutions of the United States and France.

There is great economic continuity, because land ownership continues to be the main source of wealth, status and power. Now, political power must be controlled in order to acquire land. There are lands to acquire: the lands of the Spaniards who left the continent that became "national domain" after the departure, also the lands of the Indian communities that are no longer protected by the king because we are in the reign of private property as well as all the lands of the peasants who do not have title to the lands they work.

Since the supreme authority is the constitution, the type of constitution is an issue that can lead to civil wars.

To understand this, we have to imagine these new nations. Their economies and businesses have been partially destroyed by the wars of independence and their Creole elites have little experience of government. The state as an organization with its staff, its revenues advocate taxes and taxation while its law enforcement virtually does not exist and has yet to be built.

The strongest institution is the army, or rather armies formed in the heat of battle that have not been professionally trained. In the context of the post-war economic crisis, the army remains the main channel for social mobility.

From then on, we enter a period where politics and the State are dominated by caudillos, it is usually a strong man, a charismatic leader, from the independence armies, who was able to monopolize land during the war and who exercises power first at the regional and then national level through the control of the army and a network of clientelism at the regional and local level as well as the brutal force exercised by his army.

The local equivalent of the caudillo is the cacique, which is a local potentate, a large landowner who can mobilize and protect his dependents who are peasants, sharecroppers, bonded labourers and sometimes even small municipal officials.

Some of the caudillos are mestizos or self-taught cowboys, such as Jose Antonio Páez in Venezuela, where he reigned practically from 1830 to the 1850s. Another great caudillo is Juan Manuel de Rosas who will dominate from 1829 to 1832 and from 1835 to 1852. Benito Suarez will dominate in Mexico in a large part of the middle of the XIXth century, he is a half-breed.

The caudillos, even if they are of modest origin, do not intend to change the social structure, because they benefit from it. However, with them there are a few men who manage to move up the ranks in the army or in the regional administration, which was impossible before independence. From then on, we find ourselves in a situation where we are moving from a hierarchy that was previously based on caste and blood purity, which is now a socio-racial hierarchy, the elite continues to be white and Creole while the working classes continue to be mestizo, although there are exceptions.

The constitution and republican laws no longer strictly limit the position of individuals according to caste and blood purity as they did under the colonies even though in fact racial ancestry continues to be a factor.

The caudillos lead interest groups and embody themselves in different institutions, seek to take control of the State and seek to acquire more land by competing with each other either in elections or in civil wars. Civil wars in this context affect only small areas and in which deaths are far less numerous and massive.

During these years, these antagonistic groups gradually become political parties that take on the names of "conservatives" and "liberals". There are few economic and ideological differences as long as the Conservative and Liberal elites live off agriculture, trade, customs revenue and politics. These elites agree on the need to have republican regimes and not monarchies, so that the republic is never questioned while Europe is still overwhelmingly under monarchical control.

The fundamental ideological difference concerns social control, i.e. the way the elites are going to control the society of colour, which is located on a huge territory with a state that is very little present:

  • conservative: the Catholic Church must continue to play the role of social control as it did under the colony's monopoly of religion and control of education.
  • liberals: the idea is to arrive at a more modern model of separation of church and state, secularisation of society in order to create another system of social control notably through the police, craft companies and a very progressive development of education.

These conflicts of the 1825s and 1850s affected only a small part of the population of each country and were not really devastating, but slowed down production and trade, so that during the years of civil war Latin American countries had to equip and maintain very expensive armies. The problem is that the raw materials and agricultural sectors are slowly getting back on their feet, unable to develop an export economy.

On the other hand, as the population is very impoverished, it resists the raising of taxes; these new administrations do not have enough civil servants and means to collect taxes efficiently. The main sector taxed is trade, while loans are taken out to the British, from the time of independence and already during the wars of independence, Latin America like Haiti enters the infernal cycle of debt and control of its economy by foreign companies.

1850 - 1870: the liberal era[edit | edit source]

Generation born after independence[edit | edit source]

The caudillos are declining, making way for a new generation born after independence and educated outside of colonialism, the Inquisition and often the control of the Catholic Church. It is then that the exports of several Latin American countries increase with in particular those of Brazil.

Originally, there was an increase in European demand for raw materials and tropical agricultural products due to the growing industrialisation of Europe. At that time Europe needed more and more cocoa, sugar, wheat, fertilisers for its agriculture, wool for its textile industry, metals for the production of tools and machinery.

To meet this demand, more administrative governments were ready to create the necessary infrastructure to export in large quantities such as guano from Peru, coffee from Brazil, cocoa from Venezuela, minerals from Mexico and sugar from the Caribbean. Gradually, other avenues of enrichment and social mobility outside the military are becoming possible through export and trade. Thus, we are entering the liberal era.

Liberals in power[edit | edit source]

The year 1848 is marked by a revolution in Europe, it is the spring of peoples. The 1848 revolution in France overthrows the July Monarchy and finally abolishes slavery in the last French colonies in America, i.e. Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana. England abolished slavery in 1838.

These upheavals had repercussions in Latin America; almost everywhere, liberals took power, sometimes simply through elections or coups d'état. Artisans formed clubs mobilizing against slavery, and the ideology of the new men in power was liberalism.

It is economic liberalism, but also liberalism of thought, religion and movement, and reforms follow. Almost all the nations that became independent abolished slavery between 1851 and 1854, in many countries thousands of slaves were freed without receiving any compensation, in Bolivia and Paraguay slavery lasted until the 1830s, in the Caribbean slavery lasted for Puerto Rico until 1873 and in Cuba until 1886, for Brazil until 1888.

The new constitutions are almost all liberal constitutions that guarantee the separation between the Catholic Church and the State except for Brazil, which is still an empire. The State seizes the property of the Catholic Church and religious congregations.

Suffrage is becoming more democratic, often with the lifting of the requirements either to have property or to know how to read and write. In Colombia in 1853 and in Mexico in 1857 universal suffrage was adopted for men, everyone was decreed a citizen and titles of nobility disappeared.

The increase in exports[edit | edit source]

At the same time, these Liberal governments apply the dogma of economic liberalism. It is called economic liberalism, but the state puts public resources at the service of the private sector that are diverted from the needs of the vast majority of the population.

Governments say that we must export more, and the government will do everything it can to ensure the best possible conditions for entrepreneurs and exporters:

  • fertile land provided to large contractors.
  • government loans were passed to develop transport, not to facilitate communication between people, but to export better.
  • abundant labour force subjected by the army, the police and new laws.

The government stimulates economic liberalism by subsidizing it with public money while ensuring the protection of the state.

The three essential conditions[edit | edit source]

The control of the earth[edit | edit source]

Governments seek to put the most productive land in the hands of entrepreneurs who are committed to investing in and maximizing the value of that land. This is how governments sell their remaining land from the Spanish crown, selling it without taking into account the people who live on it, but who have no private title to it.

For example, the Lerdo Law in Mexico in 1858 attacked the property of the Catholic Church under the guise of being a law against collective ownership, this kind of law can be used to dispossess Amerindian communities of their communal lands in the name of private property.

What is happening is that there are often huge transfers of land holdings to the benefit of Creole landowners, foreign companies and a few immigrants. This process leaves Indian landowners and a host of peasants of all races and colours who will provide labour and help to form a docile, abundant and cheap labour force.

Modernization of transport[edit | edit source]

Until then, transportation was done by trails on mules or men. Very few rivers are navigable, which will complicate things a lot. Around 1850, many Liberal governments signed large contracts, usually with British companies, to build roads, railways and canals, but also to build seaports.

In the process, the states went even further into debt. It should be noted that these communications networks are only aimed at exporting tropical and mining products more quickly, not at creating a communications system that would integrate the different regions of the same nation, let alone allowing travel from one Latin American nation to another. Most of the border regions are areas where there is practically no colonization, there are still Indian populations that live with no ties to the State.

The existence of an abundant, docile, flexible and cheap labour force[edit | edit source]

Former slaves do not receive any help from the state to integrate, in Peru slave owners are compensated for the loss of their "human property". Governments will enact anti-vagrancy laws that allow vagrants to be sentenced to forced labour or forcibly conscripted into armies.

Those who have been dispossessed of the lands that sustain them, such as small farmers without title deeds and Indians, will be added as available labour. These men become sharecroppers who have to pay the owners a share of their harvest or become peons, that is to say, agricultural workers who are enslaved to the haciendas and large plantations by systematic indebtedness; this is called "peonage for debt"; basically, they are obliged to buy the few goods they do not produce at the hacienda store with tokens that are taken from the advance salary, of course, their purchases are worth more than the meagre salary they are paid, forcing them to remain attached to the hacienda.

In order to create this abundant workforce, even before the end of slavery Peru and Cuba turned to Asia to bring in coolies, that is to say workers from India or China used to pick guano, but also in the sugar cane plantations. There will be a total of 100,000 Chinese imported to pick guano and sugar in Peru and 150,000 for the sugar plantations in Cuba; like African slaves, they are underfed, beaten and whipped often to death.

In spite of liberalism there is a continuation of forced labour which becomes multiform with archaic forms with the slavery that persists in Brazil and Cuba, but also more modern forms with the peonage for debt and the committed workers of Asia.

With the increase in exports, there is an increase in imports. Almost everywhere, tools, instruments, weapons, machinery and sometimes even textiles and everyday consumer goods are imported from industrialized countries, mainly from England.

This has a heavy effect on local craftsmanship, because Latin American craftsmen have techniques that date back to the colonial era producing for a very small domestic market towards the local, unable to compete with factories, especially in England, which export thanks to an underpaid proletariat, even if transport costs greatly increase the price of the goods purchased. Wages in Europe are so low and production so massive that even with transport costs, European products are more competitive.

Domestic industry hardly grows at all and liberal governments do not seek to protect it from foreign competition.

Why the choice of economic liberalism?[edit | edit source]

There is the often justified belief that imported manufactured goods are of better quality and because many countries live on customs revenues, i.e. import and export taxes, protectionism would have limited these taxes.

With imports from Europe come traders, often English, who have a great influence on the host country, because in addition to being traders they are active in transport, insurance and financial loans. The richest, most powerful and most influential of them are also the advisors of their country of origin, so they have the means to put pressure on the countries and governments of Latin American countries.

Domestic industry develops little, because the structure of society remains very unequal with a small elite at the top and a large mass of workers at the bottom with no purchasing power; without an increase in consumers there is no development of industry.

The profound cause is ideology, the belief of the elites in the freedom of trade, a dogma that arrived in Latin America with the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the adherence of the great leaders of independence to the principle of political and economic liberalism.

To the dogma of liberalism is added the fact that the elites manage to maintain a system of values and a socio-racial hierarchy through liberalism that ensures control of land and labour ownership while remaining in power.

Attempts to resist[edit | edit source]

The exploited majority tries to resist through revolts that are generally subdued in blood; more generally, it is in discretion that they revolt by sabotaging production or by fleeing after accumulating debt.

It must be remembered that these working classes are fragmented by geography, weakened because community structures have been broken, on the other hand it is very difficult to mobilize when there is a coexistence of several forms of work. All this often leads to forced displacement, impoverishment, many families are broken up, making more and more single mothers who are heads of families and work in the domestic economy of the cities or large towns, while fathers become migrant or seasonal workers, thus making the situation of their children precarious.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Around 1850, private property, and therefore the rich and the strongest, triumphed, even though the constitutions proclaimed the ideals of equality and freedom. The liberalism of the years 1850 to 1870 is in fact the era of freedom for the powerful and the era of democratic illusion for the majority of the population.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]