TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

TFF Home | About us


Iraq Forum

Features by others

Links to all issues

New stuff

Other associate articles

Burundi Forum

Publications on-line

Paul McCartney

Nyt på nordisk

Jonathan Power

EU conflict-handling

The 100 best books

Annual Reports

TFF Associates


Reconciliation project

Øbergs Kalejdoskop

Support TFF on-line

Activities right now

Gandhi & India

Teaching & training

Oberg's photos

Support TFF off-line

PressInfos - Analyses

Macedonia Forum

Lærestof på dansk

TFF News Navigator


Why does Latin America
so lag behind North America?



Jonathan Power

April 23rd, 2004

LONDON - From the headland here, the most easterly point of the Americas, where Brazil juts out towards Africa- the locals tease visitors that on a clear day you can see Nigeria- one question looms before all others. Why did this bounteous continent to the south do so much less well than its counterpart to the north?

North America was settled by pilgrims, idealists, political and religious refugees. They wanted to create a New World and early on democracy became the chosen instrument. It was flawed, of course. It did not protect the Indians and it didn't encompass the slaves, but it laid the basis for economic advance first and social and political reform later.

The Brazilian historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda wrote that the English pioneers went to North America to build a paradise whereas the Portuguese went to Brazil to enjoy a ready made paradise.

The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores were not fleeing persecution. They were adventurers and mercenaries. They lived under the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation. They mostly did not question it, and authoritarianism and feudalism were second nature. They were not interested in development and society. They were there to conquer and pillage, to extract the mineral and agricultural wealth as fast as they could and ship it home. "The bloody trail of the conquest", as the continent's earliest foreign correspondent, the fifteenth century friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas, put it. Particularly in Brazil and Paraguay the Jesuits fought a rearguard battle to protect the Indians from the depredations of their countrymen, but in the end to little effect.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?
Get more quality articles in the future

The high Indian civilizations, the Incas and the Aztecs (the Mayans were already in decline for other, still disputed, reasons) were destroyed mercilessly. To read Prescott's great accounts of the advance of empire is to understand brutal ignorance at its worst. No wonder that modern day Peru and Bolivia are so race ridden, corrupt and feudal, with the Indians of the Andes treated more badly than the blacks in South Africa ever were. No wonder that the Indians of Brazil's Amazon have been treated for centuries as less than chattels.

Only three countries, which lacked mineral wealth and a large Indian population, managed to escape the worst. Chile was one, protected by desert in the north, the high ridge of the Andes to the east and Antarctica to the south. Farmers were settled and, bereft of Indian workers, run on their own by individual families. Trade was mainly with England, not Spain and democracy arrived 170 years ago only to be usurped in 1973 with U.S. connivance (for a relatively short period) by a brutal dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Costa Rica, too, was poor and had a small Indian population and was far away from Guatemala, the Spanish Central American capital. Farmers could not grow rich on the backs of the Indians. There was no powerful elite. Today Costa Rica is one of the most stable, least militaristic, long-lasting democracies in the world. Third, there was Uruguay, which has long pioneered a benign distribution of income.

Not only was political and educational evolution suffocated at birth for the best part of four centuries in most of Latin America so was economic development. The Counter-Reformation state banned and restricted enterprise in the private sector. It licensed chosen entrepreneurs to develop state monopolies. It favored mercantilism. Individual inventiveness and endeavor were stifled. Brazil didn't build its first university until 1922.

Here were two continents, side-by-side, equally endowed by God and nature. One prospered whether in its U.S. or Canadian variants. The other, including Mexico, crawled from one upheaval to another. Only in the last sixty or seventy years did Latin America step by difficult step start to engage the engine of individual initiative and economic growth. Not too far behind followed democracy.

Now in a few parts of Latin America, especially here in Brazil, which makes up half of this continent, one senses that the moment to surge ahead is at last at hand. Importantly for Brazil a radical but sophisticated Catholic church, organizing from the late 1970s on, hand in glove with the unusually perspicacious workers' movement of the recently elected president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has been instrumental in creating a mood not only receptive to democracy, land re-distribution and human rights, but also to capitalistic advance. Brazil, with an economy already the size of Canada's, is likely to be the first Latin American country, along with Chile, to emulate the northern continent.

But it is still too early to say if Lula, and the many who say they want to walk behind him elsewhere in Latin America, will be able ensure for the future a more selfless spirit in human nature that convinces these still relatively archaic societies that the Indians, the blacks, the poor and the underprivileged are owed a debt with half a millennium's worth of accumulated interest.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




Här kan du läsa om - och köpa - Jonathan Powers bok på svenska

"Som Droppen Urholkar Stenen"



Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name






S P E C I A L S & F O R U M S

Iraq Forum

Gandhi & India

Burundi Forum

Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

EU conflict-management

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Basic menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2004