The Barbarous Legacy of Capitalism in Latin America


Since its colonization about five hundred years ago, Latin America has been ever more dominated by relations of commodity production for external markets, and secondarily for internal ones. With crucial collaboration by Latin America’s merchant and landowning classes, Europe and, later, North America have ensured that the production (or extraction) and export of such commodities as silver, sugar, tobacco, coffee, rubber, fertilizers, bananas, indigo, oil, and cocaine have for centuries been foundations of societies south of the U.S. This fact has had deleterious implications for both the people and the environment of Latin America. Dependency theorists argue that it has entailed the continent’s underdevelopment by means of the metropole’s extraction of economic surplus—which has meant a corresponding depletion of wealth available for the continent’s development—but in this paper I will focus on the brute facts of class conflict and environmental destruction. These have occurred all over the world as capital has deepened and broadened its dominion since the 1400s, but Latin America, like much of the global South, has suffered in ways somewhat different from the North, due both to the continued presence of indigenous peoples and to the subordination of internal development to the needs of foreign capital (and its effective “representatives” in the domestic economy). In the following, accordingly, I will consider several examples of how export-oriented commodity production has shaped Latin America’s social landscape in conflict-ridden ways.


Steve Stern states the matter concisely in the first sentence of Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (1982): “This book tells how conquest transformed vigorous native peoples of the Andean sierra into an inferior caste of ‘Indians’ subordinated to Spanish colonizers and Europe’s creation of a world market.”[1] For the sake of extracting economic surplus, from the mid-sixteenth century the colonizers began to impose on the native peoples of Peru such oppressive institutions as the encomienda, the mita, and, later, yanaconaje. The forced labor of the mita, for example, was for decades the principal means of exploiting mercury and silver mines, in addition to organizing work in such enterprises as textile workshops and sugar mills. Aside from the horrors of work and the low pay in a regime defined by mita labor, indigenous communities were gradually coerced into losing their ancient integrity, their self-sufficiency and internal vitality. Indian resistance was fierce, however, although it usually manifested itself in subtler and shrewder ways than collective uprisings, especially after the colonial state had been consolidated by Toledo’s reforms in the 1570s. More commonly, Indians used Spanish juridical frameworks to defend their land and independence, often successfully. By the seventeenth century, their constant litigation “disrupted enterprise and incomes, shut down workshops, and pinched production with labor bottlenecks. Cheap mita labor grew scarce and unreliable.”[2] The state form of extraction that consisted of mitas and tribute payments therefore deteriorated under the impact of pervasive and institutionalized Indian resistance.


In the long run, however, things did not improve for most natives; rather, new modes of controlling labor appeared that continued to undermine indigenous society and independence. Private forms of exploitation such as yanaconaje (long-term personal bondage to a master) and primitive wage labor became more integral to the social system than they had been earlier. As the market economy penetrated deeper into former enclaves of indigenous self-sufficiency, monetizing economic transactions and exacerbating divisions between rich and poor, and as entrepreneurs expropriated valuable resources such as irrigable lands and coca plantations, poorer Indians were compelled to rent themselves out in order to pay off debts or simply to survive. “Over time, then, colonial relationships gave rise to economic dependencies driving natives into the arms of colonials.”[3] People abandoned village life in order to accumulate funds or start their lives anew, perhaps hoping to follow in the path of the minority of successful Indian entrepreneurs. The social structure continued to evolve in contradictory ways, but the ultimate result is clear: as Stern says, “The most dramatic creation—and legacy—of the first century of colonization was Indian poverty.”[4]


Indian dispossession and poverty have continued up to the present; Emilio Kouri discusses an intervening period, the late nineteenth century, in A Pueblo Divided: Business, Property, and Community in Papantla, Mexico (2004). Unlike Stern, he focuses on a specific commodity, vanilla, showing how its growth in popularity overseas contributed to the demise of communal landholding in a particular region of Mexico between the 1870s and 1890s. Broadly speaking, Kouri recognizes three causes of the privatization of land in Veracruz: first, government officials had a fanatical commitment to the ideology of liberalism and private property; second, putting communal lands in private hands would augment property tax revenues and so assuage Veracruz’s dire fiscal condition; third, the boom in the vanilla trade (among others), which resulted largely from improvements in communications and transport, heightened the value of land and made it worth controlling. The actual division of communal lands was a complicated, decades-long process full of interruptions, temporary compromises, legal machinations, government corruption, outbreaks of violence, two large rebellions, and state repression. By 1900 the transformation was complete: almost a third of Papantla’s old communal territory belonged to townspeople, mostly big merchants, and a small Indian elite; the rest of the lands remained the property of native family farmers who had become landowners. More than a half of Indian households, however, were left propertyless by the triumph of privatization and parcelization, and inequalities in wealth and power were now guaranteed by differential access to land.[5] “Town merchants and Totonac [indigenous] bosses now reigned supreme,” Kouri summarizes, “many Indian agriculturalists were now anything but independent, and the old bonds of community—whatever they once were—had long since frayed. This was the world that vanilla had made.”[6]


Strictly speaking, of course, it is not a particular commodity that makes such a world but capital itself, the flow of ever-accumulating capital, which uses commodities as means to augment itself, a process that often entails privatization, dispossession, mass oppression, and environmental despoliation. A particularly effective way for capital to valorize itself is by extracting and refining oil; not surprisingly, such activities, being especially useful to capital, are also especially destructive to natural and social environments. This is clear from the two books Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (2004) and The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (2006), by Suzana Sawyer and Myrna Santiago respectively. Although the books pertain to very different times, places, and categories of people, there are striking parallels between the stories they tell. In both cases, multinational oil companies invade a region and tear apart communities and natural habitats; the state is either unwilling or unable to assert itself against them sufficiently to protect the populations affected; the latter, whether Ecuadorian natives in the 1990s or Mexican workers in the 1920s, unite to defend themselves against corporate tyranny. A key difference between the cases is that the Mexican workers were citizens of a state that, during and after the Mexican Revolution, was ideologically and to some extent substantively on the side of “the people,” which opened up opportunities for organized labor. As Santiago relates, the militancy of Mexican oil workers, while frustrated for many years by the power of multinationals and the weakness of the revolutionary state, finally, in 1938, provoked one of the decisive events of modern Mexican history: President Cárdenas’s nationalization of the foreign oil industry. The details of this event need not concern us; suffice it to say that it grew out of a collective-bargaining dispute between labor and capital dramatized by the latter’s flagrant violation of Mexican laws and the former’s strike activity, which forced Cárdenas to act—on behalf of law and labor. This example serves as a welcome reminder that, while Latin America’s history is a tragic one, not all the major victories have been won by the plunderers.


Ecuador in the 1990s conforms to the usual depressing pattern, however. Facing an alliance between the neoliberal state and multinational corporations, Indians fighting to protect their communities, their independence, and their habitat did not have much of a chance. Through popular mobilization they achieved some partial victories, and they succeeded in creating headaches for the state and its wealthy allies, but on a broad scale the neoliberal agenda was unstoppable. In 1994, for example, the government not only passed an important law that threatened communal lands but also revised the Hydrocarbon Law so that state intervention in the oil industry was diminished, the price of gasoline was deregulated, new oil fields were granted to private companies, and environmental protections were undermined.[7] The fatal potential of these developments is clear when one reflects that crude oil’s most toxic components have been shown to lead to skin disease, nerve damage, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer in humans, and that the industrial processes associated with oil extraction themselves produce pollutants.[8] Since industrial accidents were rampant in the 1980s and 1990s, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador had cause for alarm. What happened in Mexico in the early twentieth century, however, was even worse, as the rainforest in the Huasteca was destroyed, oil conflagrations that lasted months killed workers and indigenes, “worker housing was showered with toxic chemicals routinely,” and mundane accidents caused death-by-asphyxiation or oil-drowning.[9] All these tragedies make oil, as a commodity, the quintessential symbol of capital’s violent nature.


Some commodities, by virtue of their production process, give workers more opportunities to exercise agency than others. According to Gillian McGillivray, sugar in Cuba was such a commodity, at least in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. In Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959 (2009), she recounts how sugarcane farmers and the workers they hired frequently burned cane fields as a way to assert their interests against sugarmill owners or in times of political upheaval. “It created jobs,” McGillivray notes, “to burn cane that would otherwise be left standing until sugar brought a better price. The burned cane had to be cut and hauled to the mill, and the fields needed to be cleared and replanted during the dead season leading up to the next harvest.”[10] (Burned cane had to be cut and milled within twenty-four hours lest it lose its sucrose.) Burning cane also made it easier to cut, and it improved working conditions in the fields. In certain contexts, such as times of political repression, burning fields could also be a revolutionary act, a means of protesting colonialism and elite rule. Undertaken on a sufficiently large scale, cane fires were an effective form of economic sabotage and a way to spread revolution. Their political importance was summed up by one of Fidel Castro’s comrades: “Revolution in Cuba means burning sugarcane—it did in 1868, 1895, and 1930-33, and it did for us.”[11] Through this sort of resistance at the point of production, i.e. at the fulcrum of society, workers turned their daily subordination and dependency on its head: they showed that in fact capital and its social order were dependent on them, that they had the power to shut society down. They could even install political leaders who promised to overthrow the rule of capital, as in the case of Castro.


Again, though, the balance of power under capitalism is such that it is usually capital, not labor, that wields violence and remakes the world in its image. The history of Latin America is one long confirmation of this. Consider the 1980s, for example. The violence of that decade in Central America was largely due to capital’s attempts to suppress leftist insurrections by means of death squads and U.S.-backed paramilitary forces. Jeffery Paige makes it clear in Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America (1997) that a major impetus behind the reactionary savagery in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala was the coffee-growing landed elite, which had a greater interest than the “agro-industrial” class in controlling labor. “The revolutionary crises of the 1980s,” he argues, “were crises of the coffee elites and the societies they made at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.”[12] As usual, therefore, the supremacy of a specific export commodity, or rather of capital as invested in the production of this commodity, brought hardship and even death for peasants and workers in Latin American countries. A similar thing happened in the 1930s, when uprisings against elites in El Salvador and Nicaragua were bloodily crushed by military force. The hubris and inhumanity of capital are on full display when tens of thousands of campesinos and laborers are slaughtered for the sake of maintaining complete capitalist control over society.


A capitalist apologist might argue that capitalism as manifested in Latin America has had more positive than negative consequences for the environment and the majority of people, but that would be a hard argument to make. Examples can be multiplied almost without end of environmental and human agony as capital has steamrolled the continent. Since commodity production is the foundation of the social structure, Indians and workers have had most success at softening their oppression when interfering with production itself. For instance, when Pastaza Indians in 1989 threatened seismic crews working for an oil company and confiscated their equipment, a presidential advisor flew in with company representatives to discuss indigenous grievances.[13] Interference with production could not simply be ignored. Nevertheless, even such minor victories as this have been rare compared to the number of defeats—the constant stream of defeats, from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, from Mexico to Argentina. How long this sad history will continue is an open question, but one can expect it not to end until capitalism itself does.




[1] Steve J. Stern, Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), xv.


[2] Ibid., 128.


[3] Ibid., 153.


[4] Ibid., 185.


[5] Emilio Kouri, A Pueblo Divided: Business, Property, and Community in Papantla, Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 278-280.


[6] Ibid., 283.


[7] Suzana Sawyer, Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 96, 97.


[8] Ibid., 102.


[9] Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 195.


[10] Gillian McGillivray, Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 3.


[11] Ibid., 264.


[12] Jeffery Paige, Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 5.


[13] Suzana Sawyer, Crude Chronicles, 64.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright