Essays on latin american politics

Leslie Bethell is one of the few great Brazilianists, as foreign scholars of Brazil are called, of his and subsequent generations. Brazilianists engage in scholarship that has breadth and depth; illuminate Brazil as an object of study, asking the most important questions that can be asked about the country; and give voice to Brazilian experiences and perspectives. Leslie Bethell has done these things during his long career, and he continues to do so, as this collection of his recent essays on Brazilian history and politics demonstrates.

Institute of Latin American Studies.


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History Politics. Copyright c Leslie Bethell. Indeed, the world has much to be anxious about. We have built a style of life for many but certainly not all that rivals that of aristocrats of the 19th C. But, very much like them, we fear that the rules of the world are changing and we wonder how much change we can accept and how much of the status quo can or should be kept. With this perspective in mind, we will now discuss how these challenges are playing out in Latin America.

We can divide the environmental challenges into those that are already apparent and those that will become more so through the 21st C. World Bank, Among the former, the most obvious one is the pollution that mars many cities in Latin America. In many cases, this results not so much from industry as from the massive concentration in urban areas in each country. This pollution can be both airborne, and arguably more important, also originates in the underdevelopment of sanitation infrastructure. In many Latin American cities, a quarter of the population has no access to potable water and developed sanitation and sewage.

History, Diversity, and Community in Texts, Images, and Sounds

This remains a major public health hazard. The situation is becoming worse as droughts and their severity become more frequent and harsher. The changes in the precipitation are challenging what systems do exists by also introducing a variability that many of these systems cannot handle further eroding the quality of life or urban residents. Away from the cities, deforestation and increases in temperature are also threatening the viability of communities. Deforestation continues to be a major problem throughout the region, but particularly in Brazil. Higher temperatures are also destroying the water systems of the Andes as they lead to disappearing glaciers.

These higher temperatures are also associated with more frequent and more violent outbreaks of diseases. For all of these, there is of course a great deal of variance in the region with the same pattern all over the globe: the poor and the marginal, whether urban or rural, suffer much more both measured from within and among levels of inequality.

The poorest of the poor in Central America, for example, have the greatest danger of suffering from environmental challenges. The continent is lucky in that the worst nightmare scenarios of global climate change are less relevant, with the obvious exception of Caribbean countries where rising sea levels represent an immediate problem. Soybeans, for example, are sensitive to both climate changes and variability as is cattle ranching. Fruits and fisheries would also be negatively affected by climate change. South America is rich in the one material that looms large in climate catastrophe scenarios.

Challenges for Latin America in the 21st Century

Unfortunately, this is distributed very unevenly throughout the region. To the extent that water may become the prized commodity of the 21st C, the region will have yet another natural resource with which to bargain. In general, Latin America may be spared some of the more nightmarish scenarios foreseen for Africa and much of southern Asia.

However the risk of climate change cannot be measured purely by exposure, but also by the robustness of institutions to deal with it. Here, the region with its high urban concentrations and weak governance structures may have to deal with many more consequences than the purely organic models might predict. Increasingly the world is connected through transfers of humans, merchandise, capital, and culture. Increasingly, we will need some indices that quantify dependence on the global web by domain and also location of origins and destinations.

So, for example, most of Western Europe and East Asia is more tightly dependent on the continued flow of goods especially food and fuel than is the United States. On the one hand, the region is in much better shape than most others around the globe. A breakdown in the global supply and demand would not leave the region permanently starving and thirsty. Among the middle-income economies, Latin America is distinguished by the relatively low percentage of GDP accounted for by trade with Mexico being a prominent exception.

That apparent robustness, however, masks a structural fragility. The position of the region in the global trade system remains practically the same as it was in the 19th Century. The situation in Argentina and Peru is even worse. In a paradox that theorists of dependency theory would not find surprising, the region as a whole exports a significant amount of crude oil, but is increasingly dependent on imports of refined gasoline. Similar stories can be told of a myriad of industrial and chemical products. Remittances are another form of dependence on a continuing global system and these remain an important part of the economies of several countries.

These are economies whose engagement in global trade is largely an exchange of human labor for wages in another currency. China and the United States represent an outsized share of the export markets in the region.

Disruption in either of these political economies or breakdowns in the global trade infrastructure would severely constrain the delivery of exports and imports. It seems historically inaccurate to single out inequality as one of the challenges Latin America faces towards the future. Inequality is a historical stigma, constantly visible, throughout all countries in the region. Why is inequality a defining characteristic of Latin America? One possible answer is that economic inequality is a self-reinforcing phenomenon that cannot be separated from its political consequences.

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As countries become more unequal, the political institutions they develop and the relative strength of different political actors might make economic inequality more durable. Modern Latin America was early on set on a path of inequality, and it has mostly been faithful to it. Therefore, the main challenge Latin America faces in terms of inequality might not be economic inequality per se but the capacity to keep access to political institutions broad and open enough so that the underprivileged can influence economic outcomes. The last couple of decades in Latin America offer some hope on how inequality can be reduced, though it may not be enough to say that the region is set on a path that will finally make equality self-reinforcing.

The s was a decade where inequality increased overall in the region. The establishment of cash-transfer programs explains in large part this important change, especially in the overall reduction of the GINI coefficient. In contrast to previous social policy in the region, these programs are targeted to the population with lowest incomes, thus achieving a direct impact on inequality by affecting the indicator we use to measure it: income. The most visible transfer programs because of their size and their measured impact were Oportunidades in Mexico, and Bolsa Familia in Brazil.

However, similar programs were implemented in other countries throughout the region. Also, excluding important cases like Mexico, minimum wages were raised in most of the region during the same period, again affecting directly the income of the poorest.

Brazil: Essays on History and Politics

It is hard not to associate the reduction of inequality in Latin America with the election of left-wing governments in the early years of the current century Huber, The establishment of democracy not only brought more stable political institutions, and less political violence, it also brought the opportunity for segments of the population that had been historically underrepresented to finally influence policy decisions.

The cases of Bolivia with the election of Evo Morales, the Frente Amplio governments in Uruguay, the center-left coalition in. Chile and the PT in Brazil are some of the most prominent examples. However, stable organizations that substantially represent the underprivileged like labor unions are either weak or due to the historical exclusion of informal workers tend to represent another source of privilege, not of equalization.

The diminishing rate in the reduction of inequality for the s is a bitter reminder that the relevant characteristic of the region is not only the prevalence of inequality, but also its durability. Even though cash-transfer programs may have put a dent in it, their effect is limited by the fact that after their initial success further coverage can only be marginal and increasing the value of the transfers might put too much pressure on public finances, as economists throughout the region have argued Gasparini, This is especially true now since the ability of many Latin American countries to keep rates of economic growth stable has been put into question in the last couple of years.

Furthermore, even though economic inequality is a highly visible aspect of inequality, and one that is constantly measured, it only illustrates indirectly other aspects of inequality. Stark differences in the quality and access to public goods like a healthy environment, comfortable housing, and other aspects that determine our overall quality of life might be even more important that just income inequality.

Brazil: Essays on History and Politics | Humanities Digital Library

As it is well known, Latin America is still highly unequal in all these other aspects. The combination of slower economic growth and persistent inequality is a source of anxiety for all political actors in the region. The political effect on the stabilization of inequality cannot be underestimated.


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People are directly affected by differences in income in terms of lifetime outcomes. However their perception of fairness and justice are also strongly linked to levels of inequality. Negative perceptions regarding the fairness of society are a source of anxiety for economic elites. They worry that populist politicians might come into office and wreak havoc to economic stability.