Latin American Social Issues

Latin American Social Issues
Latin American Social Issues

The recent history of Latin America is a story of profound political and economic change. During the second half of the 20th century, Latin America witnessed a transformation of society as the region struggled to find itself in the face of modernity and economic expansion.

Crushing poverty facilitated alternative forms of religious faith that spoke to the condition of many Latin Americans. Migration from the countryside to the city and north to the United States spoke to a yearning for a better life.

A thriving drug trade centered on a global market employed organized violence against national governments that tried to curb the trade. Centuries of oppression led to an organized and influential indigenous movement that mobilized to demand Indian rights and autonomy.

Latin American countries plunged into the uncertainty of the oil industry with the hopes of increased revenues and instead found unpredictable results and mixed blessings. These factors offer a window into the dramatic social transformation of Latin America from 1950 to the present.

Latin American spirituality underwent profound changes in recent history. Liberation theology spoke to a new turn in the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America, although it was not a phenomenon unique to the region. For centuries, the church stood as a conservative element in association with the state; the church legitimized authoritarian rule.

However, beginning in the 1960s, many priests, nuns, and lay workers drew on their personal experiences working with the poor to question the responsibility of the church in the unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America.

Some Latin American theologists began to speak of the role of the church and Christians in helping the poor, a mission clearly laid out in the Bible. Liberation theology is an understanding of the Christian faith developed out of the suffering and social injustice experienced by the poor.

As such, it is a critique of society and the ideologies supporting the dominant hegemony, including the traditional role of the Catholic Church. It gave the poor a voice and created new forms of community-based activism. Liberation theology was a formidable force in Latin America for a few decades—especially in Central America, Brazil, and Chile.

Liberation theory gained momentum in 1968 when a group of 130 Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia to discuss the church and its relationship to the populace. The bishops promoted an empowering education program for illiterate rural peasants that affirmed the dignity and self worth of the students. This education was carried out in small community-based groups where people could gather together to read the Bible and discuss its relevance to their lives without a priest or church building.

Engaging Catholicism without a priest represented a new idea. Rural priests often served thousands of parishioners and could only visit some communities once a year. Priests, nuns, and lay people used the Medellín conference as a springboard for a new approach to their work with the poor.

Those Catholic personnel dedicated to the poor quickly learned through their charitable work that the condition of the lowest classes of Latin American society could only be relieved through sweeping structural changes. This would involve direct political action.

Some base communities served as the vehicle for political action as participants experienced an awakening, or consciousness-raising about their devalued position in society. Many Christian-based communities served not only as sites of literacy education and Bible study but also places where a reinterpretation of traditional religion promoted a transformative perspective on the world.

Latin American Social Issues
Latin American Social Issues

Some groups worked toward improvements in local basic services, such as healthcare and transportation. In spite of this, base communities represented a small fraction of Catholics, and by the 1980s, enthusiasm for liberation theology waned.

Protestantism is a relatively new player in Catholic Latin America. Brazil is home to Latin America’s largest Protestant community with half of the region’s estimated 40 million Protestants, but Central America boasts the largest number of evangelicals in terms of the percentage of the population.

European migration to the continent brought the traditional Protestant churches, such as German Lutheranism and British Anglicanism. Despite the influence of European immigrants, North American missionaries bear the responsibility for the tremendous growth in Protestantism in Latin America, especially evangelical forms like Pentecostalism.

Sharing liberation theology’s sense of consciousness-raising, Pentecostalism allows participants a refuge from suffering and social injustice by providing a spiritual space in which believers can regain some feeling of control over their lives.

Additionally, unlike Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, Pentecostalism permitted anyone to become a spiritual leader, even the illiterate and poverty stricken. Women, in particular, have been attracted to evangelical churches due to their inclusive nature.

Evangelicalism has taken hold throughout the wartorn countries of Central America, especially in rural areas. In Guatemala rural Mayan women, mostly widows, fill evangelical churches in search of a sense of community that has been lost. These churches provide a network of support that replaces destroyed kinship ties. Protestant churches offer a religious alternative and a message of hope to the underdogs of society.

For women, the evangelical Protestant ban on drinking alcohol makes Protestant husbands an attractive marriage partner. In addition, the phenomenon associated with Pentecostalism in particular, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing, has given women positions of power within their religious communities.

Despite North American origins, evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is a unique phenomenon. Its churches emphasize the notion of community and belonging more than its northern counterparts. In addition, in Latin America being an evangelical does not necessarily denote a right-wing conservative political identity as it tends to in North America.

Latin America’s economic setbacks have not only influenced new religious movements but have also led to mass migrations of people. Latin Americans have moved from the countryside to the city and from Latin America to North America. Prior to the 1930s the majority of Latin America’s population resided in rural areas.

The global economic depression of the 1930s dealt a hard blow to the Latin American export economy, and rural residents began to leave the countryside. This exodus peaked over a 30-year period from 1950 to 1980 and succeeded in transforming Latin America’s social structure from predominantly rural to overwhelmingly urban.

By 1980 family-based farming was no longer viable as market-oriented modern agribusiness became the norm. Thousands streamed into Latin America’s major cities in search of industrial jobs and a better life. Women comprised a majority of the rural-urban migrants, as industrialization opened many jobs for female workers. Rapid urbanization quickly outpaced housing, basic services, and job markets.

Rural residents arrived in the cities to find dirty, disease-ridden, and overcrowded shantytowns with spotty electrical power and water shortages. Rural-urban migration caused a labor surplus, which led to the rise of a vast informal sector of the economy consisting of street vendors, rubbish scavengers, and prostitutes.

Latin Americans also migrated north to the United States for economic, political, and social reasons. Mexicans currently represent the greatest percentage of Latin Americans immigrating to the United States.

They often have come looking for work, and many resided in the south-west long before it belonged to the United States. During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Mexicans and Mexican Americans routinely crossed back and forth over the border, with little or no regulation.

During the 1930s, the government supported the repatriation of Mexican workers to provide more jobs for Americans. However, with the onset of World War II, labor shortages fueled the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican agricultural workers to come into the country on a temporary basis. The Bracero Program lasted until 1964.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 called for penalties for those hiring undocumented workers, but also granted amnesty to many undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. The Immigration Act of 1990 favored the legal immigration of family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Cuban Immigrants

Many Cuban immigrants came to the United States fleeing a repressive political regime. Cubans enjoyed a privileged status in relation to other Latin American immigrants due to the U.S. foreign policy on Cuba. As early as 1960 the U.S. government had created a special center for Cuban refugees, and their path to legal residence in the United States was easily cleared.

These first waves of immigrants represented the Cuban elite and middle class and individuals and families with financial resources, specialized job training, and American connections. In 1980 Fidel Castro opened the door for Cubans to leave the island, and a deluge of mostly male semi- and unskilled workers flowed into south Florida.

This migration overwhelmed U.S. authorities, and many of the refugees were placed in detention camps for months. Currently U.S. officials observe a quota on Cuban immigrants, but the Cuban-American community continues to thrive and grow.

Central Americans also have migrated to the United States seeking refuge from wars and violence that have disrupted the economy and everyday life, especially in El Salvador and Guatemala. In the 1980s migrants from El Salvador left their homes due to civil war and political repression.

Unlike Cubans fleeing political repression, many Salvadorans were denied permanent residency and deported. Churches in the U.S. southwest developed a “sanctuary movement” to protest U.S. treatment of these refugees, providing a safe haven for those fleeing violence.

In the 1990s a small minority of Salvadoran immigrants brought violence to the United States in the form of street gangs. Many of these gang members were targeted by U.S. immigration officials in Los Angeles, California, and sent back to El Salvador.

Not only are Latin Americans moving north, Latin America drugs are making the trip as well. One of the largest social problems facing Latin America is drug traficking, especially in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. The drug trade embodies simple supply and demand economics.

This multinational drug trade negatively affects U.S.–Latin American relations as many of the region’s leaders believe that the U.S. war on drugs focuses unfairly on the supply side of the equation. Unfortunately, in countries suffering from crushing poverty, drugs represent a viable economic option. The debt crisis of the 1980s and the collapse of prices for tin and coffee on the international market fueled the Latin American drug trade.

In several Latin American countries, Peru and Bolivia in particular, the drug trade acted as an economic buffer, offering alternative sources of income when other options vanished. The drug trade creates an atmosphere of violence. Drug cartels breed corruption and threaten the integrity and stability of the state, democracy, security, public health, moral values, and international reputation.

Drug Trade

Poverty and unemployment in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia—along with the high prices Latin American cocaine fetched in the United States—fueled the drug trade and offered viable economic alternatives. Colombia and Bolivia saw a significant boost to its national economy from drug revenues, but violence and corruption went hand-in-hand with the economic boom.

In Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, the environmental destruction wrought by the drug trade is appalling. Large tracks of rain forest have been clear-cut for cultivation, and the pesticides and herbicides used for growing coca have leached into forest water systems.

The involvement of guerrillas in the drug trade has further complicated the situation, and threats to the integrity of the state continue in these nations. Despite billions of U.S. dollars poured into curbing the Latin American drug trade, major traffickers have been affected very little.

The drug trade has impacted Latin American indigenous groups in remote rural areas, as they are often caught in the crossfire between traffickers and the government. In Peru many have fled the countryside for shanty-towns in the cities, hoping to escape the violence brought on by traffickers and guerrillas, especially the Shining Path.

Such issues have led to an explosion of indigenous groups organizing for a better life. The sophistication and power of indigenous organizations forced many Latin American states to negotiate with Indian peoples and create new legislation that protected their rights.

The traditional relationship between the state and its native peoples is changing, with indigenismo policies that strove for assimilation abandoned in favor of embracing multiculturalism and pluriethnicity. Despite claims of embracing multiculturalism, not all Latin American states have actually implemented policies aimed at improving the lives of indigenous peoples.

One of the best-known indigenous movements occurred in 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico. Landless Maya formed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as an outlet for their struggle for rights and recognition in national life. The EZLN briefly occupied several towns in Chiapas. When negotiations with the Mexican state began, the first demands of the Zapatistas centered on Indian autonomy and rights.

The EZLN did not advocate a separation from the Mexican nation-state, but rather called for the state to implement the tenets of the constitution of 1917 regarding indigenous peoples. The Zapatistas drew international attention to the plight of Mexico’s indigenous population and provided inspiration to other Indian groups in Latin America.

Oil Industry

The oil industry directly affects the quality of life for all Latin Americans; unpredictable oil prices have varying impacts on the economy as a whole. Latin America has a few significant oil-producing countries: Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. In fact, Mexico and Venezuela have become key suppliers to the United States. Latin America’s oil industry has undergone many transformations.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, foreign owners controlled significant portions of the Latin American oil economy, with the exception of Mexico, which nationalized its oil industry in 1938. By the 1970s Latin America’s oil industry was mostly nationalized, as foreign investors looked to the oil fields of the Middle East instead.

The Latin American oil industry has been subject to the volatile political, economic, and social history of Latin America, with varying degrees of success. While some nations expected their large oil reserves to clear the way for economic development, the region’s major oil-exporting economies experienced obstacles in transforming oil revenues into a continuous source of funding.

High oil prices aided significant producers that were dependent on exports for revenue and foreign exchange, like Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador. For oil-importing countries, such as Brazil, Peru and Chile, the price of oil served as a vital factor in inflation, production costs, the trade balance, and currency strength. In the past 20 years, oil prices have been more precarious than any other export commodity.

The impact of an unpredictable oil market fluctuates depending on a nation’s reliance on oil production and exports. The historical and current state of Latin America’s oil industry suggests that it is the management of oil resources, not oil wealth itself, that can create economic problems.

Latin America’s tremendous economic growth and development after 1950 transformed the region but intensified the misery of many Latin Americans. Rapid growth and urbanization led to mass migrations of people trying to find a niche in a hostile environment. Industrial progress brought thousands of rural residents into Latin America’s major cities with the hope of a living wage, but failed to alleviate poverty.

Devastating poverty fuels the drug trade, which for many peasants and indigenous people offers the only viable economic endeavor for survival. The oil industry, especially in Mexico and Venezuela, promised hope but has seemingly failed to materialize into concrete change for the better.

Liberation theology and the growth of evangelical Protestantism speak to a suffering poor searching for a ray of light in a bleak world. The promises of prosperity that accompanied economic growth proved to be empty for many people in Latin America. Although Latin America experienced economic progress, true transformations of society and social justice continue to elude the region.