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What Latin America Sees and We Don’t

I am appalled by the statistics stated in the article below.  I knew that in comparison to other countries in the world, the United States had fallen in many ways but to see how far and in how many ways makes me want to scream, “Where’s the Outrage?”  and then give thanks to the each of those souls who have joined the Occupy Movement and to people like Dylan Ratigan who expressed it so well on national television a few days ago.  See this link if you missed it:
Ratigan’s sense of urgency is correct and if people around the world can see this problem coming, why can’t we?  
If you still have a window to look out of, you may still see a neighborhood looking much the same as it did last year, and the year before and the year before that.  You will still see people dressed in clothes, not rags, and you’ll see cars motoring along in good repair and stores shelves lined with food and amenities.  Do we frogs in this pot of slowly(?) heating water need to see all houses in disrepair, unwashed, disheveled people in rags begging on the street, cars being pulled by horses, and store shelves barren of goods before we express our outrage?  Does this water have to boil and this disaster have to affect you personally before you take a stand for justice and raise your voice for your neighbor?  Maybe it’s not your house today, but what makes you so sure you have no stake in your neighbor’s success in the fight for justice?
And, I’m not so sure the pot is not already boiling.  Take a look at this video clip submitted by Ken McLeod:

What Latin America Can Teach Us

By JORGE G. CASTAÑEDA

WWW.NYTIMES.COM

IN a Bertelsmann Foundation study on social justice released this fall, the United States came in dead last among the rich countries, with only Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey faring worse. Whether in poverty prevention, child poverty, income inequality or health ratings, the United States ranked below countries like Spain and South Korea, not to mention Japan, Germany or France.

It was another sign of how badly Americans are hurting their middle class. Wars, famine and violence have devastated middle classes before, in Germany and Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe. But when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, a social structure roughly similar to what existed before would always resurface.

No nation has ever lost an existing middle class, and the United States is not in danger of that yet. But the percentage of national income held by the top 1 percent of Americans went from about 10 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 2007, and that is a worrisome signal.

So before the United States continues on its current road of dismantling its version of the welfare state, of shredding its social safety net, of expanding the gap between rich and poor, Americans might do well to glance south. The lesson is that even after a large middle class emerges, yawning inequities between rich and poor severely strain any society’s cohesion and harmony.

If ever a geographical stereotype had some truth to it, it would be that in Latin America, where a handful of immensely wealthy magnates wielded power over a sea of the poor. If there has ever been a social cliché with roots in reality, it would be that a vast middle class was always the backbone of the United States’ strength.

The United States has never had the type of robust welfare state that Europeans built after World War II. It didn’t need that. Through private initiative and efforts to equalize opportunity, Americans long ago ensured that a huge middle class would provide the social glue to hold their society together.

If that middle class withers, what might America look like? Well, what Latin America used to be, and in some ways still struggles to stop being.

So here are two questions: Does the United States really want to look like what Latin America was? And is there a lesson to be learned from its neighbors to the south — that once inequality becomes entrenched, reversing it becomes incredibly difficult?

Consider, first, some history. From the pre-Columbian era through most of the 20th century, conventional wisdom painted Latin America as the planet’s most unequal region, where the extreme poverty of its destitute was matched only by the extreme wealth of its rich.

In fact, this perception began departing from reality some 50 years ago in most of the region, and today it is true for only a few nations: Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia and maybe Nicaragua. By 1970, the larger nations like Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Peru had all witnessed the emergence of sizable middle classes. Others, like Argentina and Uruguay, had been, for all practical purposes, middle-class societies since at least midcentury (although the Argentines in later decades worked hard at regressing.)

But there was always a gulf between those societies and the United States. Until quite recently, the Latin middle classes made up barely one-third of the population, and some of their most prominent members — Che Guevara in Argentina, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Salvador Allende in Chile — made political careers out of the cause of eradicating inequality. That cause was shared by thousands of students, union leaders, academics and middle-of-the-road politicians, who found their own way of life morally intolerable and politically untenable.

After years of frustration and failure, at the end of the 20th century something began to change. And over the last 15 years the trend has become unmistakable. According to one definition of the middle class used in recent research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the middle class is in the majority in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Costa Rica and to a lesser extent Colombia. In the 1960s and ’70s, even after decades of robust growth, those middle classes were barely at 30 percent; today in Mexico, Brazil and Chile the figures range from 55 to 60 percent.

Yes, it is still a slim and precarious majority, and it is not your mother’s middle class — as secure and well-off as in Europe, North America, Japan or South Korea. The Latin middle class still struggles, with living standards far behind those of the local affluent. But a middle class it is nonetheless: with cellphones and used cars; with tiny but well-built homes with every appliance; and with modest but deeply enjoyable holidays at the beach.

Consumer markets have expanded. The World Bank and the O.E.C.D., writers like this one and universities like the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro have produced reams of data and analysis about the size, depth and lasting power of this middle class. Politicians know they can be elected only if they connect with that class and are doomed when they appeal exclusively to the poor, who, though now a minority, are still too large a share of the population.

So it can be said that much of Latin America has arrived: it is democratic, with a slight but growing majority of its people prosperous, competitive and possessing international ambitions (real, though not always realistic).

But reducing poverty and building broad middle classes do not automatically reduce inequality. The statistical measures of inequality known as Gini coefficients have begun to fall slightly in Latin America, but remain the highest in the world, with the wealthiest 1 percent, 5 percent or 10 percent of the population controlling incredibly high shares of total wealth or income. In Brazil, Chile and Mexico, which together account for nearly 70 percent of the region’s G.D.P. and population, the wealthiest 10 percent held an average of 42 percent of national income in 2008-9; the equivalent figure for the United States was 29 percent.

This is why hundreds of thousands of Chilean students have brought their country’s government to a virtual standstill this year, even though Chile is the most successful Latin nation by any economic or social standard. It is why Colombia, Brazil and Mexico have murder or kidnapping rates far higher than those of the richer nations, which are, despite their wealth, less unequal.

Indeed, the historic inequalities that linger have produced singular traits of national character, handed down between generations, that must change if these societies are to continue equalizing their wealth and realizing their promise. Brazilian fatalism, Chilean insularity and Mexican individualism are being slowly shed. And that is good; these traits should be jettisoned completely if these societies ever hope to achieve the level of equality for which the United States has been their model.

And yet, as all of this is occurring, the United States — that epitome of the middle-class society, of the egalitarian dream that pulled millions of immigrants away from Latin America — has begun to go Latin American. It is in a process of structural middle-class shrinkage and inequality expansion that has perhaps never occurred anywhere else (again, possibly excepting Argentina).

Americans can object — and in this they have a point — that their society differs from Latin America because there is mobility at the top and the bottom. South of the Rio Grande, the affluent are always the same; in the United States, they vary from generation to generation, often strikingly. This is what gives so many Americans the impression — false as it must be for most — that one day they might reach the top and that those already there will make room for them. But this ability to aspire does not really address the issue of how large the distance is growing between those at the top, middle and bottom; nor does it comfort those in the middle who see their chance of moving up growing ever more slight.

WHICH leads to a question for the United States: why would you allow that to happen, when we in Latin America can show you how difficult it is to achieve the kind of exemplary middle class that you invented in the first place, and that gave you such economic power and social cohesion — at least since the 1920s? Especially when we all know its existence is crucial to preserving some of the best traits of your own national character.

Alexis de Tocqueville made the point nearly two centuries ago. Something in the American character had produced a far more egalitarian society than any in Europe, and something in that society was producing a different, more modern and exciting national character, with room for experimentation, cooperation and acceptance of differences. Americans cannot retain the tolerant, forward-looking and innovative national character they cherish if they give up the egalitarian middle-class configuration that comes with it.

Mexico and other Latin American lands are reshaping our national characters and democratic politics in our quest for a larger and more vibrant middle class, and at last we are having some success. The United States’ middle class is coming under increasing pressure as the income gap between it and the very rich widens.

Do Americans really have nothing to learn from us, after we have learned so much from them?

Jorge G. Castañeda is a professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University, who served as foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003.

5 Responses

  1. Well put, konatina.

    I’m surprised there are not more comments on this very heartfelt post by Professor Jorge.

    “Thrive” was excellent. I hope the momentum gains so that everyone can get up to speed!

  2. A good video on this situation that has caused ALL our problems with the forecosure frauds is a documentary called THRIVE. Only seen online….at http://www.thrivemovement.com/#.

    Well worth the $5 to rent the movie.

    There is some very shocking true information in this video. It keeps getting taken down from youtube

    “The cancer stage of capitalism is not a metaphor.
    It is a rigorous description of where we are.” The current financial
    stripping of economies and environments across the world exhibits, in
    fact, all the hallmark characteristics of a carcinogenic invasion. As
    on the cellular level, an uncontrolled rogue sequence of reproduction
    invades and self-multiplies across social borders with no committed
    function to life-hosts. As on the cellular level, the cancer advances
    by not being recognized by surrounding life communities. —John
    McMurtry, Professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, in Economic Reform, Vol. 11, Number 3, March 1999

  3. Sorry, I’m tired. This line should read:

    How do any of us know that what Latin America is experiencing as the new growth of prosperity is not just another stage of the evolutionary strain of corporatism?

    In any event, we are all raped and pillaged on a routine basis now in the form of interest, taxes, amortization, … kicked out of our homes, denied our right of “free” speech.

    Yeah, it doesn’t cost anything but your life.

  4. We “allow” this to happen here because we don’t know any differently, and because we were taught that our Constitution is here to protect us.
    Because our government passes laws and regulations to please its constituency and its masters, is no fault of the American people. We, the people, are only now waking up to this systemic disease of greed because it is now visibly out of control, whereas before, it was only a somewhat undetectable pathogen eating away our way of life just beneath the surface of our skins. The cells of corruption can no longer proliferate and have manifested into full-blown cancer of the system that now requires more forceful treatment, lest we wake up and find that it has completely overtaken us.

    Take that, and the fact that there are enforcement bodies now that supersede our country’s laws and its sovereignty, and the rights of our peoples, and what chance do we have outside of an infusion of new blood to attack the parasitic invaders who live off of our good will and passion for justice? Not to mention, their efforts to undermine our timeless traditions that have held us together….the main one being that of the FAMILY unit.

    It seems the elite are running out of countries in which to destroy and rebuild, and have therefore chosen the illustrious USA as among one of the new conquerable experiments of rape and pillage of the economy. They own the economy, why not? They are entitled to it, are they not? That is what I think goes through their mousy heads.
    How do any of know that what Latin America is experiencing at the new growth of prosperity is not just another stage of the evolutionary strain of corporatism?
    The same ones who built it up are tearing it down. The cycle of creation and destruction continues…
    (And you think the “people” built the railroads? Think again.)

    If the people did not bite into their golden carrots, of course, it could be a different myth that we live by. One of our making and not of theirs. One where taxes, for instance, did not exist.
    Well, we could go on and on about this.

    And now, even I am beginning to see a reason behind upholding the right to bear arms.

    By the way, great article, Jorge.

  5. LONG POST ~ SO SUE ME

    First off, realize that the same global elite who are raping and pillaging presently in North America are the very same “respected institutions” who are behind the onslaught in South America that’s been going on for years.

    This is from Wikipedia on the Bolivian water crisis:

    For the next 20 years, successive governments followed the World Bank’s provisions in order to qualify for continued loans from the organization. In order to move towards independent development, Bolivia privatized its railways, telephone system, national airlines, and hydrocarbon industry.

    Privatized is the socially accepted way of saying sold off at pennies on the dollar to the financial elite, who also happen to be the puppet masters behind the World Bank. And then in 2000, the World Bank declared it would not “renew” a 25 million USD loan to Bolivia unless it privatized its water services. So if you want the much needed USDs we discussed, you have to deed us everything you own, including the very water you drink.

    This is a shakedown, absolutely no different from a mob guy offering protection; only we’re talking about water here, the most basic necessity of life. OK, so now they want the water. Years ago, the multinationals took over food production….and as was just mentioned; they’ve also taken the communication, transportation, and the energy systems. Now they’re after something that no one can do without for more than a few days at most, water. Hold the keys to the well and they’ll do whatever you ask.

    Do you see that these are the very same issues taking place around the globe right now? Recently, they’ve managed to pilfer $30 trillion dollars from the system, so money is no object. But they realize that fiat money is ever-changing and in the long run worthless, while resources are permanent and ever in need. That’s why they want your house and land. It’s fungible.

    We watch, all the while feeling impotent while our municipalities are stripped or sold outright to Chase or Sachs, (it really doesn’t matter which) a seemingly impossible act made easy due to the fact that the very CDOs they were sold to help them in their time of need went bad, created and sold by the very same financials who bet against them, while our governments watch on with seeming disinterest. From beautiful Greek islands to parking meters in Chicago, from the Parthenon to toll roads in suburban America, we’re being stripped of assets, paid for with funds printed by our Treasury department, or ripped off in fraudulent derivative deals that fool everyone and no one at the same time.

    Why do I bring all this up? Because if we don’t put a stop to it, who will? Obama? The Democrats? The Republicans? The IMF? LMAOROTF! They work for the other side….bought and paid for….they got their pay-outs already….like little piggies fighting at the trough.

    Watching the live MF Global CSPAN feed just now…one of the grain operators who was ripped off said something about how maybe going forward, the existing regulations could be enforced…..this went right over the heads of the senators on the panel.

    We all know that these same issues relate to foreclosures as well. Our properties are being taken in a land grab of epic proportions. How could this happen, we all ask. It’s so wrong, we all say.

    For those of you who admire OWS but think that it’s just not something you do, realize this….we’re all going down together here, we need to affect change, and soon. Doing your part in the Occupation may be to simply arrange a meeting with your congressional reps and educate them on what you know. Do the same with your county recorders and so on. Tell them that you will not stand by while everything we have is sold to the highest bidder and we’re all left for dead, like casualties of war. Do whatever you can, be a secretary behind the scenes. Organize from a distance, but fight.

    You don’t need to find yourself on the wrong end of a baton or with a sheriff boot on your neck, if you’re concerned about that happening. Look at it this way, you can do something to aid in this war, and don’t think it’s anything but an all out war. It’s passed time we all decide to get out of the safety of the bunker and demand that our laws are enforced, NOW!

    Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned in the article above wrote about early America when he said he saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as the community. Have we lost all these virtues that he so admired long ago….in so short a time? Where is our congress when it comes to concern for their constituents? Are they OK with the current blatant inequality and lack of democratic principles? Ask them these very questions.

    If we don’t get a handle on these issues, will it get any easier when they own all the basic necessities of life, and the roadways that transport them? Get active people, before it’s too late. Wake up to the facts. This isn’t make believe or tin hat crap. It’s happening to you in your own little world, as well as in the bigger picture as we speak. Read about the Cochabamba Water Wars that took place in Bolivia at the turn of this century. Lowly farmers and peasants stood up to these power brokers and won….they’ve paid the price but they won. They occupied and were victorious. Join OWS in whatever way you can. There’s no time to waste.

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