Questions Concerning the Implications of Modernization in 19th Century Latin America

As the title suggests, the implication is that “modernization” or “progress” had a negative effect on the cultures of Latin America.  That within these nations, the rush to modernize or Europeanize, came at the expense of their traditional cultures and the well being of their peoples.  But is this in fact the case?  Was modernization any more disruptive in Latin America than any other place on the globe?  And can “modernization” really be blamed for all of Latin America’s current problems?  While it will not be the intentions of an essay of this size to attempt and answer all of these questions, we will take a closer look at the first few.  It will be our intention to examine the notion that although Latin America suffered at the hands of unscrupulous individuals, and at the hands of “industrialized” nations, these situations were not unique to this region of the world.  To expound on this notion, we will look at the essays of two noted historians, E. Bradford Burns and Richard Graham, as they appear inElites, Masses and Modernization in Latin America: 1850 – 1930, edited by Virginia Bernhard.

In Richard Graham’s Popular Challenges and Elite Responses: An Introduction, the author introduces the reader to the concept that early historians concentrated their research on the elite or upper classes (famous men), and that these histories differed from the history of the ordinary or lower classes of people.  These histories, Graham states, exposed the struggles the “ordinary” people had against the elite classes in all aspects of existence, whether it was for civil rights, land ownership or basic living conditions.  Graham’s thesis is that through the examination of the ordinary people, historians will have to re-define and possibly re-write the histories of both the United States and Latin America.  This type of thinking is, of course, nothing new to the historical world, having had its roots laid in the Revisionist Movement of the 1960s.

To support his argument Graham relies on the writings of two fellow historians, Thomas E. Skipmore and E. Bradford Burns (who will be discussed later).  Graham states “both writers are critical of the liberal developmentalism that characterized North America thinking about Latin America in the 1960s.  That was the period when social scientists…believed in the…steady and gradual change toward a polity model…built on the principles of individual liberties derived from John Locke.”¹  Graham writes, near the top of page 4, that Thomas E. Skidmore points to the emerging field of labor history in twentieth-century Latin American and suggests the historical roots of today’s …tensions in that area.  The torture, terror and violence practiced by military leaders today are put in context of secular struggle of army against workers.  At the same time he specifies how union leaders have been systematically co-opted and disciplined to serve as tools of the dominant classes.  The problem is that we cannot easily say whether or not this is in fact the case, and if so, does it not also apply to most of the “western” world?  Surely this would also apply to the old Soviet-block nations of the Cold War.

Graham then goes on to state that social scientists of the past tended to favor the “desires of an American ruling class”² in shaping third world nations.  To this effect Graham suggests that the distinctions between the elite and the masses actually varied from nation to nation, a fact that both Burns and Skipmore failed to point out.  As Graham states on pages 4 and 5, while discussing both Skidmore’s and Burns’ theories, They saw modernization…as only a “cosmetic” that did not include profound alterations of those inherited structures that benefited the elite.  But did this really benefit only the elite?  Infant the mortality rate dropped on average from 120 deaths to 30 deaths per 1000 births and the life expediency age rose from 52 to 71 years of age.³ Surly the decreased in infant death rates and the increase in life expectancy brought about by improved urban living benefited everyone.  Later, on page 7 Graham asks the question: Is it fair to define culture as a set of ideas for the elite but as a set of beliefs and attitudes for the common folk?  This is a very important point, as one can see how one social standing may influence “ideas,” and “attitudes”.  But do not “beliefs” transcend all social and economic distinctions?

Graham sums up his arguments by stating (on page 8), that as may many of Burn’s readers, I share his skepticism about “progress,” especially since in Latin America it has so often meant that a lot of the common people has worsened.  But has it really worsened sine the 1850s, or has it stayed the same?  Can one see no improvements, even just a little, since the colonial period?  And if not, what is the alternative?

Overall Graham has provided an excellent overview of the problems historians faced in understanding the history of Latin America.  Unfortunately while expounding on these problems Graham fails to acknowledge that most of the situations faced by the Latin American “common” class, were also faced in every nation where the old tradition gave way to “modernization.”  And while one may not see the kinds of improvements in the lower classes that one sees in “western” nations (and the comparison may not even be a fair one to make), one does find some form of improvement.

We now turn our attention to E. Bradford Burns, writing in Cultures in Conflict: The Implication of Modernization in Ninetieth-Century Latin America.  Burns concentrates on “cultural conflict,” the division between the elite and the “popular classes” which change the face of Latin America.  According to Burns the elites embraced modernization, attempting to impose the industrialization of Europe and then the United States on their own “fledging nations.”  This of course was countered by the popular classes move to resist these changes and hold onto “their long established living patterns.”  In support of his argument Burns looks at the elite preferences, indicating how European philosophies (like those of Darwin and Spencer) shaped Latin American “progress.”

Unfortunately many of the arguments Burns puts forth, many of the patterns he sees, can also be seen as occurring in other ex-colonial nations, including the United States.  For example Burns states that the importation of capitalism “profoundly [altered] the concepts of land and labor…the lands the folk once used, often lands which served entire communities and constituted a fundamental factor in personal…relationships, became a commodity to be bought and sold.”   This situation however, was not isolated to Latin America, and can easily be applied to North American Indian populations.  Of course one can argue that the situation the North American Indian finds oneself in today is very similar to that of the lower classes in Latin America.  However there are several social and political considerations to be considered, one of which is the problem Indians face not being considered citizens of the United States.

Burns continues on this train of thought, writing (at the bottom of page 14), in most cases rapid modernization threatened the more static folk societies, and as the thrust to modernize intensified, a clash between its advocates and the folk became inevitable.  Violence emerged as a leitmotif of the nineteenth century.  The question, like with Graham, has to be asked, is this situation unique to only Latin America?  Was this not the case with most cultures that “modernized?”  And should we be looking at “static folk societies,” the key term in that statement being “static,” as a model culture to emulate?

In discussing the influences of the Enlightenment, Burns later states, in the last line on page 16 that: …the United States represented in their eyes the success of Europeanization in the New World.  Europeanization (or…Westernization, modernization or progress) meant to them, as the experience of the U.S. emphasized, the implementation of patterns from France, England, and Germany, since they ignored or deprecated Iberian and Mediterranean Europe as “backward.”  One must ask however, if in fact this is true, or was this “ignoring [of] Iberian and Mediterranean Europe” more a result of immigration patterns to the U.S. at this time period?  Italians and other from Southern Europe did not begin to immigrate to the United States until the very late, 18, early 1900s.  Surely one cannot argue the influences these cultures had on American society all throughout the 20th century.

In examining the “Elite Counterpoint,” Burns quotes (on page 31) Juan Bautista Alberdi, who wrote: Civilization is neither gas or steam nor electricity as those who are impressed with exterior appearances like to think.  Surly however, that while “civilization” may not be “gas or steam or electricity,” the latter defines the term “modern.”  Neolithic man had a form of civilization, but he was nowhere close to being “modern.”  Burns later presents criticism of the historic disciplines (on page 34) by stating: …Brazilian literature and history had placed excessive emphasis on the elite to neglect of the people, whom [is] considered the basic force of society.  But is this any different of any society’s history before the revisionist period?  And is the history of the “elite” class also not worth knowing?

Later, while assessing the issues of “Modernization and Impoverishment,” and its relation on the elite’s unwillingness to reform colonial institutions, Burns writes in the middle of page 71, the cosmetic effects of modernization…frightened them.  This is understandable: they profited from their relationship with the metropolis.  In fact, the elites enjoyed the best of two words: the superficial modernization enhanced their immediate comforts and flattered their image of themselves, while at the same time it permitted them to blame the “barbaric” masses for delaying or frustrating further modernization.  Yet one cannot see that this situation, this aspect of “modernization” also held true under the old colonial system.  Are not the poor always blamed for the shortcomings of the rich?

Burns then goes on, a few lines later on the same page, to sum up: Thus the implementation of modernization, either chosen by Latin America elites or imposed by outside capital investment, actually debilitated Latin America.  The new railroads, ports, steamships, technical aid, and loans tied and subordinated the Latin American economy to England and the United States and to a lesser degree to France and Germany.  But why was this the case with Latin America and not other places?  Or do not we see the same trends in other ex-colonial nations?  Can the same not also be said of Africa and parts of South-East Asia?  Corruption of elected, and especially non-elected officials is a universal problem.  And many of the working or “common” class have suffered either the loss of property, and even liberties at the hands of the “powers-that-be.”  So why should this situation be exclusive to Latin America?

Unfortunately Burns seems to be making excuses for the current condition of Latin America.  Few if any of the situations presented in his thesis were isolated to Latin American culture, several having parallels within our own country’s history.  Surly the whims of the rich or elite classes have always taken preference over the concerns of the poor or masses.  And yet America, an ex-colony established as an agrarian nation, dealing with its own issues of civil war and slavery, contending with an ex-slave population, “modernized” to become the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.  What was it about America’s past that was so different?


¹ Bernhard, Vrrginia, ed. “Elites, Masses and Modernization in Latin America: 1850 – 1930.” Austin.  UT Press. Page 4.
² Ibid. Page 5.
³ Data from Population Bulletin. Population Reference Bureau. Vol. 58, No. 3, March 2003.
Bernhard, Vrrginia, ed. “Elites, Masses and Modernization in Latin America: 1850 – 1930.” Austin.  UT Press. Page 12.

Essay © 2005 John Rocco Roberto.