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Neoliberalism and Free Trade in Latin America  

Robert Jordan

First utilized in Latin America in response to the mid-20th-century decline of populist economic policymaking in the region, modern neoclassical theory, or neoliberalism, can be generally defined as a market-oriented form of economy policymaking that seeks to decentralize state authority and redefine state administrative responsibilities through deregulation, privatization, and the creation of common markets. Based on principles of classical 19th-century economic liberalism, the economic and political framework of neoliberalism advocates for a dramatically limited role for the state, which should only act to maintain the integrity of contract law and private property as a means of supporting the market. In the absence of state intervention, neoliberalism in Latin America alternatively emphasized the role of multilateral organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in bringing financial stability and growth to the region through the manipulation of interest rates, the devaluation of exchange rates, and the establishment of free-market pricing of goods. Ultimately, the widespread implementation of neoliberal reforms through the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of transnational economic policymaking that had long-term, mixed results for the environmental, political, and social landscape of Latin America.


Oil and Environment in Mexico  

Myrna Santiago

Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar. The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400 bce, collected the viscous liquid. They used it to seal canoes and aqueducts, to paint and decorate clay figurines and knife handles, to pave the floors of their homes, and to glue materials. There is evidence they boiled and cooked the petroleum for better usage, a process that would become known as refining in the 19th century. At the northern end of the rainforest, the region called the Huasteca, the Teenek also gathered the syrupy fluid from its natural springs into the 15th century and used it in ways similar to the Olmec of yesteryear: as sealant for canoes, paint for pottery, perfume, gum for chewing and teeth cleaning, illuminant for torches, and aromatic incense for religious ceremonies. Yet it was the Aztec who gave petroleum the native name that survives to this day, chapopote, the hispanicized version of tzaucpopochtli, meaning fragrant (popochtli) glue (tzauctli). As humans did globally, those who lived with chapopoteras utilized what nature created and transformed it according to their cultural needs and inventions. There is no evidence that anyone living along the coastal range of the Gulf of Mexico in the pre-Columbian era went beyond collecting the oil that percolated from the subsoil naturally. In other words, there is no evidence of extraction of petroleum by indigenous people. Oil extraction, and its environmental consequences, is a 20th-century story, layered over a 15th-century ecological revolution.



Rebecca Earle

Potatoes originated in the mountainous Andes but are now a ubiquitous global food, eaten in every continent, every day, by millions of people. Their spread from South America to the entire world demonstrates the concrete connections between European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century and how people everywhere eat today. At the same time, while the potato was traveling the world, it remained an essential resource for Andean people caught in the maelstrom of colonialism. Potatoes had long been eaten in the Andes, and Spanish American colonial society connected eaters and their characteristic foodstuffs: for settlers, potatoes were often dismissed as “a certain food eaten by Indians,” even if the tubers sometimes also graced their own tables. After the ending of colonial rule in the early 19th century, the potato’s fortunes have oscillated between nationalistic celebration and continued disdain. The potato’s complex and surprising history reveals the protean nature of this modest root, able to encapsulate profound changes in social and political organization, whether in 18th-century Europe or post-Soviet Russia. It reminds us of the centrality of eating to human history and highlights the important role played by ordinary people—smallholders, peasant farmers, imaginative cooks—in making history.


Potosí Mines  

Kris Lane

This article examines the long history of Potosí, Bolivia, home of the world’s most productive silver mines. The mines, discovered in 1545 and still active today, are discussed in terms of their geology, discovery, productivity, labor history, and technological development. The article also treats the social and environmental consequences of nearly five hundred years of continuous mining and refining.


The Rubber Economy in the Ecuadorian Amazon  

Matthew Ford

The demand for rubber in the global north had severe impacts on Amazonia—its extractive origin—and irreparably transformed the economic and social landscape. Although the scholarly literature on rubber’s impact on Amazonian Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia is rich, the historiography on Ecuadorian Amazonia (known locally as the Oriente) remains underdeveloped. Yet the rubber economy had lasting impacts on the Oriente and shaped how the Liberal state interacted with its eastern frontier. The chains of debt, credit, rubber, and people integrated the Oriente into an expansive economic circuit—with its local hub in Iquitos—that cut deep scars into the region and ultimately undercut state-building efforts. Caucheros used a coercive system of debt peonage to gain control over the indigenous population, leaving frontier civil authorities with limited access to a labor force that was necessary for state building. In the larger context of Liberal export-oriented development—whereby state capacity in formerly isolated regions was often strengthened by integration into the global economy—the rubber economy in the Oriente stands out for having the opposite effect.


Silver Miners’ Labor Activism in Pachuca and Real del Monte, 1979–1989  

Sandra Mendiola García

The miners of Pachuca and Real del Monte have extracted silver from the mountainous region of what is now the state of Hidalgo for centuries. In the colonial period, these mines were owned by the Spanish. In the modern period, they were owned by British (1824–1849), Mexican (1849–1906), and American (1906–1947) entrepreneurs. The Mexican government bought the mines from the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company in 1947 and kept them until 1989. In that year, the Mexican state sold the Compañía Real del Monte y Pachuca, the company that monopolized most of the region’s mines, to Mexican businessmen (Grupo Acerero del Norte) who kept them in operation until 2005. The silver miners who worked for the company belong to Locals One and Two of the Sindicato Nacional de Mineros, Metalúrgicos y Similares de la República Mexicana (SNMMRM). The union was created in 1934 in Pachuca. Miners’ activism, however, goes back to the colonial period. In 1766, miners went on strike to defend the partido system (a profit-sharing payment) under attack by their employer Pedro Romero de Terreros, the first Count of Regla. Subsequent employers, both British and Mexican, also faced strikes, slowdowns, and threats of violence by miners who tried to improve their wages and labor conditions. In 1934, Pachuca and Real del Monte played an important role in the formation of the national union. Most ceased their activism in 1946. It was not until 1979 when these silver miners organized Liberación Minera (Miner Liberation) to fight against their charro (government and employer-aligned) leaders and to defend workers’ rights. By the late 1970s, the miners of Pachuca and Real del Monte lacked access to proper health care, received low wages, and experienced dangerous labor conditions. Miners were under the control of local and national charro leaders, including Napoleón Gómez Sada who directed the national miner union from 1960 to virtually 2001. The dissident current, Liberación Minera, organized a strike in 1980 and a naked protest in 1985. As a result, miners increased their wages, democratized their locals, and gained several benefits. These achievements were short-lived as the Mexican government announced the sale of the company in 1989. As part of Mexico’s embrace of neoliberal policies, the privatization of the company meant the virtual end of the industry and of organized labor in these areas by 2005.


Social Movements in Late 20th-Century Ecuador and Bolivia  

Marc Becker

Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.


The Spanish Caribbean, 1492–1550  

Ida Altman

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region. From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.


Sugar Cane and Agricultural Transformations in Cuba  

Reinaldo Funes Monzote

For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, figured as the principal exporter of sugar cane, a product that dominated the country’s agro-industry. In this way, Cuba became illustrative of the economic, social, political, and environmental impact of basing an economy on monoculture in order to supply foreign markets. This does not mean, however, that sugar cane was the only major crop being grown in the Cuban fields, as there was no dearth of different plants destined for foreign markets, such as tobacco and coffee, or for local markets, such as yucca, plantains, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice, not to mention a long if little-known livestock tradition. However, the dominance of agro-industry almost always eclipses agricultural and economic alternatives that could become potential competitors, despite the periodic adverse circumstances that affect consumers. But, in the 1990s, the production and exportation of sugar suffered an abrupt fall, creating a vacuum that allowed diversification of land use and that prompted a search for alternative agricultural models.


Water and Environmental Change in the US–Mexico Borderlands  

Sterling Evans

Aridity, a significant characteristic of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, has affected water use patterns for different groups of people in this region for thousands of years. From indigenous groups to European invaders and colonizers to 20th- and 21st-century farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers in Mexico and the United States, controlling the area’s scarce water resources has been a vital concern for survival and economic success. Given that an international border divides the region, national-era relations between the United States and Mexico often have been marked by water issues and the development of water projects and policies. And on both sides of the border these projects and policies have caused environmental changes that merit attention. Much of that history revolves around agricultural development with the need to ensure steady sources of water for irrigation. But industry and urban areas have also been enormous consumers of scarce water resources in the region, issues that are discussed here.