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Central America in the Age of Tyrants, c. 1930–1960  

David Díaz-Arias

During the 1930s, the worldwide economic crisis, local social unrest, the political legacy of the 19th century, and local elites’ fears of Indigenous and organized-workers mobilizations were the perfect combination for the rise of new dictatorships in Central America. Military caudillos appeared in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, substituting a short period of democratic experience in these countries during the 1920s. Only in Costa Rica did democratic development remain, despite a bitter dictatorship from 1917 to 1919. By the end of the 1930s, strongmen who admired European fascism ruled with an iron fist and counted on the US State Department’s approbation and collaboration. National guards in El Salvador and Nicaragua and the army in Guatemala became the foundations of fierce regimes. But World War II and the Allies’ victory gave opportunities for internal opposition to contest dictators. In Guatemala and El Salvador, coup d’états occurred in 1944, bringing about new democratic scenarios for progressive politicians. Central America saw the rise of social democracy between 1948 and 1949. In 1948, a brief civil war in Costa Rica worked to consolidate social reforms that took place from 1940 to 1943, and in 1949, the reformists took power in Honduras. Even in Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua, a political opening occurred when the dictator supported organized labor and began to work with his political opposition. But the years of change did not last. Guatemala’s democratic experiment was abruptly canceled by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1954; in Nicaragua, the killing of Somoza in 1956 carried the country into a new, bloody regime; and in El Salvador, military officers overthrew the president in 1960.

Article

Indigenous Peoples and the Portuguese Crown in the 17th and 18th Centuries  

Patricia Alves-Melo

The native populations of Portuguese America were essential for the implementation of the Portuguese colonial project. Their labor was indispensable in constructing the colony, and political alliances with native peoples ensured the success of the conquest at several crucial moments, and only with the aid of native knowledge it was possible to occupy the land and advance the conquest of the immense territory that became known as Brazil. In this sense, peace was a necessity. Yet, in highlighting the centrality of Indians in the settlement of the Portuguese colony in the Americas, it must also be recognized that the relations established there between Portuguese conquerors and native populations were also historically marked by tension and violence. A war of extermination, often masquerading as a “just war,” and slavery became inseparable parts of colonial strategy. Moreover, access to land and the use of indigenous labor could both constitute secure indicators of success in the conquest of Portuguese America. In the process of colonization the Portuguese Crown was confronted by various forms of native resistance and by the differing interests of diverse colonial agents. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Crown faced tensions, disputes, and contradictions in relation to the slavery and freedom of Indians and the way it solved these conflicts revealed the configuration of its indigenist policy.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

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.