USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Latin America in the 19th Century

By 1850, a new wave of liberal reform started to sweep over Latin America, a wave started, to put it in the most general terms, by the international forces of capitalism unleashed by the early industrial revolution and the influence of revolutionary thinking in European liberal traditions that coalesced in the Revolutions of 1848. In Argentina, this spirit was embodied by the liberal reformer Juan Bautista Alberdi, who looked (as many of the era did) to the transformative potential of technology. “We must bring our capitals to the coast,” Alberdi declared, “or rather bring the coast into the interior of the continent. The railroad and the electric telegraph, the conquerors of space, work this wonder better than all the potentates on earth. The railroad changes, reforms, and solves the most difficult problems without decrees or mob violence... The South American type of man,” Alberdi believed, “should be one formed for the conquest of the great and oppressive enemies of our progress: the desert, material backwardness; the brutal and primitive nature of this continent.” Argentine liberals like Alberdi called for the end of caudillo rule and for the beginning of a liberal-style government that would encourage technological and industrial innovation. What good were rich agricultural lands, reformers like Alberdi argued, if their yields could not be brought to the international market?

By 1900 the synergy of the agricultural boom with a transportation revolution brought a privileged few in Latin American unbound riches. Mono-agriculture, mining, and cattle ranching were the great businesses of the day throughout the continent. Massive quantities of bananas, beef, coffee, sugar, cacao, rubber, tobacco, wool and hard metals flowed from Latin America onto the world market, enriching hacienda owners, ranchers and industrialists (the latter were mostly foreigners) while keeping the vast majority of the population in poverty.

We know well by now that with the unification of Germany and the end of the European and U.S. economic depression in the mid-1880s that the world economy surged forward like never before. This was especially, and perhaps almost exclusively a western and an upper-class phenomenon, yet it had a worldwide impact. This economic explosion, which in U.S. history equated roughly to the years of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, had profound effects on Latin America. We will briefly trace these effects before turning in earnest to the period between 1911 and 1929.

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