Economic and Political Liberalism in Latin America

Economic and Political Liberalism in Latin America
Economic and Political Liberalism
in Latin America
In the wake of the American Revolution and the French Revolution in the late 18th century, Enlightenment ideologies of republicanism, political equality, secular government, private property, and the rights of citizenship spread across the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico and the Caribbean to Central and South America.

Over the next several generations, these Enlightenment-inspired ideas were appropriated by diverse groups of actors, combined with existing ideologies, and adapted to suit local circumstances.

This constellation of ideas and beliefs can be divided into two broad categories: political liberalism and economic liberalism. In general terms, economic liberalism can be defined as adherence to the principles of private property and free trade, essentially to the principles underlying capitalism.

Political liberalism can be defined as placing the individual rights of citizens before the state and the equality of citizens before the law and variously includes the rights of free speech, assembly, religion, and voting. (The U.S. Bill of Rights can be taken as a good guide to the general principles of political liberalism.)

Both dimensions of liberalism constituted the individual as their primary subject, in contradistinction to the state, thus creating a contractual basis of government centered on a compact between state and citizen.

This liberal, or republican, ideology stood in sharp contrast to pre-Enlightenment notions of sovereign and subject—a notion in that the sovereign ruled by divine right, and society was divided into various orders or corporate entities that exercised collective rights (church, hereditary nobility, merchant guilds, craft guilds, military orders, and others).

In this pre-Enlightenment worldview, subjects enjoyed only those rights granted by the sovereign, or those established through long-standing custom, a set of ideas that formed the basis for Spanish and Portuguese rule throughout the long colonial period.

In Latin America, beginning in the late 18th century and accelerating through the 19th, the colonialera principles of collective political rights and collective rights in property came under increasing assault by republican notions of individual political rights and individual rights in property.

Predictably, those collective entities, long accustomed to exercising corporate rights, often fiercely resisted being shorn of those rights. The most important collective entities in colonial Latin America were the Roman Catholic Church, military orders, and Indian communities.

For the church and the military, collective rights were most tangibly expressed in the fueros, or special privileges, which included taxation, property and inheritance laws, and others but were especially manifest in the judicial system.

Clergy and military officers enjoyed a long history of immunity from prosecution in civil courts, instead being subject to special ecclesiastical or military tribunals constituted and operated by their respective corporations. For Indian communities, collective rights were most tangibly represented in various types of corporate land ownership.

By law and custom, Indian communities owned land in common. These collective rights in land were of diverse types and varied widely across the Americas. The essential point here concerns the collective nature of Indian communities’ rights to land and property.

Liberalism, with its emphasis on the individual, represented a direct assault on the collective rights exercised by the church, the military, and Indian communities. In order to create equality before the law, liberal ideology required the replacement of these corporate rights by individual rights.

Resistance to this transformation often was fierce. Epitomizing such conflicts was the War of the Reforms in Mexico after the promulgation of the liberal constitution of 1857. Rallying to the cry of “Religion and fueros!,” conservatives mounted a massive rebellion to overturn the constitution.

Many Indian communities also rebelled against liberal efforts to eradicate their collective rights. From 1819 to 1900 Mexico saw the eruption of more than 100 revolts, uprisings, and rebellions by Indian communities.

Of the 54 cases for which data is available, disputes over land were identified as the principal precipitating factor in 40 instances, the remainder rooted principally in disputes over taxation and other factors. Similar processes unfolded in Peru and Bolivia, where the liberal land reforms of the 1880s and 1890s sparked massive Indian resistance that persisted into the 20th century.

As liberal ideology took hold in the second half of the 19th century, and in response to widespread resistance to liberal reforms undermining collective rights, many liberal states relaxed their efforts to transform corporate subjects into individual citizens, suppressing individual rights while aggressively promoting capitalist development. Here the distinction between political and economic liberalism becomes salient.

In 19th-century Latin America it was common for ruling regimes to squelch political liberalism while engaging in highly interventionist policies designed to promote economic liberalism. Perennially strapped for cash, many ruling regimes found promotion of capitalist development, especially via production for export, essential for the fiscal health of the state.

Among the best examples of this trend is the regime of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, which under the positivist banner of “Order and Progress” aggressively stifled individual liberties while actively encouraging foreign investment, free trade, private property, and capitalist development.

In the name of “order” (political stability), the Díaz regime severely circumscribed individual rights of speech, assembly, and voting, while in the name of “progress” (capitalist development), individual rights to trade, invest, and buy and sell land, labor, and other commodities flourished.

In the late 19th century, a growing disjuncture emerged in many parts of the Americas between a suppressed political liberalism and a burgeoning economic liberalism. In Brazil, slavery and other forms of bound and indentured servitude coexisted for many years with the explosive growth of the coffee economy.

Foreign investment poured into the country, public lands were privatized, and labor transformed into a saleable commodity, while the rights of assembly, speech, and voting remained severely limited.

In the Andean republics of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia, liberal legislation privatizing land and encouraging foreign investment and free trade were frequently accompanied by violent suppression of the political rights of both rural and urban dwellers.

Modern history demonstrates innumerable instances in which states have effectively separated the political and economic dimensions of liberalism. A useful contemporary analogy can be made with China following the reforms of Deng Xiaopeng from the 1980s.

In this case, the ruling communist regime made no pretense of granting political rights to individual citizens while actively encouraging the growth of markets, industry, and other core features of capitalist development.

Beginning with the consolidation of liberal states in the second half of the 19th century, Latin America abounds with instances in which capitalist development and the flourishing of markets, private property, foreign investment, free trade, and a secular state proved entirely compatible with a repressive state apparatus, the absence of democratic institutions, sham elections, and the systematic suppression of citizens’ rights.