Culture is a key variable when analyzing development, yet it is often too complex to understand its effects on development and the mechanisms through which it affects it. Acemoglu and Robinson, in their book Why nations fail and in further writings, claim that culture is not the most important factor to determine development. They propose an institutional view to understand the different degrees of development, instead. This dichotomy of arguments has led me to question how identity and the discourses affect development, specifically in Latin America. First, this region appears to never be satisfied with the history it has as well as the present in which it lives. Then, this unsatisfactory state of being leads to a special appreciation for everything that is foreign, science, clothes, culture, etc. Finally, politics finds the perfect combination of factors to use a type of discourse that attempts to fill in the gap.
One of the best examples of what identifies Latin America is Galeano’s book Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina (Open Veins of Latin America), where he presents the region as victim of powerful states who have imposed extractive institutions that have exploited our resources. Throughout many decades this book represented a very meaningful and important piece of the Latin American culture. Up to a certain extent this understanding of the past and present gave away the possibility for people to constantly be dissatisfied with social and economic reality. Relating this to development gives an idea that in this region of the world we have struggled more into proving why we are where we are instead of trying to advance and find the means through which we could achieve a sustainable development. From the institutional perspective, the foreign promoters of the extractive institutions progressively lost control of them and transferred it to the elites within each Latin American country. This generated a new division that, just as before, fostered a dissatisfied society that focused on the inequality. In this sense, the social arrangement remained the same but the top players were the ones who changed.
It could sound contradictory that Latin American societies have historically fought against foreign powers but at the same time look up to their societies and try to absorb as much culture as we can. My guess is that the rejection is directly focused on the economic models and social structures that foreign powers applied on Latin American countries and that at the same time this led to a modification in consumption preferences and patterns. First, we struggle to maintain a good productivity and try to protect our domestic industries, however, we prefer to buy imported goods because we believe that they are better. As a result, protectionist measures have historically been the answer to change this, nevertheless the results have never been what we expected. Second, given the extractive institutional system that has existed, it is very hard for citizens of these countries to have a savings or investment culture resulting in slow economic growth. There has never been incentives to save or invest because of the weakness of institutions and the instability of the region so citizens prefer to spend their money while they can without the risk of losing it.
Finally, politicians use sentimental rhetorics. They portray themselves as the saviors of the people who have suffered the consequences of being part of such a system. A system that has left them with no choice but to settle with the means that they have at their disposal. A system that frustrates any attempt to achieve social mobility. Political speeches, specially during campaign rallies, often refer and go back to history. They appeal to the dissatisfaction that citizens feel with the structure of the system they are part of and unconsciously, or consciously, feed. Politics is carried out by who can offer more to the people, regardless of the substance of the offering, the only objective is to win the elections and become part of the elite. For citizens, politics have become an external reality. This is because politics is highly associated with extractive institutions which translates into a rejection of any of its activities because only a few segment of the population have the opportunity to become involved and participate in them.
Identity in Latin America is incomplete because of the processes that it has undergone and to me it has had an impact on development. The continuous claims to change the political and social system, the attempt to reclaim resources and wealth mark the way in which the identity is structured. There is no problem with ruling against inequality or any issues caused by they way Latin America is set, the problem arises when no alternatives or solutions are suggested other than mere political rhetorics at the service of those who want to remain in power. Latin America has historically been against different aspects of social, political and economic institutions, yet when faced with the possibility to fix them, they rely on politicians, on the same institutions that perpetuate this system in the first place.
Photo Credit: Douglas