Who Made the Latin American Poor People Poor?

peterchristopher's picture

Sometimes you read about the oppression of the Latin American countries at the hands of Spain, or the United States. Sometimes you read about the oppression of the Latin poor by their own aristochratic, monopolistic ruling classes.

Of course there's no one single answer to Who Is Responsible for The Poverty of the Latin Poor? But The question is an important one for understanding one's relation to those poor, whether one is from the U.S., Spain, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Norway, Iran, etc.

Are the precolonial Indian tribes responsible for the current poverty of the Latin poor?  Why weren't they wiser to keep their gold, to dedicate themselves to learning about the arriving adventurers and forming mutually beneficial relationships with them?  Or did those tribes actually form mutually beneficial relationships with those newcomers?

Are the Spanish conquistadores and their followers the worst enemies of the current Latin poor? Did the Spanish steal the gold and the land of those poor?  Did they rape they destroy the culture by raping the women, murdering the priests, prohibiting the use of the native languages, enslaving the poor?  Why didn't they simply form mutually beneficial relationships with the natives instead of exploiting them?  Or wait, might there have been a large percentage of the Spanish settlers who did form mutually beneficial relationships with the natives?  Did the cultures of Latin America benefit in any ways from the presence of the Spanish?  To what extent, versus what they might have lost from the engagements with the Spanish?

Was it the United States businessmen, and their greedy U.S.-based customers clamoring for cheap bananas, transportation, clothing, automobiles, oil - was it the United States who, taking over as the dominant world power in Latin regions from Argentina to the Philippines, exploited those natives, pushing them into ever smaller untitled lots, titling the best lots for the U.S. companies and their subsidiaries? Or did the United States also send millions of  compassionate teachers, technicians, missionaries, and fair business operators to the Latin countries, in fact spreading wealth and knowledge? 

Was it the white-skinned and brown-skinned despots of Latin America who oppressed their own people, collaborating with foreign powers and acting independently.  Did they systematically embezzle foreign funds, enslave their own people, murder those who dissented?  Or did the leaders have a hard job to do, trying to balance the desires of an unrealistic popular opinion, the benefit of stability, the corrupt business practices of their constituents, and over time gradually introduce reforms that made civil rights more acceptable, recognized, and enforced, while also reducing the amount of intercountry warfare? Did the leaders build schools and facilitate the building of schools, highways, and hospitals with foreign aid and tax dollars, benefiting all their citizens, raising the standard of living?

Or was it the Latin poor themselves, through their familial and tribal disharmony, their envy and hubris, their overpopulation, their snubbing of teachers and technicians, and insistence on ignorance and consistency as the one true path, who have kept themselves poor?  Or are these cultural symptoms the inevitable results of the oppression of the others?  There's a joke here in the Philippines - two old, poor Chinese men are sitting on a bench, and one of their former classmates drives by in a big car.  "Oh, good for Mr. Shi!  He's worked so hard all his life and got what he deserved."  Then two Pinoy (Philippino) are sitting on a bench, and one of their former classmates drives by in a big, shiny car.  One says to the other, "Who the f*ck does he think he is?"

So, is there an easy answer?  Is Ortega right that 'el yanqui es el enemigo de la humanidad' and likewise 'el mercado libre es el principal enemigo del pueblo'?  Sounds like a nice easy answer easy to comprehend... and if believed entitles him and his friends morally to take back what is rightfully theirs...  so therfore is it correct?

Some of these questions were also raised recently by a friend of mine in Honduras in her blog entries on poor in Honduras and poor people not growing vegetables.

I asked some related questions when I went to live in Nicaragua - is it possible to start a business, run it legally, without lying or stealing, and at least break even, or preferably be able to save a few dollars?  I learned about a lot of these questions I have listed here on this page in my three years in Nicaragua, so that at least I can formulate the questions now.  How did I do?


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Thanks for taking the time to do so.

Nice Stories

I enjoyed reading those stories. 

ESL Classes

Thanks for the interesting article, Peter. I know so little about politics in Latin America.

I don't have any specific pages about my English classes in my travel journals but now that you mention it, I think it would be a good thing for me to devote a page to. As it is now, I mention my classes as I write about my life. I don't have a lot in there though.

 There are a few paragraphs about my classses here:  http://www.travelexperiencecostarica.com/?p=280

 Here is a paragraph on the cancellation of classes:  http://www.travelexperiencecostarica.com/?p=343

 I talk a bit about some of my students on this page:   http://www.travelexperiencecostarica.com/?p=325

I'll let you know when I write a full essay about teaching, there is certainly a lot of material in my head.

ESL & Chavez's Bible

Hi Lisa, I'd like to read more about your ESL classes.  Do you have any web pages on your site about that?  

The mention of the Galeano book reminded me of the essay in the WSJ I read a few months ago about it, "The Idiot's Bible".  

In regards to your original

In regards to your original essay, I sent the link to someone and she sent this note back to me, about an interesting book:

There's an elderly gentleman and a journalist in Montevideo, Uruguyay, who thought he had an answer for your question. I read his book "The Open Veins Of Latin America" decades ago and was duly impressed, as many others have been by Eduardo Galeano's essay on sociopolitical and historical background to the poverty and "arrested development" (his term for it) of Latin America.

The problem with the book is that it was written by a Marxist and you have to be able to wade through a flood of political terminology pertaining that time period and ideology. The book doesn't have all the answers, of course, but it gives you a fairly good grasp of the reasons that made Latin America poor and North America rich. (Historical, political, administrative, economical, religious, geographical etc.) A good read and very interesting, whatever your political persuation may be.


It's been said that you have to love yourself in order to be able to love anybody else. I think that's true. And with love comes respect. So of course you have to have your boundaries. You have to respect yourself and require that respect from others as you give it to them.

There is a difference between teaching someone something and telling them what needs to be done. For example, a carpenter is building something. You see that he does not seem to know what he is doing and is having a hard time. If he is working on your house you tell him to stop and show him how you want it done. He may learn from you , he may not.  If he is working on his own house, you can tell him that you know of a better way. Then he can ask you to show him - or not.

When people signed up for my English class (ESL) in Costa Rica, they really wanted to learn. I read somewhere that studies have been done and we humans are happiest when we are learning. They observed the same in the animal world. (Don't ask me how they knew if the animals were happy.) We were all happy in my classes. Everybody laughed and had fun while we learned. But most all of them did not do their homework or practice outside of class. Some learned, some didn't.

As for love. I believe that is the reason we are all here in this life - to learn to love. It is a HUGE challenge. It is much easier for me to love your sweet little babies than even thinking about loving Hitler. I don't know the answer. But every day I get lessons in tolerance and detachment and loving myself and others.

I will never forget a big lesson once when I had been to a movie with a friend. She and I had had different reactions to the movie and on the way on the way home I was quiet. She wanted to talk and I wanted some time to reflect. She took offense to that and really railed into me. I took offense and yelled back. Then in the midst of it all it occured to me that for her to be that antagonistic to me, who had done nothing to her, she must really be hurting inside. My simple mental realization seemed to defuse the hostility. I hugged her and she just bawled. Her anger had nothing to do with me. Her reaction to my choice to look beyond my own hurt feelings and love her any way taught me something I keep with me always. 

My grown kids still remember what I used to say about the bullys in school. "The ones that are hardest to love are the ones that need it the most." (I'm not taking credit for that, I heard it somewhere and it seemed like a good thing to say.) Love has respect for all life. To show love to those stupid kids you mentioned, you have to make them stop torturing the cat or the other kid.

Utimately, there are no clear lines. These high ideals feel much more achievable on a one to one basis, situation by situation rather than considering something so big as how could anybody love Hitler. We just have to do the best we can and forgive ourselves and others when we screw up.





I generally agree

It's important to not be too idealistic, that's why I asked that question.  "Give us this day our daily bread" - for me, that means in part that I can accept that I do have certain expectations that are not unreasonable.  I can't have everything the way I want it, but I also don't have to give everything up just because I might want it a certain way either.  

All over the world, I've volunteered as a teacher.  It's amazing how few people want to learn - most people simply aren't very interested in learning anything new.  You're probably right that it's no use to try to teach them if they're in that situation, though I do personally think it's not wasteful to tell them what I want if it impacts me directly.

What about kids?  If you see some ten year olds torturing a cat, do you tell them to stop?  What if it's another kid they're torturing?  Love them for that?  Love Hitler when he's gassing his enemies?  Ironically, in Central America I feel the most comfortable telling kids to behave, even if they're complete strangers.  In the U.S. or here in the Philippines, I don't feel as comfortable with that, I think for different reasons in each case.

toxic chemicals

Funny you should use that example. The owner of the house I rented in Cocles, outside of Puerto Viejo - his name is Macario - he is in his sixties. He sprays everywhere! The first time I saw this my jaw dropped! This was my paradise - polluted? (I have since sadly learned much more about that.) I asked him not to spray near my house and he obliged. Later he asked me why white people don't like chemicals -"they come from your country." I tried to talk to him. I explained about DDT and how chemicals that were outlawed by the US govt. were sold to other countries. And I emphasized that at least if he insists on spraying, please wear a mask. Well, do you think a thing I said meant anything to him? He told me about how his father smoked (as he does) and drank and everything else and lived a happy life well into his eighties. Macario still sprays and smokes and every day I hear him cough.

There were lots of things I used to see there, about which I could not comment. I loved my landlords - Macario's family. They were always good to me. But they threw their trash, inclucing cans of paint, construction waste and whatever into a hole in the ground. I didn't tell them a thing. This was their land, their property and they did things their way.

I have learned that you really can't tell anybody anything. Not unless they ask. Even your kids - when they are young you try to tell them and sometimes you have to make them listen. When they grow up you know you had some degree of success if they come and ask you for advice and then even more if they take it. (Hopefully you knew what you were talking about.)

It is much more difficult when the people you would like to infulence are affecting your life. Maybe you can tell the gardner not to get within 50 feet of your house. Maybe not. Maybe you have to move in order to take care of yourself. Always we are having lessons. Sometimes lessons in setting boundaries, like the above example. Sometimes in tolerance. Sometimes in just letting it go - letting the people around you make mistakes and hopefully it doesn't cost you too much money (someday you may have a teenager with a car).

So how can you contribute? Just love them. That's all and that is a challenge in itself. You may not agree, they may drive you nuts, you may fear for their safety, but there are some things you just can't control. You can control your heart. No matter what they do you just gotta love them.

I hope I gave you good advice. You asked for it!

I think I misread a little

I think i misread your piece slightly before, maybe because I didn't read the original antecedent letters in the tico times.

When I'm centered, I think I can often live up to that ideal of not giving unsolicited advice.  But it's not as easy when it's involved with people in my daily life - whether that's workers, family members, etc - I guess in a lot of those latter situations, though, my goal is to create a harmonious situation for myself, rather than necessarily improving the life of those I might be interacting with.

So how do you recommend contributing by the way? If you have a gardner who is using a toxic chemical too close to your house, should you appreciate his actions as well as his intentions?


I don't give advice - not unless it is solicited. I feel that people have to walk their own path and learn for themselves. Life experience is the best and most times the only teacher. The best way we can teach anyone is by example of the way we live our own lives - with integrity and with love for others. And there are a jillion ways we can help people without trying to teach them anything.

tend to agree with you lisa

I think I tend to agree with you , Lisa.  However, do you ever feel like your tips are not very well appreciated by those who don't want your advice?  The number of times I found people resentful when I tried to teach them something new left me pretty clear that the tactic wasn't working, so I have become somewhat more of a exhistential or nihilist about the ability of one people to help another.

Ed, so I should have said who keeps the poor poor, instead of who made them poor?  Probably right - although in some cases in history people have experienced serious malnutrition and poverty after revolutionary change (do China, North Korea, Cambodia, and Nicaragua have anything in common? -- not necessarily right now, but in the corresponding periods for each of them in the past 50 years?)

(by the way, you're both members of the site - if you log in before you post a response, it will be automatically posted immediately.  the delayed comment system is just for users not logged in, due to computer spam.)

Who Made the Latin American Poor People Poor?

          Your article is very well written. These are questions that I and many others have considered. This is the first time I have seen most all the issues covered in a well reasoned and succinct, chronological way. What I most appreciate is that you let the reader come to their own conclusion.

          As you may be suggesting, regarding your friend's blog entries on Honduras, these are universal questions. In Tibet I noticed how similar the native people were to the North American Indians and in turn, the similar affects caused by the domination of a more powerful culture. In North America the Europeans crushed the Indians, the Chinese are obliterating the Tibetan culture, the Spanish conquered the Indigenous in the Western Hemisphere, dictators are grabbing for power in South America and Africa and the multinational mega corporations are up on top of it all trying to control the world!

         This makes a simple statement about human nature. Human evolution is the same on a global scale as it is on an indivual scale. A young child pushes his playmate and takes their toy. As the child matures, he learns to make different choices. As he matures spiritually, he prefers to make the most altruistic choices. It is my belief that humanity on the whole is working toward advanced enlightenment. Hard lessons are being learned through the current economic conditions. As this growth occurs, individuals and countries will realize that to do good for another brings the greatest benefit to ones self. It is this belief that supports my persistant optimism and love for people and life itself.

        Your post has inspired me to publish a new entry in my travel journals. Last month I wrote a letter to the Tico Times in Costa Rica. My concerns were regarding issues on a much smaller scale yet they are relevant to this discussion. http://www.travelexperiencecostarica.com/?p=702

Pura Vida, Pure Life and Love,


Who made them poor?

Nobody made them poor. Every group of people start out poor, they just have to work their way out of it. Certainly outsides didn't help with their averice toward the natural resources and fruit products of latin America just as the British and Europeans did to the US and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries. They didn't have any Mellons, Rockafellers (sp?) to show them the way.

Also the US built it's industrial base by selling to thier own citizens which was protected by draconian iimport tariffs on imports. Also the US had a hugh and growing internal market to buy their products.

Especially in Central America the countries are small  and have to import much of thier necessities. Trade wise it was not a good thing when they dismantled the Central American confederation and begin competing among them selves. Then there was all the internal civil wars and dissension among the various countries. I think CAFTRA with all of its flaws will force Central American countries to work together. But we can only hope! 

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