Unfortunately, the history of Latin America has not one been one of true democracy. Middle school and high school textbooks extol the virtues of the democratic and republican forms of government in Latin American nations, however, in all honesty enlightenment ideals did not shape these nations. Certainly it was present and there were instances in which Latin American railed against the injustices of their imperialist conquerors, but overall these countries have nearly all experienced corruption in addition to political turmoil over human rights or civil liberties injustices. Therefore, Latin America did experience the age of the Enlightenment in a sense they overthrew their European yoke, but historically speaking the area has not been a hotbed of democracy.
Nearly all of the Latin American nations gained their independence from the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. Ruled not only by the Spanish, but the French and British, these nations had the framework for revolution put in place by the Haitian slave revolt in 1791. Ada Ferrer considers this to be the most important revolution of the time and to embody Enlightenment ideals, but it was ultimately a failure. She certainly has a point. With more than half a million African slaves working the sugar cane fields and all the proceeds going to French, the slaves had more than one reason to revolt against their captors. While the French reaped countless dividends from the sugar trade, the people on Haiti went hungry and their conditions were unfathomable. Led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolt ended in 1798 with the rebels controlled much of the land and even receiving concessions from the French. L’Ourverture even instituted a constitution for Haiti and they declared themselves free. That did not really happen as Haiti was still a French colony and slavery was instituted. They did not succeed.
Ferrer examines how Cuba was one of the last Latin American nations to revolt from imperialism and slavery. It has often been stated that Cuba feared the Haitian example and acted accordingly. In fact, many historians have claimed Haiti served as an instance of what not to do. Ferrer points out that is not the case. The Haitian revolution was important and so was Napoleon’s invasion of Spain as far as spreading Enlightenment ideas in that area of the world, but take into account the Haitian situation is virtually absent from many history books. It was because they didn’t win. The other nations had their own problems. They didn’t think they would end up necessarily like Haiti, but enjoyed some of the patronage benefits European associations afforded them.
A prime example of that is Argentina. After a bloody and costly civil war that waged for decades and destroyed much of the land within the country, Argentina emerged as a nation that was one of the richest in the world prior to World War I. In fact, various articles have been written about what happened to Argentina in the 1930’s and why such a thriving country, that was a democracy during its zenith, would turn into what is has become since the Great Depression. After ousting the Spanish, Argentina was still subject to British control. Most of the financial institutions were owned by foreign interests and many of the agricultural enterprises Argentina was famous for such as hides, were much more lucrative because of foreign investment. Argentina never invested in their own nation as Britain built nearly all the infrastructure that created the country’s extensive trade network. They did not own their country and would rather institute racial policies against the Native American population within their state than separate from European aid.
When foreign powers had no money to invest in Argentina, which was rife with cronyism by an elite ruling class and the native populations were discriminated against, the economy collapsed and there was no money to infuse to recover. Argentina is the stark example of what occurred in Latin America in regards to Enlightenment ideas. Nearly every Latin American nation has chosen to racially discriminate against their own Native American populations and curry the favor of foreign powers than pursue as well as implement true democracy. For example, Mexico is lauded as a long-standing Latin American democracy, yet it is one of the most dangerous nations in the world right now due to infighting amongst drug lords the government has probably made deals with. This is why James Ferrer’s standpoint will not be used in this paper. He honestly has done good work and has great intentions, but is a member of the bureaucracy that also forced imperial policies on Latin America. Hopefully he is working through his various organizations to reverse the damage inflicted by the United States and institute the Enlightenment ideals several centuries after they were produced.
Therefore, Enlightenment ideals were introduced to Latin America. There were countless civil wars, revolts and political change, but those nations never truly embraced the democratic process. Cuba waited so long to break away from Spain because it was beneficial to an elite class. Haiti was not the problem. The elite classes within Latin America only gleaned the negative impact of Western colonialism. They wanted to maintain their positions in society, if not improve them, at the expense of the Indians. They learned the Enlightenment ideas of racism, slavery, injustice and imperialism and they learned well.
Could the Enlightenment ideals not take hold in Latin America due to greed, illiteracy or was it something else? Could it have been that slavery and racism where so ingrained their society long before the Europeans ever arrived that it could not be overcome? Think back to the times of the great civilizations such as the Incas or Aztecs and slavery was always inculcated in Latin American culture. When the Europeans came it could possibly have only reinforced it as people that were more advantaged made sure they remained that way. Imperialism only supported what was already transpiring in Latin America. Therefore, the Enlightenment ideals were introduced to Latin America and were only used to improve the lot of a few rather being employed for the collective good.