Political Science Now

Beyond Race or Class: Entangled Inequalities in Latin America

Chapter 6: Beyond Race or Class: Entangled Inequalities in Latin America

Tianna S. Paschel, University of California, Berkeley

Latin America is infamous for its deeply entrenched and extreme inequalities. Speaking of the specific case of Brazil, economic historian William Summerhill often states that the country is more unequal than ancient Egypt was under the Pharaohs. 1 In fact, as Gasparini and Lustig (2011) noted, Latin America houses 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world.2 In this sense, Latin America historically has been a region of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth. This was particularly true in the 1980s and 1990s, when inequality continued to rise as a result of economic crises and structural-adjustment policies imposed by international institutions including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as a condition of their loans. This led most countries in the region by the 1990s to have a Gini Index of more than 50— in which a score of 0 means that every person in the society has the exact same income and a score of 1 means that one person has all of the income of the society. To put this in perspective, in the same period, the United States—a country also known for its extreme disparities—had a lower Gini Index of 45. These patterns began to change by the end of the 1990s decade as Latin American states adopted economic reforms—including a broadening of socialwelfare policies—that began to chip away at deep-seated socioeconomic disparities (López-Calva and Lustig 2010). This period also marked profound changes in citizenship regimes as states throughout the region adopted new constitutions recognizing ethno-racial rights for indigenous and black populations (Van Cott 2000). The reforms included symbolic concessions such as the naming of these countries as “multicultural” and “pluriethnic” nations; the change in public educational curricula to include the history of black and indigenous peoples; and the naming of national ethnic holidays such as the Day of Black Consciousness in Brazil (November 20) and the Month of Black Heritage in Panama. In addition to important symbolic concessions, states granted these communities the right to highly soughtafter material resources, including large swaths of national territory in the form of collective ethnic titles and the right to natural resources.