Latin America in the New Global Capitalism

Article excerpt

DURING THE MID-1980S, I WOULD TRAVEL FROM my home in Nicaragua to San Salvador, El Salvador, where I frequented the campus of the Central American University. At lunchtime we would exit the main campus gates to one of the city's principal thoroughfares, the Autopista Sur, dotted by rustic locally owned restaurants serving El Salvador's signature plate, pupusas. Today, there is not one pupusería outside the university gates. The skyline is instead blighted by an endless array of signs beckoning diners to all the well-known transnational fast food chains, from Burger King to Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken to Panda Express and Pollo Campero. This "McDonaldization" or "Warlmartization" - the globalization of what were once local and national retail sectors - has taken Latin America by storm. In the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, transnational supermarket and retail outlets increased their percentage of the Latin American retail market from 1 0% to 60% . By the 2 1st century, Walmart became Mexico's largest private employer, controlling over half of all supermarket sales.

The new face of global capitalism is everywhere in Latin America, from the ubiquitous fast-food chains, malls, and superstores that dominate local markets in emerging megacities to vast new fields of soy run by transnational agribusiness, which has invaded the Southern Cone countryside; from sprawling tourist complexes that have displaced thousands of communities to the export processing zones (EPZs) that employ hundreds of thousands as low-wage workers for the global assembly line. Whole neighborhoods have been built with remittance wages sent by the tens of millions of Latin American emigrants who provide cheap itinerant labor for other regions in the global economy. New trading patterns now link Latin America commercially to every continent. An academic or journalist returning to research Latin America's economy after several decades away would barely recognize the subcontinent, so vast has been the transformation of its political economy and social structure, as the region has been swept into capitalist globalization.

Earlier research on the global economy focused on the phenomenon of "runaway factories." The EPZs or maquiladoras, with their telltale exploitation of young women, became a premier symbol of capitalist globalization. Maquiladoras are now major components of the Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean economies, and EPZs have spread as well to the Andean region and even into the Southern Cone. But the Global Factory has since been joined by the Global Farm, as Latin America's agriculture has become an extension of the new transnational agribusiness, and by the Global Supermarket, as retail sectors have become globalized. As Brazilian economist Paulo Kliass discusses in this issue, Brazil has overtaken the United Kingdom to become the world's sixth-largest economy - a powerful testament to the economic rise of Latin America in the Global South and the changing nature of the international order.1

Yet as capitalist globalization has unleashed a new cycle of modernization and accumulation in the region, it has had contradictory effects. It has transformed the old oligarchic class structures, generating new transnationally oriented elites and high-consumption middle classes that enjoy the fruits of the global economic cornucopia even as it has displaced tens of millions, aggravated poverty and inequality in many countries, and wreaked havoc on the environment. Those newly marginalized and dispossessed have been anything but passive, as several articles in this issue make clear. Social movements of all kinds have joined in mass grassroots struggles that have helped to push a number of governments to the left in recent years and are now challenging the whole paradigm of global capitalism.

LATIN AMERICA'S INTEGRAtion into the new global production and financial system followed the collapse, in the wake of the 1970s world economic crisis, of the post- World War II development model in Latin America. …