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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas



Beginning in 1880 many Latin American cities began to experience changes, this time not only in social structure but in their concrete make-up as well. Their population increased and diversified, activities multiplied, the urban landscape was altered as were traditional customs and ways of thinking. Urban societies themselves sensed the magnitude of the changes they were setting in, dizzy, as they were, with the whirl of progress. European travelers were astonished by these transformations that in the space of twenty years would make a city virtually unrecognizable. And it was precisely the pace and depth of these changes that lent Latin America an image of irresistible and unending adventure.

Closer scrutiny would have revealed this image as not altogether accurate. There was much that was not changing in Latin America, particularly in vast rural areas, but also in many urban centers, because the change was closely tied to a substantial transformation that by then was taking place in the economic structure of almost every Latin American country. This economic transformation had a particularly strong impact on the capitals, on the ports, and on cities to and from which some of the most sought-after products on the world market were shipped. The world market showed a very definite preference for countries that were producers of raw materials and consumers of manufactured products. That preference drove more and more people toward certain cities and created within them new sources of employment and new lifestyles. This movement, in turn, triggered a kind of activity, rare until then, that hastened the tendency to erase the colonial past in order to establish modern ways of life in its place.

At the time, the industrialized countries—those in Europe, the United States and later Japan—were reaching their zenith. They had amassed enormous capital; moving at full steam, their industries spawned newer industries that offered untold prospects. These countries needed both abundant raw materials and markets for their manufactures. Their cities were also growing disproportionately and their populations needed more food than they could produce. The exigencies of the great world capitals and of the burgeoning industries as well as the needs of the new urban centers had an indirect effect on the pre-industrial countries. At times it was a direct effect: beginning in 1898 the United States gradually imposed itself on the countries of the Caribbean and Central America, occupied territories, and obtained full rights to a strip of land, in the small country that it succeeded in separating from Colombia, where it built the Panama Canal. It was the era of “manifest destiny” and “big stick” diplomacy, the United States’ own version of an imperialist trend also evident in Europe. The Germans, who owned a good portion of the Venezuelan economy, did not hesitate to demand payment of their accounts by firing upon Puerto Cabello in 1902.

An occupying force or an arrogant ambassador was forms of direct action. But indirect action was no less effective in rearranging the ties between the Latin American economy and the economies of the industrialized countries. The ruling classes in all Latin American countries naturally acquiesced, because they perceived the industrialized countries as symbols of progress. But the trade network was controlled by the major economic centers abroad, which dictated what role was to be played by what sector of that periphery that the industrialized world was beginning to organize. The indirect action came in the form of promoting certain types of products: in the rural areas of Latin America, an entrepreneurial criterion was used to stimulate work so that one country would produce more coffee, another would produce more sugarcane, another more metals, another more grains, wool or beef, another more rubber, and another more saltpeter. The businesses were almost always run with foreign capital, and their executives, engineers and managers—sometimes even their supervisors—were almost always foreigners; the work force, on the other hand, was local, as was the little world of middlemen that production and marketing had engendered.

That little world was the one that grew in the cities, which began to fill with banks—more foreign than national—and offices where business and financial agents conducted their affairs, some buying or selling, others investing capital, others speculating in every sector in the still unexplored economy of every country. The cities also filled with wholesale and retail businesses. Their streets, cafes, and more humble neighborhoods were filled with people who lived on what they could manage to glean from the enormous wealth concentrated in what had once been the old urban colonial center.

To the old families, who regarded themselves as the embodiment of the city’s traditions, were added heterogeneous groups that the old families regarded as upstarts. Over the course of time, their contact brought changes in daily customs, among them an increasing tendency to imitate the predominant lifestyles of the major European cities. The colonial, patrician past was confined to the provinces; only occasionally did the perfume of that past drift back to the big cities, conjuring up memories of a lost tranquility. But the capitals and the cities that had grown wealthier were not looking for that kind of peace and quiet. What they wanted instead was the hustle and bustle of businesses that created wealth and ultimately luxury.

For the snobs, the proper setting for luxury seemed to be Paris’ Faubourg Saint Germain, its Rue de la Paix and boulevards. The old colonial centers of the Latin American cities, however, did not resemble Paris. The example that Baron Haussmann had set, with his drive to demolish, emboldened the new bourgeoisie who wanted to erase the past. And thus some cityscapes began to change: an elegant avenue, a park, a carriage promenade, a luxurious theater, modern architecture, were evidence of that determination, even though they did not always succeed in erasing the ghost of the old city. Then again, the bourgeoisie could entertain their grandiose dreams by enclosing themselves in the sophisticated ambiance of an exclusive club or fancy restaurant. There began the process that would transform the “big village” into a modern metropolis.