Documents menu
Date: Wed, 13 Nov 96 14:58:50 CST
From: rich%pencil@VM.MARIST.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NACLA: The Changing Faces of Imperialism

/** 296.0 **/
** Topic: Imperialism by Dore and Weeks: Sept/Oct 1996 **
** Written 12:50 PM Nov 6, 1996 by nacla in **
Reprinted from the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
For subscription information, E-Mail to

The Changing Faces of Imperialism

By Liz Dore and John Weeks, NACLA Report on the Americas, Sept/Oct, 1996

NACLA 30th Anniversary Essay

NACLA celebrates its thirtieth anniversary by inaugurating this special essay series. In this series, prominent intellectuals and activists who have been long affiliated with NACLA will reflect on the past 30 years of Latin American history and politics through the prism of key ideas and concepts--imperialism, religion, human rights/democracy, development/social justice, and Marxism/socialism. NACLA hopes that these essays will help stimulate debate about how these concepts have shaped our understanding of Latin American politics in the past, and how they can help us understand the region's future.

Liz Dore teaches Latin American history at the University of Portsmouth in England and is a member of NACLA's editorial board. John Weeks teaches development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

"Imperialism," as defined by the analytical Marxist and radical tradition, is the process and consequences of the rivalry among capitalist states.1 Competition to dominate markets, protect investments, and secure geopolitical position drives capitalist states to divide the rest of the world into spheres of influence. Great Britain was the dominant imperialist power in post-colonial Latin America until the second half of the nineteenth century, when it began to irretrievably lose ground to the United States. By the end of the Second World War, U.S. political and economic hegemony in Latin America was virtually complete.

In the post-war period, inter-capitalist rivalry played a minor role in the hemisphere. Consequently, anti-imperialist politics focused almost exclusively on U.S. economic and political domination. Just as British radicals at the end of the nineteenth century treated their country's imperial role as the defining and perhaps eternal characteristic of imperialism, so have U.S. radicals in the second half of the twentieth century equated imperialism with U.S. domination. For many on the left, the term was less important as an analytical concept than as a political slogan to rally against the United States. Such a reduction of the term "imperialism" is ahistorical, however, since larger countries have dominated smaller ones throughout recorded history. Conflating "imperialism" and U.S. domination is also analytically problematic, since it fails to identify U.S. hegemony in Latin America as a general relationship within capitalism.

In 1996--thirty years after the founding of NACLA--no armed insurgency seriously threatens the ruling classes in any Latin American country. The Zapatistas, who have explicitly stated that their movement does not seek to challenge state power, confirm this conclusion. Few are the countries with the prospect of a center-left, progressive-reformist government in the foreseeable future. Given this paucity of progressive alternatives, many leftists in both the United States and Latin America look back on the post-war period as one of powerful anti-imperialist struggles, and lament a by-gone golden age of mass activism and generalized anti-imperialist sentiment. Whether the present low ebb of mass movements should be interpreted as a fundamental change in post-war Latin America is, however, an important analytical question for the left to ponder. Waxing nostalgic for Latin America's purportedly radical past, in fact, glosses over the basic continuities from that era to the present. Post-war Latin America can be characterized as a period of rule by reactionary, authoritarian bourgeois governments that were obeisant to the United States. Local ruling classes, in league with the U.S. government, systematically thwarted the will of the lower classes and the movements they spawned.

A brief review of the successes and failures of revolutionary and reformist efforts of the time will make the point. In only three cases--Bolivia in 1952, Cuba in 1959, and Nicaragua in 1979--did insurgent movements successfully challenge authoritarian rule and imperialist domination. Yet, while revolutions in Bolivia and Nicaragua brought about fundamental changes in political power and ownership, their revolutionary impact--in terms of destroying the power of the propertied classes--proved transitory. Only in Cuba did a revolutionary insurrection result in more than a temporary set-back for the bourgeoisie. Of the long list of other Latin American guerrilla movements that failed to wrest state power, only the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and Peru's Shining Path ever posed a serious threat to the ruling classes in their respective countries. Not even the region's reformist experiments managed to bring about long-term social change. Progressive reforms in Arevalo and Arbenz's Guatemala (1944-1954), Allende's Chile (1970-1973), and Velasco's Peru (1968-1975) were largely undone by subsequent regimes--in Guatemala and Chile, through a brutal reign of terror.

The U.S. government was a principal player--directly or indirectly--in orchestrating the defeats of each of these revolutionary and reformist movements (with the exceptions of Bolivia and Peru in 1994). "Gunboat diplomacy," or direct intervention by U.S. troops, never occurred, however, south of the Panama Canal. The superficial explanation for this geographical limit to U.S. military intervention is that Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean constituted the United States' "backyard." The reality is far more complex. In South America, cohesive ruling classes adequately protected both rule by the local bourgeoisie and U.S. economic and political interests. The ruling classes of Argentina (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973)--while certainly encouraged by Washington--were quite capable on their own of crushing progressive forces clamoring for social reform. The ruling classes of Central America and the Caribbean, by contrast, were often deeply divided, and lacked the power to subdue insurgent groups without outside help. In order to quell lower-class mobilization--and to buttress their position vis-a-vis rival elite factions--one sector of the ruling class routinely sought out U.S. intervention. The U.S. government just as routinely obliged, funding mercenary armies or sending in U.S. troops on repeated occasions: Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1961), Dominican Republic (1965), El Salvador (1980s), Nicaragua (1980s), and Grenada (1983).

No period exists in Latin American history in which the progressive movement was so strong that its achievements dominated an era which it could call its own. Even when successful, all revolutionary or reformist programs were rolled back--with the important exception of Cuba--often to a position more reactionary than before. In this sense, the reactionary 1990s fit comfortably into the conservative post- war history of Latin America.

Latin America has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Perhaps the most significant change has been the rapid expansion of capitalism and capitalist social relations throughout the region. In 1950, 65% of Latin America's population resided in the countryside, a crude indicator of the degree to which capitalist development was still incomplete.2 Only thirty years ago, most Latin Americans were tied to the land, and social relations of patronage were common. The expansion of capitalist agriculture--aided in part by land reform, even in cases in which its intended outcome was otherwise--prompted a massive rural exodus.3 As a result, the peasantry has virtually disappeared. Today, 76% of the region's people live in cities.4 Market-based social relations now dominate the landscape: most Latin Americans are landless and dependent on wage labor, which many supplement through work in the informal sector. The era of the patron, the gamonal, and the hacendado is over, and the term "landed oligarchy" is no longer appropriate to describe Latin America's ruling classes. In Forbes' ranking of countries by the number of billionaires, Mexico and Brazil figure among the top ten--on par with France, Switzerland and Malaysia. While this reflects the unequal distribution of wealth that plagues the region, it is also an indicator of the expansion of capitalism in Latin America.5

A prominant interpretation of this period of capitalist expansion holds that after the Second World War, Latin American governments across the political spectrum broadly agreed to pursue a national, inward-looking economic strategy based on a strong, interventionist state. This strategy, known as "import-substitution industrialization" (ISI), was based on the work of Raul Prebisch, head of the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). According to Prebish's theory, the international terms of trade tend in the long run to move against primary products; in order to develop, underdeveloped countries must therefore shift from primary-product exports to manufactures via an interventionist state policy of industrial growth.

According to this "regional consensus" view, the bourgeoisie throughout Latin America pursued in varying degrees projects of national development based on so-called ISI that were often supported by broad-based alliances, including the lower classes. ECLAC structuralism--and its first cousin, dependency theory--was, purportedly, endorsed across the political spectrum, from the left (Peron, Allende, Velasco) through the center (the PRI in Mexico, Frei Senior in Chile), to the right (Brazil after 1964, the reactionary states of Central America). These national-development strategies allegedly underpinned a cross-class or intra-bourgeois consensus about Latin America's need to contain U.S. economic and political influence. According to this perspective, the rise of neoliberalism, the dismantling of so-called ISI, and the rolling back of the state's putative role in promoting economic and social welfare in the 1980s represented a dramatic shift in Latin America's political history. This interpretation fits well with the argument that the region passed through a progressive, anti-imperialist era that has come to an end.

The neoliberal right is also a proponent of the argument that the post-war period was one during which a broad, cross-class coalition promoted so-called ISI. The proponents of neoliberalism blame Latin American governments' alleged inward orientation for all conceivable economic maladies, including inequality. In fact, the goal of import- substitution industrialization was not to replace foreign imports--which would have done little to change Latin America's dependency on primary-product exports--but to use the domestic market as a spring board to generate manufactured exports. "Import-substitution" is thus an ideological term that serves well the neoliberal re-writing of Latin American economic history by interpreting it as a period of "inward-looking" development.

Reality is considerably different, as inspection of the historical record shows.6 National, inward-focused development was not the general tendency in post-war Latin America. Governments implemented a deliberate, interventionist industrial policy only intermittently, and often in the face of opposition from segments of the bourgeoisie. The argument that a consensual strategy for national development existed in the post-war period has been widely accepted in part because ISI was pursued longest and with greatest consistency in Latin America's two largest countries--Mexico and Brazil.7 This strategy was also applied in Argentina and Chile, though it was not pursued consistently, or for very long, in either. In Argentina, ISI was partially abandoned after the fall of Juan Peron in 1954, then further undermined by his successors. Chile--reviled by neoliberals as the country most afflicted by ISI--implemented the policy inconsistently until the mid-1950s, then abandoned it with a vengeance in 1973. The idea that ISI dominated Chile's development strategy in the 1950s and 1960s is in great part a creation of the neoliberals--a crude attempt to glorify the supposedly bold economic "reforms" of the murderous Pinochet regime. Peru, another severe sinner in neoliberal eyes, was in the ISI camp for an even shorter period. Velasco's reformist military regime (1968-1975) followed the ISI strategy, but it was dropped with his ouster and revived only briefly under Alan Garcia's government a decade later. With the possible exception of Venezuela, ISI was not implemented consistently and seriously in any other Latin American country.8

Nor was ISI a Latin American version of economic nationalism. To the degree that some Latin American governments flirted with interventionist industrial policy at all, such interventionism was in fact the general orthodoxy of the post-war period both in developed and underdeveloped countries. Economic strategies pursued by governments of the region, such as tariffs, protectionism and exchange rate controls, were part of mainstream Keynesian policies pursued by governments worldwide from 1945 to 1975. In fact, it could be argued that the vast majority of Latin American countries were less protectionist and less interventionist in economic matters than the Christian-Democratic and Social-Democratic governments of Western Europe.

Since the turn of the century, U.S. corporations--Anaconda, Kennicott, ITT, Cerro de Pasco, Standard Oil, W.R. Grace, United Fruit, Coca-Cola--dominated much of Latin America's economy. This preponderance of U.S. capital gave class politics in this period its anti-imperialist character. Two types of progressive movements emerged to challenge capitalist penetration and authoritarian rule in the region. In places like Peru, Chile and Colombia, peasants engaged in vast mobilizations against land expropriation--essentially an effort to resist proletarianization. Throughout Latin America, workers and students became active in populist and anti-bourgeois movements whose politics were dominated by anti-imperialism--to be more precise, anti-Americanism.

Today, we are on the cusp of a significant historical change, with broad implications for progressive politics in Latin America: the relative decline of U.S. economic power. At the founding of NACLA in 1966, the United States accounted for one-third of worldwide GDP. In the 1990s, this proportion has fallen to about one-fourth.9 The United States still dominates capital investment in Latin America. Yet Western European and East Asian--especially Japanese--capital is increasingly important, marking what promises to be an increase in inter-captalist rivalry in Latin America into the next century.10 At the same time, the influence of the United States in the international financial community has shifted notably. By the early 1990s, Japan had displaced the United States as the largest donor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was also the largest bilateral foreign-aid donor.11 The Brady Plan, for example, famous for restructuring Latin America's debt, was largely financed by the Japanese. Other East Asian countries have also emerged as important players in Latin America. Nothing symbolizes this more dramatically than the closing of Fort David, a U.S. military base in Panama, and its conversion into an industrial park developed with Taiwanese capital.12 The historical parallel to these changes may very well be the shift after the First World War from British to U.S. economic and political leadership in the capitalist world.

This relative decline of U.S. economic power may seem paradoxical, given that the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War seemed to herald an unprecedented U.S. hegemony worldwide. During this period of ideological and geopolitical rivalry between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union acted as a partial constraint on U.S. political domination of Latin America. The clearest example is the Cuban revolution, in which Soviet backing prevented the United States from imposing a military "solution" to Cuba's assertion of independence. Although Washington has not intervened militarily in the region in the 1990s, except in Haiti, it has retained its role as the dominant external political power.

Most observers expected that Washington's unchallenged political hegemony would translate into an expansion of U.S. economic control over the hemisphere. The approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seemed to indicate that this was indeed the case. Yet NAFTA can be interpreted as an attempt by the United States to arrest growing East Asian and Western European influence over markets and financial investments in Latin America by constructing a regional trading bloc over which it exercises complete domination. While many see NAFTA as the ultimate expression of U.S. domination, it may actually symbolize the long-term decline of U.S. economic power and increased competition among capitalist powers in Latin America. The case of Great Britain again offers a historical precedent. After the Second World War, the government of Great Britain attempted to bind its colonies and former colonies closer through the creation of the "Commonwealth" in order to stave off its decline as a "Great Power."

Another recent example of growing conflict among capitalist powers in Latin America is the Helms-Burton Act, which seeks to prevent foreign investment, mainly Canadian and Western European, in Cuba. Governments and capitalists in Western Europe, Canada and East Asia have, without exception, expressed their outrage at this flagrant attempt by the United States to assert its control over Cuba--perhaps the most intense display of inter-capitalist rivalry in Latin America since before the Second World War.

The relative decline in importance of the United States as an economic power in the post-war period will have significant effects on Latin America, particularly for progressive politics. Anti-Americanism was central to progressive politics in the region. Today, Asian firms are increasingly prominent in manufacturing, timber and fisheries. Investors from Western Europe, Asia, and other Latin American countries have bought recently privatized industries, such as telecommunications and utilities. This may explain in part why anti-Americanism features less prominently in student and trade-union struggles than it did a generation ago. In general, class politics plays a less important role in contemporary Latin America than was the case thirty years ago, partly because trade unions have been seriously weakened by neoliberal policies. Progressive politics today tend to concern women's and indigenous issues. In identity politics of this kind, patterns of capital investment and geopolitics seem to be less central than they were to the class-based struggles of a few decades ago.13

Progressives working on behalf of social change in Latin America ponder the future with a sense of pessimism, which deepened after the electoral defeat of the Workers' Party in Brazil in 1994.14 This pessimism is misplaced. Latin America today is not in a progressive phase. But the past triumphs of a progressive option--the Cuban revolution, the election of Allende--were isolated moments. The present, rather than a contrast with the past, is actually an extension of Latin America's history of conservative rule.

Capitalist development in Latin America has not improved the living conditions of the vast majority of the continent's population.15 On the contrary, a select few have prospered, while nearly half live in poverty.16 The development of capitalism--and the contradictions that it engenders--lay the basis for reform through the rise of the working class as an economic force. Today, wage labor is more important economically in Latin America than ever before. On this basis, new and strong progressive movements may well be built in the future. As in Brazil, the fortunes of workers' parties will ebb and flow, but they are nevertheless an essential part of the current.

Sidebar: NACLA on Imperialism, 1966-1996

At the heart of U.S. foreign involvement lies private corporate expansion.... U.S. corporate structure is increasingly worldwide in scope and this, more than any other single factor, accounts for U.S. counter-revolutionary involvement throughout the world. For U.S. corporate and financial interests and the governments they control, revolution and independent national development are equated with exclusion of U.S. interests from the marketplace. Such exclusion is, for them, a threat to their very survival.

--Vol. 2, No. 2, April 1968

So-called aid, with all its well known conditions, means markets and greater development for the developed countries, but has not in fact managed to compensate for the money that leaves Latin America in payment of the external debt and as a result of the profits generated by direct private investment. In one word, Latin America gives more than it receives.

--Gabriel Valdes, Foreign Minister of Chile, Vol. 3, No. 8, December 1969

The Alliance for Progress, which attempted through accelerated industrialization to restructure and strengthen the local bourgeoisie into a buttress for U.S. operations, failed miserably. Instead, military dictatorships, which are a good indication of the weakness and disunity within the bourgeois ranks, have become the most accepted and effective form of government.

--Vol. 5, No. 6, October 1971

The increased consciousness of U.S. objectives, produced to a great extent by the success of the Cuban Revolution, has forced the imperialists to employ even more covert methods of exploitation.... By working through the IMF and the World Bank, by shrouding its purpose in the language of international "developmentalism," the United States can increase its demand on Third World countries without incurring proportionate anti-U.S. sentiment.

--Vol. 7, No. 7, September 1973

The military coup against the Unidad Popular government was the end product of a long and tenacious campaign by the Chilean right, aided by U.S. government and corporate leaders, aimed at reversing the tide of history in Chile.... U.S. involvement in the coup...reached beyond the "invisible" economic blockade and included financial and material aid to the civilian and military forces which overthrew Allende. The U.S. anti-Allende actions complemented the Chilean right-wing offensive, and neither can be understood in isolation.

--Vol. 7, No. 8, October 1973

The Carter administration's efforts to halt the most flagrant violations of human rights in the Southern Cone, without challenging the underlying social system which has brought about these violations, is like a doctor treating the more sensational symptoms without attacking the disease. The problem is imperialism itself. U.S. efforts to restrain excessive violations...will always be checked by the need to preserve and defend the existing global system of economic and property relations.

--Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April 1979

An empire is sustained, in part, by the image of its invincibility. If it suffers defeats in its own backyard, questions are raised about its strength throughout the world, both among its enemies and its allies. Herein lies the real U.S. stake in El Salvador.

--Vol. 14, No. 1, January/February 1980

The battle [against the Sandinista government] is not going on at the ideological and political levels alone, and it is not being fought out primarily among Nicaraguans with merely aid and comfort from the Reagan administration. Underpinning all these attempts to break the fragile national unity in Nicaragua is the first and most basic level of the U.S. assault: economic warfare. The hoped-for sequence of events is that the disruption of economic activities will lead to social unrest, which in turn will induce political turmoil.

--Vol. 16, No. 1, January/February 1982

A critical examination of U.S. media coverage of events in Grenada from the advent of [Maurice Bishop's] New Jewel government in 1979 to the U.S. invasion [in 1983] shows that while the Reagan administration prepared the Grenadian dish for public consumption, the nation's print and electronic media set the table.... Administration officials lectured the public on, and the press duly reported, not a U.S. invasion against Grenada, but a U.S. confrontation with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Grenada had disappeared. How much easier to win support for a battle against the Soviet Union--picking someone "our own size"--than little Grenada.

--Vol. 18, No. 1, January/February 1984

Not so long ago, most everyone on the left agreed that U.S. military intervention in the internal affairs of another country should a priori be opposed. The case of Haiti has shattered that consensus.... [Some] oppose intervention in Haiti in any form, [while others] think only the United States has the clout--not to mention the moral responsibility--to restore Aristide to power.

--Vol. 27, No. 4, January/February, 1994


1. See Tom Kemp, Theories of Imperialism (London: Dobson Press, 1967), and Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (London: Blackwells, 1983), pp. 223-27.

2. J. Wilkie et al., Statistical Abstract of Latin America, Vol. 30, Part 1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), p. 140.

3. William C. Thiesenhusen, ed., Searching for Land Reform in Latin America (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

4. Projected figure for 1995, UN Development Program and World Resources, World Resources (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 287.

5. "Tenth annual ranking of individual and family fortunes," Forbes Magazine, June, 1996, as cited in "The World's Billionaires," The Guardian, July 2, 1996, p. 3.

6. Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Life After Debt: The New Trajectory in Latin America (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 1992), and The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

7. Based on World Bank figures cited in the Financial Times (U.K.), June 25, 1996, p. 16.

8. See Ulmaz Akyuz, "New Trends in Japanese Trade and Foreign Direct Investment, Post-Industrial Transformation and Policy Challenges," East Asian Development: Lesson for a New Global Environment (Geneva: UN Conference on Trade and Development, 1996).

9. UN Commission on Trade and Development, Yearbook of Trade and Development (Geneva: UNCTAD, 1995).

10. Central America Report, Vol. 23, No. 23, July 20, 1996, p. 7.

11. Capitalism can develop during periods of crisis as well as periods of growth. See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970), pp. 652-58.

12. See Victor Bulmer-Thomas, ed., The New Economic Model in Latin America and Income Distribution (London: Macmillan Press, 1996).