Comparing Politics in Latin America vs. United States
- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

Latin American Politics: Theories and Evidence for Divergence within Latin America

"In this assignment I want you to show your capacity to use the different theories and evidence from the readings we have discussed in class, to respond and assess critically the following claims/questions. Please do not write more than 3 SINGLE-SPACED pages, in Times New Roman font, size 12 (margins should be roughly 1 inch on each side). We will not read anything you write after the third page.

In class we have discussed many potential theories on the fundamental determinants of divergence between Latin America and the United States. In this assignment we want you to make use of the different theories covered in class to think about divergence within Latin America. For example, what theories can and cannot explain why countries such as Argentina and Uruguay are relatively wealthier and less unequal than countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru? Please mention explicitly at least two (2) theories that are successful in explaining such divergence, and at least two (2) theories that fail in doing so. Make sure to explicitly account for differences in both overall development levels and economic inequality."

USA vs Latin America Politics

Please refer to the PowerPoints used in class (attached) as your starting ground to locate the different theories and how they apply to each specific country's history, identify them and discuss them even using other sources you locate to further substantiate them, but examine carefully all of the slides in order to locate and analyze the two theories that explain the divergence and two theories that fail to explain the divergence between countries.
Below is the essay plan I drafted. Please refer to it merely as a map on what to write on:

- Divergence has not always existed: in fact many years ago, Latin American civilizations were richer than those in North America. Divergence is a phenomenon of the last 200-250 years: the "great" divergence. Despite sustained growth, and spurs of success, the region has failed to converge. Path-dependence and persistence interact with change: while the gap did not begin during Colonization, conditions were set.

- Theories that do not explain dependency:

- -Geography 1) doesnt account for the fact that when other countries aside from AU / BEP are looked at, that climate and geography makes no difference i.e., mexico nogales / US nogales, SKorea / NKorea

- 2) if climate creates divergence, then it doesnt explain why BEP / AU were pretty much on the same footing until 1880
- because climate conditions didnt diverge in 1880, they were mostly constant up to that point and continue to be constant

- 3) montesquieu's theories on hotter climates creating dictators and thus poorer systems is wrong, as argentina had a dictatorship as well
- plus bolivia and peru aren't THAT hot theory 2 that doesn't work: cultural origins hypothesis


- reversal of fortune / settler mortality

- reversal of fortune by Acemoglu Johnson Robinson (AJR) says that formerly rich native empires were targeted

- argentina / uruguay before spaniards were literally just tribesmen running around in jungle

- hard to tame, too few to use as slaves, tribes had no mines or resources

- while BEP nations are home to inca empires (peru / bolivia), have lots of mine wealth (gold and silver), have the native government / king to use and control

- so extractive institutions are put in BEP nations while AU nations need diff system (inclusive) as they need to attract foreign settlers

- and if u add in Dell's Mita studies as evidence (places with mita ended up poorer even in modern day times), it shows how that stuff back then still has influence now

- Settler Mortality is a different explanation of how places got bad extractive institutions

- places with high settler mortality (BEP nations) which had yellow fever, malaria, etc. meant less europeans settled

- and they put in place extractive institutions, since most of the workers were native and treated as property

- meanwhile in places more hospitable to settlers (AU), inclusive institutions were put in place to lure more settlers, as well as keeping existing ones happy and productive

- needless to say you also need to make the point why having inclusive / extractive institutions makes a long run difference

- by saying that institutions are persistent, and in extractive ones, elites simply just take more and more and widen the gap that way

- as well as consolidating power amongst themselves

- you should get 3 pages easily out of it



When it comes to the ability of theory to accurately and concretely define and describe reality, there are various degrees of efficiency and cross-pollination. In other words, some theories are better than others, when it comes to explaining historical, cultural, and geographical trends and patterns. The current investigation looks at various different theories that have been proposed to explain divergence, concentrating on divergence within Latin America, and using evidence that has been discussed in class. As far as determining a single cause of divergence, it may be the case that there are multiple theories which together can help one form an idea of the historical realities of this complicated, and primarily ex-colonial, region. In other words, there may be no single magic theory which explains divergence holistically. Various theories can be combined, however, to explain why some Latin American countries enjoy greater wealth and equality than others; this author concentrates on both theories that fail to explain this phenomenon, and those that succeed. In the estimation of the current report, theories that do not work are geographical and cultural origins hypotheses; theories that seem more reasonable and logical include reversal of fortune theory and settler mortality theory. Understanding the causal motivations behind the current status of internal Latin American divergence can also help one to face the challenge of the future with an expanded base of knowledge.

Divergence in Latin America has always been a problem, as the area is comprised of a vast geographical and cultural diversity, and additionally, since Brazil has a Portuguese background and many countries in the region have evolved their own dialects of Spanish, there is also linguistic diversity. In the years after Latin American countries began to become independent from Europe, whether the transition was gradual or sudden, or even violent or non-violent, differed regionally. At this point, no one had even really given much credit to the idea of a non-divergent Latin America; however, the ascendancy of Simon Bolivar changed that historical trend. "As Bolivar himself learned so bitterly, local and regional roots in the collapsing Spanish colonies too often were more powerful in their attraction than any greater sense of identity as Americans or Spanish Americans" (Eakin. Trying to unite the continent, Bolivar came up against peoples who were culturally very disparate, and it was hard to get people from such different backgrounds-for example, take Mexicans and Peruvians, or Chileans and Brazilians-on the same page. This led Bolivar to issue his famous quotation that trying to unite Latin America was like ploughing the sea (qtd. in Eakin; more than a century later, these words still seem prophetic.

A disparate Latin America means that different theories, additionally, can be applied to various countries, with myriad rates of effectiveness. Taking divergence as something that can be relatively assured, then, it remains to be seen how this divergence can be explained through various theories. Divergence is assured, but only in the modern context; precolonial Latin America was not divergent, but in the last few hundred years, divergence has become the rule of the area. Despite sustained growth and periods of temporary success, the region has generally failed to converge. Path-dependence and persistence interact with change: while the gap did not begin during colonization, conditions were set. After colonization, "In the wake of Independence the gap between Latin America and the industrializing world was already wide and widened during the first decades after Independence" (Bertola. Absolute income gaps continued to expand, despite some positive growth rates, and in the modern era, Latin America is more divergent than ever. "Wars, disorder and political instability that occurred in the postcolonial period have been linked to the failures of Iberian colonial institutions rooted in the colonial legacy" (Frederico. Of course, colonialism is a pervasive and easy target, and one certainly worthy of pursuit, considering the changes it has engendered on so many landscapes. However, it may be simplistic to assume that pointing a finger at colonialism will provide all the answers.

As noted above, some theories seem more effective than others in explaining Latin American divergence. One theory mentioned in class that does not explain divergence in the area adequately is the theory of geography. Although geographic variables can have an impact in some individual cases, these cases are not a large enough statistical sample that they can be expanded and conflated with larger data. For example, although geography may account for some variables when talking about Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia or Uruguay, there are other countries that show no commensurate difference. "Geography has always been constant, but the divergence started only 200 years ago. Geography cannot explain divergence in the Nogales or the Koreas, or more generally, within continents. The suffering and problems created by diseases are a symptom rather than a cause of poverty (Europe used to be disease prone as well)" (Lecture 3). If climate creates divergence, then it doesn't explain why countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay were on a virtually equal footing until 1880. However, climate and geographical conditions didn't diverge in they were mostly constant up to that point, and continued to be constant after it. Montesquieu's theories on hotter climates creating dictators and thus poorer systems are wrong as well, since Argentina had a dictatorship, and large parts of Bolivia and Peru actually get quite cold; additionally, those parts that are hot are not exactly tropical.

Another theory that doesn't seem to fit or explain Latin American divergence is the cultural origins hypothesis. This theory has psychological underpinnings and raises questions about the presuppositions of the observer, and their own cultural biases or preconceptions that are being taken to the equation. In other words, if two different people are from different cultures, and they look at the same symbol, they are likely going to see different things. For example, presuppose that a religious culture views an ancient hieroglyph of a man with upraised arms. "The man is praying," they conclude, based on the religious nature of their culture. Another culture, viewing the same image, but not having the same preoccupation, may conclude, "The man is greeting someone." In either case, the perception is tinged by its cultural milieu. The means of interpretation can therefore be questioned in a way that signifies the necessity to take a step back before being too much of a cultural relativist. "Although historians (as well as others) have long operated on the widespread assumption that Latin America has a common history, when pressed hard, they have a very difficult time specifying what that common history is beyond very broad general processes, and most of those took shape in the colonial period" (Eakin.

In terms of theories that do work to explain internal Latin American divergence, one theory with some promise is the "reversal of fortune" hypothesis of Acemoglu Johnson Robinson (AJR); this theory states that formerly-rich native empires were targeted and underwent an effective inverse processing of their traditional prosperity. "In contrast, the reversal is consistent with the role of institutions in economic development. The expansion of European overseas empires starting in the 15th century led to a major change in the institutions of the societies they colonized" (Acemoglu et al.. From the perspective of this theory, in a country like Argentina or Uruguay as it existed before European colonization, tribes were scattered in the jungles, were hard to conquer, and were too sparsely populated to provide slaves; additionally, the tribes did not have the same European concept of ownership of mines and resources, nor did they have the technology of the Europeans. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru were home to Inca empires that had significant wealth in the form of gold and silver, and a basically monarchical system of tribute-based government. "Europeans were more likely to introduce institutions encouraging investment in regions that were previously poor. This institutional reversal accounts for the reversal in relative incomes" (Acemoglu et al.. In the process of reversal, extractive institutions are put into the native culture and society; different systems are needed for different areas with their myriad resources and complexities. Later, when "International trade was increasingly moving towards skill-intensive products, inequality gave rise to serious shortcomings in terms of human capital accumulation" (Bertola. This situation then arguably led to slow rates of change when it came to technology adoption. Dell's Mita studies also show how the colonial past still has influence over the present.

Another working theory used to explain internal divergence in Latin America is the theory of settler mortality. According to this explanation, poor extractive institutions are explained by a process in which high settler mortality led to fewer colonialist inroads making it to the country. From this perspective, the Europeans' colonization strategy was in large part formed by their mortality experience in any given region. In places with high mortality like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, which had yellow fever, malaria, etc., fewer Europeans settled. As a result of having weaker numbers in these areas, the Europeans also, "created weaker institutions; where they were safer, they set up stronger institutions. Using mortality rates... the authors concluded that differences in colonial experience provided a viable source of exogenous differences in institutions" (Subramanian. In addition, this theory can also explain disparities and divergences in income, relate to the relative strength or weakness of those colonialist institutions, which were mainly extractive, since most of the workers were native and treated as property. Meanwhile, in places more hospitable to settlers like Argentina and Uruguay, inclusive institutions were put in place to lure more settlers, as well as keeping existing ones happy and productive over the long term. Institutions are persistent, and in extractive ones, elites simply take more and more, and widen the gap in that manner. "Settler colonies did not start out with favorable human capital endowments. It is certainly true that by the 19th century North America was far ahead of Latin America in terms of educational attainment and human capital. But this was a consequence of social decisions to allocate resources to education and incentives people had to acquire human capital" (Lecture 5). Overall, the process was one of power consolidation backed up and expounded by the powers of tradition and time.

In conclusion, this report has assessed various theories explaining Latin American internal divergence. Two failed theories in this author's estimation are geographical and cultural origins theories. Two more successful theories are settler mortality and reversal of fortune theories. It may be that a combination of theories, rather than a single one, will have to be used to explain the complicated variables involved in the relatively broad topic of internal Latin American divergence.


Acemoglu, D., S. Johnson, and J. Robinson. Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution. NBER Working Paper No. 8460.

Bertola, L.. Institutions and the Historical Roots of Latin American Divergence Universidad de la Republica - Economic and Social History Programme

Eakin, G.. Does Latin America have a Common History.

Frederico, G.. The Americas divergence.

Subramanian, K.. The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: New Settler Mortality Data.