Foreign Policy Blogs

The Great Latin American Class Debate

The optimism over Latin America’s economically mobile population has missed the large segment that remains vulnerable—not in poverty but still at risk of falling back into it. Photo: Monique Naoum.

The optimism over Latin America’s economically mobile population has missed the large segment that remains vulnerable—not in poverty but still at risk of falling back into it. Photo: Monique Naoum.

This week the BBC was promoting a new study that redefined the traditional class structure in Britain into new modern categories. With the assistance of some U.K. universities and research institutes, they made a class calculator that can be taken online and will define in what part of British society you currently belong. You can find the link to the survey here — I suggest you take a turn as it is fun and interesting. On the BBC World Service, they compared the seven new categories of classes redefined in the study with the traditional class and caste system in India. While there were changes and movement due to certain lower classes gaining additional wealth over the generations, the class system and caste systems are still very prominent in India, affecting how people work, live, socialize and define themselves politically.

Latin America is not a stranger to a ridgedly defined class system, and some conclusions from the discussion on Britain and India could be easily applied to many countries in the region. One issue that was raised by the expert on India’s caste system was that while some lower castes enjoyed some economic success, their identity in their caste system defined much of their political support in the greater political system in their region in India. It could be the case that a wealthy entrepreneur could also support a social left leaning party in such a conflict among classes, even if the party they support is not considered business friendly. So much was the divide among classes that political support may be secured not for a positive policy approach, but an approach that reasserts the divide among classes even if some from the lower class had the funds and mobility to become part of the top economic percentile of the population. In this case, class systems could result in possible “entrepreneurial socialists” due to a narrowly defined class structure.

In the upcoming election in Venezuela, the strategy that may define how much the opposition wins or loses in the election may not be solely based on the popular support Hugo Chavez’s base has for the party and Maduro. While many socially oriented voters in Venezuela supported Chavez, the balance of the vote may depend just as much on how they see the opposition as coming from a different class in Venezuelan society and how they see those classes supporting social goals in the next presidential term. If the Venezuelan opposition ends up being defined as a different class that can never be permeated or become accepting of hard working and innovative lower class individuals, then those classes that have no opportunity to grow will inevitably choose and change or revolution over promoting elites into power. This underlying narrative in Venezuelan and Latin American society may keep the leftists in the region around for a long time, even without their natural leaders being present in future debates.

The inherent problem with strong class systems is that it solidifies traditional systems that may not work to benefit the nation as a whole. The result is that the best and brightest that should come out of fair and healthy competition in society are stifled at the whims of a few powerful elites. Without a way to benefit from hard work and innovation, a country can never move forward or grow because the elite structure that benefits from current and past contradictions in society will keep the nation from innovation and growth in order to maintain the awards of a system that keeps them in an elite posture. One of the best examples illustrating the errors of class limitation in Latin American society is the progressive and organised nature of the non-documented worker community in the United States. Most undocumented workers in the United States come from Mexico and Latin America to the U.S. due to a lack of jobs in their own countries and a limitation on their ability to grow and prosper in society in the region. Despite not having the legal rights to work in the United States, many undocumented workers earn and save to such a great degree that they have rebuilt many of their communities back home and now have ownership of one or more homes in their community as well. Funds coming from lower class undocumented workers in the United States compete with the levels of national revenues in Mexico that come from Mexico’s oil industry, placing Mexico’s illegal émigrés in direct competition with Mexico’s upper classes that run much of PEMEX and Mexico’s energy sector.

Despite having a legal limitation to earn and work in the United States, the opportunities for undocumented workers to rebuild their own communities in Mexico and Latin America grew from nothing into Mexico’s largest source of national revenue. This socially orientated industry came from innovation, hard work and growth, separated from class limitations. The rebuilding of Mexico’s hinterlands through the work of socially oriented entrepreneurs comes from a group of individuals limited in both Mexico’s class system and America’s legal system. The only lesson to be learned in their class is that an entrepreneurial spirit will come naturally from innovative individuals when they find an opportunity for a better life for themselves and their communities.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration