The great imperial cultures of Aztecs, Mayans and Incas, about which there are rich references among the first chroniclers of the Indies and which have been studied extensively by contemporary ethnohistorians, were based on deep hierarchical divisions and evident social inequalities.
But, without a doubt, the Iberian conquest and colonialism inaugurated the processes that have served as the basis for explaining the origin of contemporary inequalities.
In colonial times
During the colonial period, differences were legally established on racist and classist principles, so that “whites” not only concentrated power but also had privileges in public office, titles or education.
The indigenous people -and worse, the black slaves- were not only subjected and reduced to conditions of extreme poverty, but their labor force was permanently overexploited.
The indigenous people could not ascend in society nor could they be educated as were the “superior” castes. The terrible living and working conditions of the indigenous people and the “lower” layers of colonial society marked the social structure of Latin America.
Independence: no change
The situation did not change with independence and the constitution of National States. At least, until the mid-19th century, slavery was maintained, while most inhabitants were excluded from “democracy” for not having a minimum income or knowing how to read or write and the indigenous people were expressly marginalized.
The hegemony of landowners and merchants allowed them to enjoy the privilege of legally recognized wealth. It was the liberals and radicals who progressively changed these legacies, recognizing universal individual rights and the legal equality of citizens, although that citizenship census continued to be restricted until well into the 20th century.
The principle of simply judicial and legal “equality”, derived from enlightened thought and republican philosophy, has predominated during the 20th century, concealing the social inequalities that economic reality always imposed. Essayists and political scientists constantly denounced these realities. But, the development of the economy has allowed us not only to visualize social inequalities, but also to measure them. No doubt, the reinforcement produced by economic history has been fundamental.
The role of the economy
Economics was not an autonomous career or specialization, until the 1920s and 1930s, although not in all countries. Normally, studies in economics were limited and linked to the training of lawyers, as was also the case with sociology and political science. “Economic theory” came above all, from the large central capitalist countries and it was not rare that its authors were regarded as undisputed authorities.
In any case, economic studies on national realities beganslowly in different countries and precarious statistics were published on new issues, since very elemental statistics on foreign trade and public finances were traditional.
The rise of Latin American economy is linked to the “populist” governments of the first decades of the 20th century, to the economic faculties that were founded, and also to the formation of world blocs (capitalism, socialism and Third World) after World War II, the creation of international organizations following the Bretton Woods Agreements, and in particular to the activities of ECLAC, created in 1948 and to the developmentalist policies of the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, we have a diversity of studies on Latin America in which the issues of social inequalities have been clarified, even before the modern and interesting works published by Thomas Piketty, in which, however, Latin America is absent.
Inequality in Latin America
Contemporary studies have made it possible to understand, in greater depth, some situations. It is very clear that Latin America continues to be the most inequitable region in the world: that the neoliberal ideology introduced in the region since the 1980s only aggravated the terms of social inequality; that this inequality continues to affect the lives and working conditions of large segments of the population, characterized by poverty, unemployment and underemployment, which mainly impact upon indigenous and Afro-descendent populations.
The Covid pandemic aggravated social inequalities, without yet having recovered the situations prior to 2020. As has happened in Ecuador, where inequalities have even worsened: while in 2019 the monthly income per person of the richest five percent was 43.28 times higher than that of the poorest five percent, in 2020, it was 59.25 percent higher, in 2021, 47.68 and in 2022, 47.72 percent.
And the issue is so significant that among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the UN in 2015 and that should be met by 2030, no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality and reduction of inequalities stand out.
Of course, it is also clear that the economic situation of social inequalities is not only the result of a historical past of exclusions and human exploitation, nor of the concentration of wealth in minorities constituted as dominant classes in the different stages followed by Latin American countries, but it is a reality derived from power in the States captured by those wealthy minorities.
Consequently, the solutions to the problem of social inequalities do not only involve their theoretical recognition and the formulation of economic policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, but also through the restructuring of the conditions of power.
And, this perspective is gaining strength in Latin American countries, so today there is a process of construction and social awareness -whose extension in time is unpredictable- about the need to overcome social inequalities and advance in the inevitable impact that this will cause on the sectors concentrating wealth.
*Ecuadorean historian and analyst.