Capitalism, Interdependence and the Urbanization of Latin America


Urban growth is a worldwide phenomenon which can been linked directly to the growth of capitalism. Latin America, as we currently know it, was formed by capitalist countries, and is the most urbanized region in the world. Yet this process of urbanization, whilst attributable at least in part to its relationship with capitalism, is also about global interdependence.

During European economic expansion between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, the Roman Empire city system was essentially rebuilt across the globe, resulting in a commercial trading market with the African coast, Middle East and Asia. Cities became political, religious, commercial and cultural centers, and a class system based on land-ownership soon began to flourish.

As European economic expansion continued in the fifteenth century, new commercial trade routes were sought, with cities further establishing themselves as the foundation of this global commercial control. Though there were urbanized zones in Latin America before European conquest, the process of expansion and hegemony was accelerated with the imposition of European urban patterns and urbanization models

In Latin America’s first two centuries of colonial dependence, metal production became the most important area of commerce, principally providing raw materials to the European market. This allowed Spain to gain a dominant position in the European inter-metropolitan power system. This interdependence is typical of Latin American economic growth. Historically, urbanization in this region has been used for the fiscal benefit of further advanced metropolitan societies, and the structure of these societies has in turn shaped both the cities and the culture of Latin America.

As the region went through the process of de-colonization, interdependency remained, though this time through the economic structures of global markets rather than political structures. International relations remained predominantly based on an interest in raw materials. This culture of interdependence also became apparent on a national level, with countries becoming largely dependent on the economic activities of their cities.

The urbanization of Latin-American society happened before industrialization. Though economics was inevitably a contributor to urban growth, post-colonial Latin American urbanization was also fueled by cultural and political influence, creating capital cities that truly were the centre of Latin American life.

However, commercial capitalism did begin to dominate during the nineteenth century, with three main economic structures developing in the region. Enclave economies, where a concentration of raw materials were exploited by foreign groups, brought economic growth to some countries, though urbanization was less rapid as a result. Instead, economic development created ‘company towns’ around the location of raw materials, with Bolivia and Venezuela being two examples of countries shaped by this economic structure.

Predominantly agricultural and livestock economies, such as Argentina and Uruguay, generated strong urbanization. The export infrastructure required by such economies concentrated urban growth, creating commercial, administrative and political centers.

Plantation economies, such as those of Central America and Brazil pre-1920, were labor-intensive, producing goods for foreign companies. These countries tended to be politically repressive, with low urbanization and expansion of infrastructure. However, there are two exceptions: Panamá and Cuba. The first urbanized strongly as a result of the Panama Canal and strong presence of the USA. Cuba also urbanized, largely as the capital had the country’s administrative functions, and was the last Spanish point of control in the nineteenth century.

The economic growth of Latin America has been shaped by the dominance of external markets. Latin Americanist scholar Richard M. Morse stated that once national unification was secured, political systems were centralized, national markets were created, and infrastructure linking nations was implemented, the city was able to affirm itself as the economic hub of Latin America.

Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon on flickr