Development, The Brain Food Series

The Brain Food Series: The Americas

My time in Ecuador so far has been one of adapting to a new lifestyle, which can be hard at times but also so rewarding. Now that all my daily habits have been shaken up I feel free to break stubborn old habits and form healthy new ones. I’ve been unplugging from my computer and iPhone more than ever and getting back to reading for pleasure. Throughout the next year I plan to  share with you a bit about how I’m thinking about development, Latin America, justice, and faith, particularly in light of what I’m reading. Here’s the first installment of what I’ll call The Brain Food Series. Enjoy!

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When many people think of the term “America” they often think of just the United States, but in his book The Americas, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reminds readers that this term applies to the entire Western Hemisphere, north and south. For the majority of history the Americas have actually been perceived as one continuous region, strongly united in their many similarities rather than divided by their differences. So how did we get to this place of such a marked difference between the more developed and politically stable divide of the United States (plus Canada) and everything south of the Rio Grande?

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Fernández-Armesto flies through hundreds of years of the history of the Western Hemisphere, but extracts some important truths about the patterns of development that hold true for Ecuador and most of Latin America even today. He shows that the inequality of wealth and drastic difference in development between the United States / Canada and the rest of the Americas has roots stretching back as far as colonization, instead of in personal moral failures, hot climate, or the prevalence Catholicism, as some absurdly propose. For example, longer wars of independence in Latin American nations led to power vacuums that only the military could fill, which in turn led to the patterns of populism and caudillismo that prevail today. The roots of division and difference burrow deeper than most politicians and historians of today take the time to recognize.

Beyond just tracing the historical roots for the differences between north and south that we see today, I found his analysis to have even more deeply-reaching implications for development challenges we face today. While the Americas may be more divided than ever before, Fernández-Armesto reminds readers that this doesn’t prevent many Latin Americas from a game of self-comparison to the United States that can lead to disastrous results. Throughout my travels in Latin America I have witnessed a startling tendency towards shame in one’s own nation in comparison to the United States, and even idolization that glosses over many of the United States’ own problems. The United States may be more developed than Latin America in certain regards, but transplanting the development models and processes that brought prosperity to the United States would almost certainly end with different results in a region with such a different set of needs and circumstances.

The posture of my heart has always been to build bridges between the United States and Latin America, celebrating that we are different, and that this can make us both better off. Fernández-Armesto takes on a fundamental misconception about the character of the United States to make a final case for the need for international cooperation in our hemisphere. When we tend to think of he United States we think of rampant individualism, of everyone having the freedom and the motivation to make the best lives for themselves that they can;  but Fernández-Armesto argues that it is truly connectivity that has made the United States great. Americans pride themselves on their ability to come together to overcome challenges, on our fierce protection of the inalienable right we all have to contribute to the decision-making of our nation, of our collective institution-building. He states “People in the United States are cloyingly gregarious, profoundly communitarian, boringly conformist. They get glutinously embedded in any community they can: the workplace, high school and college alumni associations, the neighborhood…Civic-mindedness, not individualism, is what makes ‘America’ great (196). The state of our Congress at the moment may not inspire much confidence for consensus-building across differences of perspective, but perhaps our collective outrage at the lack of bipartisan cooperation points to our spirit of togetherness more than anything else.

This is where I see hope for building bridges of love and compassion– on this spirit of solidarity and unity that I know makes The Americas great. Fernández-Armesto demonstrates that the idea of our division is a relatively new one– we have a greater history of being The Americas than of being sliced up and divided not just as nations but as north and south, highly-developed and less-developed, influential and inconsequential. My hope is that we can get back to this place of unity of spirit; I know that we would all be better because of it.

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