Latin America is known as the world’s most unequal region. And for most countries of the region, this reputation is well earned: inequality is one of their most durable characteristics, a true structure in the sense that Fernand Braudel gives to this term. Decades and centuries go by, governments come and go, revolutions and military dictatorships succeed one another, economic booms and busts produce alternating spells of hope and dismay—but the basic, unequal, architecture of Latin American societies stubbornly remains, shaping the expectations, actions and destinies of millions of people.
One massive manifestation of this inequality is poverty. Other regions of the world may have worse levels of poverty, but in most of those cases this is due to the fact that society in general is scarcely developed and absolute deprivation is large. What is truly peculiar to Latin America is the combination of abundance and scarcity, of prosperity and decadence. The political, cultural, even aesthetical consequences of this fact are far-reaching and variegated.
But it is important not to reduce the issue to its economic manifestations, defining it as a mere matter of income distribution. Precisely because this inclination is so strong, it is crucial to emphasize that Latin America’s inequality is a social phenomenon in the broadest sense of the term—it is how wealth, power, status, knowledge and other basic social goods are distributed to create an enduring social structure. Thus, strictly speaking, extreme inequality is not a distortion or...
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