Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, Part 1: The colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian business

Though its influence may have waned in recent decades, dependency theory remains an indispensable prism through which to regard the bifurcated, or polarized, development of national economies within the capitalist world-system. This framework, in which the persistence of uneven development is attributable to the interrelation between the industrialised core and the underdeveloped periphery, admits both the geographic and historical scope to adequately tackle the hard problems of political economy and to accurately trace the chains of dependency which inhibit peripheral economies. Through two blog posts, I wish to explore how dependency theory can help us understand various ecologies of dependence in Latin America, including Brazilian agribusiness in Paraguayan soy (this blog post) and the role Chinese industrial demand plays in constraining Brazilian subimperial autonomy in soy cultivation (in the second blog post). In this post, the colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian agribusiness is used to demonstrate that Sub-imperialist powers can achieve relative autonomy within the periphery by making dependent weaker states in their vicinity.

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Beyond ideology, we need an emergency tax for emergency times: What the UK could learn from tax debates in Latin America

Paying for the energy price guarantee has highlighted a deep political cleavage around tax ideology. Reframing windfall as emergency will be critical to leverage a change in direction. 

Tax is always contentious. Debates surrounding who should pay, how much, and where the revenues are redistributed to are the heart of state power and national and global political economies. No one likes paying taxes but seeing tax only through the lens of either powerful interest groups or electoral politics misses the extent to which the contemporary tax debate in the UK, in particular in relation to so-called ‘windfall’ taxes on energy companies is driven by ideology. Ideas of tax – which ones should be levied, at what rate, to whom – are embedded in wider ideas of state and the role of government in socio-economic life. In the UK, political parties that call for higher taxes are associated with an interventionalist and redistributive state, while those who argue for low taxes believe in individual responsibility and markets. But the UK is currently facing an unprecedented economic crisis and the decision not to backdate taxes on the extraordinary profits energy companies have been making to pay for state intervention in energy markets in September 2022 has been based on ideology, underpinned by a set of ideals and ideas, when what is needed is a pragmatic response to an emergency. If opposition parties could move away from the language of ‘windfall’ that suggests the need to ‘punish’ companies for excess profits and speak instead of the need to come together to respond a national emergency, it might have helped them cut through the government’s ideology approach. To do so, there are lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, in this case Latin America.

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Who will Benefit from the Bitcoinization of El Salvador?

On 8 June, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted to pass the Ley Bitcoin(Bitcoin Law), with a majority vote of 62 out of 84. The legislation was presented to the Assembly days after President Nayib Bukele announced his intention to make bitcoin legal tender, speaking via video broadcast to the Bitcoin 2021 Conference in Miami. Effective from 7 September, all businesses in the country will be required to accept bitcoin alongside the United States dollar, El Salvador’s current currency. Since the bill’s passing, legislators in Panama and financiers in Mexico have expressed interest in recognizing bitcoin as legal tender.

Rather than China’s digital renminbi or Venezuela’s petro, El Salvador will not be pursing the creation of its own cryptocurrency. Bukele is adamant that at this stage Bitcoin will not make up any of the nation’s reserves, held in the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. Rather, a trust in the country’s development bank (BANDESAL) worth US $150 million will guarantee convertibility to dollars as a safeguard against bitcoin’s volatility. In doing so, the BANDESAL trust would make sure that the price of a commodity does not widely fluctuate between point of purchase and completion of transaction.

In Bukele’s address he made mention of the lack of financial inclusion for Salvadorans being a motivation for the law. In a country where informal employment makes up around 70% of the labor force, anonymous peer-to-peer cash transfers without the formal requirements of a bank account or the high charges of Western Union make sense as an alternative. Bukele has also expressed his hope that the move will make El Salvador “less dependent” on the United States, given that dollarization ceded monetary independence to the Federal Reserve. But given the increasing centralization of Bitcoin and its reliance on big tech money, it is far more likely that bitcoinization will merely make El Salvador dependent on a different section of US capital.

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For a new macroeconomic policy in Colombia

In April 2021, Ivan Duque’s administration presented a tax reform bill labeled “Law of Sustainable Solidarity” to Congress. The bill contemplated an increment of the VAT on basic goods in conjunction with an increase in the marginal tax rates on the income of the so-called Colombian middle class. The vast majority of whom earns monthly less than 4,000,000 Colombian pesos (around 1,065 U.S. dollars). Although the bill put on the table contained some crucial elements for discussion, such as implementing a “basic monthly income” of 21 U.S. dollars (by far less than the current minimum wage). It contained little or nothing to effectively tackle Colombia’s high social and income inequality (with an official GINI of 0.526 for 2019).

The tax reform bill was presented in the mid of a severe economic and social crisis that had worsened due to the pandemic and against which the Colombian government has done hitherto little beyond the orthodox recipes. This triggered a general strike and nationwide social mobilizations that have already lasted over more than two weeks without any clarity as to their resolution as yet. The current social protest can be considered a continuation of a general strike that erupted at the end of 2019 and got into a rest due to the pandemic.

Yet, many elements behind the social movement go beyond dissatisfaction with the tax reform bill. Since 2016 after the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, which used to be the oldest and biggest guerrilla in Colombia, the government hasn’t implemented most of the elements contemplated in the peace agreement. Also, although Colombia has had macroeconomic stability for more than 20 years, an indicator such as the official unemployment rate has consistently been above 10%. The level of poverty before the COVID-19 shock was near 32%.

Thus, the following question arises, what does it mean to have macroeconomic stability to the population? A call to think outside the box on what the government can or can’t do must be considered under other lenses. In view of the worsening of the social, political, and economic crisis in Colombia and the need to develop economic policy alternatives to the government’s orthodox position, a group of citizens and academicians wrote the open letter below to respond to those who argue the TINA mantra and believe that there’s a consensus in economics to support tax reforms amidst the COVID-19 epidemic.

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Debunking the ‘Free Market Miracle’: How industrial policy enabled Chile’s export diversification

Assessing industrial policies in Chile remains a rather contentious and divisive topic. Chile has long been held up as an almost‐textbook example of the success of ‘letting the market work’, as there was a broad agreement among mainstream economists that Chile has largely succeeded in promoting strong and stable growth because it has embraced free market policies. At first glance, this may seem believable.  Afterall, Chile has one of the fastest growth rates in Latin America since its neoliberal turn in the 1970s. Despite the continuing significance of copper, it has also managed to diversify into other sectors and acquire new competitive advantages between the 1960s and 1990s. The dominant view sustains that the successful emergence of new competitive sectors in Chile’s export basket are the result of four decades of commitment to liberalization and free market policies. However, this post, which is based a recent study, shows that Chile’s export diversification was not the result of free market policies, but of carefully crafted government interventions. The idea of Chile as a ‘free-market miracle’, as first described by Milton Friedman, is therefore one of the most enduring myths associated with recent economic development history.

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The Changing Face of Imperialism: Colonialism to Contemporary Capitalism

By Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo

How is imperialism relevant today? How has it mutated over the past century? What are different theoretical and empirical angles through which we can study imperialism? These are the questions we deal with in our edited volume on The Changing Face of Imperialism (2018).

We understand imperialism as a continuing arrangement since the early years of empire-colonies to the prevailing pattern of expropriations, on part of those who wield power vis-à-vis those who are weak. The pattern of ‘old imperialism’, in the writings of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, were framed in the context of the imperial relations between the ruling nations and their colonies with political subjugation of the latter, captured by force or by commerce, providing the groundwork for their economic domination in the interest of the ruling nations. Forms of such arrogation varied, across regions and over time; including  the early European invasions of South America, use of slaves or indentured labour across oceans, and the draining off of surpluses from colonies by using trade and financial channels. Imperialism, however, has considerably changed its pattern since then, especially with institutional changes in the  prevailing power structure.

The essays in the volume offer a renewed interpretation, which include the alternate interpretations of imperialism and its changing pattern over space and time, incorporating the changing pattern of oppression which reflects the dynamics underlying the specific  patterns of oppression. The pattern can be characterised as ‘new imperialism’ under contemporary capitalism as distinct from its ‘old’ form under colonialism. The varied interpretations of imperialism  as in the literature do not lessen the significance of the common ground underlying the alternate positions, including the diverse pattern of expropriations under imperialism.

The volume offers fourteen chapters by renowned authors. In this blog, we organise them in the following manner: the first five of those deal with the conceptual basis of imperialism from different angles, the next three chapters deal with contemporary imperialism, and then the rest six chapters of book deal with India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism.

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The Washington Counterfactual: don’t believe the Washington Consensus resurrection

By Carolina Alves, Daniela Gabor and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

Decades of research have documented the devastating impacts of the Washington Consensus in the developing world. Yet revisionist accounts of this story have emerged in recent years. Remarkable amongst these, a recent blog post by the Peterson Institute for International Economics –  “Washington Consensus stands the test of time better than populist policies” – draws on research that is jaw-droppingly ideological and flawed. 

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Latin America: still caught in the capital flows trap

In a recent article, I discussed the poor state of Latin American economies drawing on some rather obscure works by Raúl Prebisch, explicitly addressed to the disturbing role of capital flows on (primarized and open) Latin American economies. I find that the post-2008 cyclical trend of capital flows is an exacerbated version of what has been affecting Latin America since the days of Prebich .

Mainstream literature on capital flows to developing countries has shared two important commonalities since the 1990s. This literature, for example in the tradition of New Institutional Economics,  tends to assume a beneficial effect of capital inflows, which leads to an improvement of peripheral institutions, whose deficiencies are ostensibly the main cause of economic turmoil and/or failure in attracting capital flows. In doing so, however, mainstream economists deliberately overlook the asymmetric characteristics of the international monetary system and the persisting hegemony of the US Dollar. 

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