26 Mar 2012

Latin America and Asia is much more connected than many imagine. Prof. Goodman examines the historical relations between the two continents.

Latin America and Asia is much more connected than many imagine. Prof. Goodman examines the historical relations between the two continents.

The first humans settled in the Western Hemisphere some 30,000 years ago. They came by sea from Northeast Asia. Their fragile animal skin boats brought them to a Pacific/ Northwest coast rich with fish, mollusks, and edible berries and plants. More than 1,000 generations later (by 1492) the descendents of these Asians had spread south to Tierra del Fuego and east to the Atlantic numbering at least 50,000,000 people. Tenochtitlan in Mexico and Cuzco in Peru were then two of the world’s largest cities and their citizens were among its healthiest and most well-nourished.

By 1620, it is estimated that the Western Hemisphere’s Asian-origin population had been reduced to approximately 2,000,000—less than 5 per cent of its size at the beginning of the Colombian “encounter.” The frame for this astonishing decline lay deep in the DNA of these first Americans. They had likely come from a single isolated village and were relatively genetically homogeneous. The particular attribute which prevented them from resisting or gaining immunity from new (namely, European) diseases was their Human Leukocyte Antigen profile—a limited capacity of their white blood cells to destroy pathogens. Thus, in 1519, Hernan Cortes’s path to Tenochtitlan was marked by villages decimated by disease before his arrival; Francisco Pizarro’s conquering of the Inca was facilitated by onequarter of its population having perished from disease before he set foot on Peruvian soil in 1530; and the Mississippi River landscape Hernando De Soto described in 1539 as “thickly set with great towns” at the present-day site of Memphis, Tennessee, was described 134 years later by the French explorers Joliet and Marquette as one with few permanent human inhabitants—the former having perished from disease brought by DeSoto and the pigs his expedition brought along as food.

The particular Asian origins of the first Americans destroyed their ability to resist their Spectrum Latin America: its Asian origin and its Asian future by Louis W. Goodman Latin America and Asia is much more connected than many imagine. Prof. Goodman examines the historical relations between the two continents. European conquerors, whose initial interest largely was to extract riches to finance European wars and trade with China. These early Americans mined and refined the silver which fueled what was arguably the world’s first wave of globalisation— the globalised trade which linked China to Europe, exchanging Chinese silk and porcelains for Spanish silver, transported by galleon vessels from what is today the Philippines to Spain via Mexico. This globalised trade lasted from 1565 to 1815, involved transactions worth billions of 21st century dollars, and left Latin America deeply divided between rich and poor, and ultimately sapped Spain’s power thanks to ruinous wars plus inflated currencies, and created economic havoc in China leading to the end of the Ming dynasty.

Today, the world is living its third globalisation, one with very important Asian components for the world and, especially, for Latin America.

(The second globalisation, sparked in the mid-19th century by innovations in energy (electricity), communication (telegraph/telephone), transportation (steamships), and finance, was truncated by the start of World War I. It had generated a commodity boom in Latin American through which some nations, notably Argentina, had reached Southern European living standards. Lack of adjustment to the resulting bust caused living standards in Latin America to be the world’s slowest growing and its societies most starkly divided for most of the 20th century.)

Latin America has shown strong economic growth in the third globalisation sparked by the end of the Cold War plus important communication, transportation and finance innovations. This growth is fueled by Asian demand for Latin American commodities (oil, copper, iron ore, soya, orange juice) and raises a familiar spectre –“Will this third globalisation end again in a bust which will reinforce the social divide left by the first globalisation and the economic stagnation left by the second?

Alternatively could Latin America put its Asian origins behind it and create an “Asian future” in which farming and mining become small parts of a nimble economic machine, in which manufacturing, service and knowledge industries play increasingly important roles? In this imagined world, good governance enables economic development, increased total factor productivity boosts economic growth, and an era of trade with neighbours flourishes, opening region’s economies are open to the world.

One of the necessary elements for this Asian future for Latin America is an end to stark social stratification and the creation of robust domestic markets to fuel the region’s engines for such growth. The third globalisation has created a world-wide concern about economic inequality. Nowhere will it be more important to tackle this issue, both for humanitarian and economic development reasons, than in the world’s most divided region—Latin America. With an Asian future to cap its Asian origins, with a strong natural resource base, and with a population size equal to that of ASEAN, the third globalisation could see a Latin America which becomes a strong and stable engine for the global economy and a region whose inhabitants can envision a peaceful and prosperous future for themselves. Without an Asian future recent Latin American economic growth may well be another “boom” to be followed by another “bust” of stratification and stagnation. That would be a tragedy for Latin America’s citizens and for the global economy.

Louis W. Goodman, a Visiting Professor in the Lee Kwan Yew School is Professor and Emeritus Dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC.