Latin America has long had a reputation for inequality. It has been a place where, in the popular imagination (and all too often in reality), large landowners have lorded it over the far more numerous peasants or government ministers, grown rich from corruption, have ruled with disdain over the masses. Inequality has fueled revolutions from time to time--in Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and El Salvador (among others)--but has more often resulted in authoritarian regimes committed to defending the status quo against "communism," a catchall term that was commonly applied to any movement that was critical of the prevailing inequality.
Today, Jorge G. Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico and current professor at NYU, suggests in an essay in the New York Times that the United States might have something to learn from Latin America's experience with inequality. He writes:
The United States--that epitome of the middle-class society, of the egalitarian dream that pulled millions of immigrants away from Latin America--has begun to go Latin American. It is in a process of structural middle-class shrinkage and inequality expansion that has perhaps never occurred anywhere else.
The frightening thing is that Latin America's historical experience indicates that it is very difficult to rebuild a middle class once inequality has reached a certain point. Worse yet, the level of inequality toward which the United States is rapidly moving is simply incompatible with the kind of democratic governance that many Americans believe to be safe from all challenges here in the United States (as if money were not already compromising democracy).
For almost two centuries, the United States sought to strengthen democracy by promoting equality. Slavery was abolished, educational opportunities were expanded, women were enfranchised, Jim Crow laws were dismantled, and a modest safety net was created. Now, however, only those in the Occupy movement seem to understand why inequality might constitute a political problem. The rest of the country needs to get a clue, unless Latin America circa 1980 is what we hope to become.