The United States is often credited with reaching global economic status with free trade; that laissez faire capitalism and open trade with all nations brought us to modernity.
In actuality though, protectionism was vital in establishing American economic dominance and hegemony. The American System first promulgated by Henry Clay was critical of the British variant of economic thought and advocated high tariffs, a central bank, and federal subsidization of internal improvements (i.e canals, schooling, roads) amongst other things. It was built on Hamiltonian principles and the infant industry argument – that smaller industries must be protected from larger foreign competitors because they do not have the monetary means to compete.
Usually this put regional interests at end and created a bitter American divide – the North wanted high tariffs and subsidization and the South wanted complete free trade to be able to sell its goods (predominately cotton) to Britain and other foreign markets. It was one of the main causes of the Civil War; the clash of economic ideologies. South’s dependence on foreign markets was so strong that it firmly believed it could fully sustain itself without the North’s industry. The “King Cotton”ideology was used as a slogan to convince Southern public opinion; Southern legislatures promoted the message that since Britain’s and France’s dependence on Southern cotton for their textile mills was so strong, they would be forced to aid them in their struggle of secession. As the Union began blocking Southern seaports, this rallying call proved to be unfounded – foreign markets just found elsewhere to purchase cotton. The British Empire turned back to its colonies for cotton markets. India increased its cotton production by 700% and Egypt did likewise. The South was severely crippled and took many decades to recover. In addition, their laissez faire ideology was downgraded. The Republican (former Whig) American System became the dominant school of economic thought.
Average tariffs percentages were at their highest from 1865 – 1900; when the United States underwent its second Industrial Revolution. Despite the predictions of the powers of Europe, who believed the American Experiment would never recuperate from the Civil War, the United States underwent the one of the greatest economic growth periods in its history and established itself as a great power and then ultimately, much later, as a superpower. The Gilded Age ensued, which was arguable one of the most corporate-concentrated periods of power in U.S history; where the pervading ideology was that the wealthy were the “best of society” and the poor “did not work hard enough.” It was this concept that gave rise to the illusion of the American Dream and dissuaded the working class from mobilizing, in some respects. It worked in the interests of the wealthy most definitely.
But aside from that, in looking at today’s economic situation; why are we imposing free trade on other developing nations if we did not prosper from it ourselves when we were emerging as a power? The IMF and its associate organizations parade around promoting free trade and pressuring other nations to open to foreign capital only to further fill the pockets of the Western ruling class, and further impoverishing those not in high positions of power.
In South America, locals have been exploited for over a century by foreign ownership of land. Many of the legislatures have been complicit with the policies of the United States and the West and allowed for large corporate entities to buy out land; usually unused and to save for “later use.” Is this the benefit of free trade? The disproportionate ownership of global assets by Western powers? To make matters worse, a failure to allow foreign capital can have disastrous consequences. Many Latin American countries had coups staged, usually led by American interests, to halt any redistributing of land to the peasants. It is apparent that the First World depends on the Third World’s impoverished state to maintain their hegemony and economic superiority; they want these impoverished nations to remain dependent on their capital and investment. Well-calculated and planned underdevelopment, as its called.
But it seems that the leftist streak in Latin America may be changing this, hopefully soon. Some Latin American countries have already enacted legislation to redistribute unused private land to the poor, such as Hugo Chavez’s Plan Zamora in Venezuela. As of now, much of Latin American land remains in the hands of foreign investors. In Uruguay, the 2000 census showed that 17 percent of its arable land was foreign-owned, but it is predicted to be 20 to 30 percent today. In Brazil, the Brazilian Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform estimates that 4.5 million hectares are owned by foreigners – but this figure is low and it may be twice as large, according to government officials. Argentinian authorities place its national estimates at 17 million hectares, about 10 percent of Argentinian territory, and about half of all arable land.
Moreover, sometimes when the land is returned back to “local hands” they’re heavily concentrated. The Landless Worker’s Movement in Brazil estimates, according to 1996 census records, that just 3% of the populations owns two-thirds of all arable land in Brazil. This only disempowers the majority and furthers economic inequality. According to World Development Indicators  10% of the population owns 47.6% of the wealth in Brazil. A study done by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Institute of Applied Economic Research or IPEA) paints a even grimer picture “…in São Paulo the wealthiest 10% had 73.4% of while in Rio they retained 62.9% and in Salvador 67%.” A product of unequal land distribution caused by free trade and neo-colonialism, it seems.
The moral of the story; modern free trade is not fair trade. Business clusters that congregate around areas of high GDP are inherently exploitative of poorer regions, taking their land disproportionately. The last things these emerging nations want is foreign capital owning their assets and preventing them from prospering. This forced underdevelopment is imposed through laissez faire legislation, and kept in place by multiple transnational organizations that preach the same ideology. It is dangerous to the self-determination of peoples and their long-term prosperity. It is exploitative by nature, but it seems that some free market fundamentalists just cannot abandon their distorted dream. And then their obscurities are imposed on the rest of us, with disastrous global economic consequences.
More info on the land crisis of Latin American can be found here
Statistics and general info on Brazil’s widening wealth gap and poverty crisis can be found here.