The Paradox of
Inequality in Latin America
eric hershberg
At first glance there is something paradoxical about the stubborn persis-
tence of inequalities in Latin America, a part of the planet that a recent
sociological study labeled ‘‘the lopsided continent’’ (Ho√man and Centeno
2002). Military regimes have given way to civilian rulers almost everywhere
in Latin America, but patron-client relationships endure throughout the
region. Human rights are central to the rhetorical repertoire of governments,
yet large segments of the population are routinely subjected to striking levels
of everyday violence and brutality. The restoration of civilian rule over the
past quarter century has given rise to new understandings of citizenship,
including long-suppressed recognition of indigenous peoples and popula-
tions of African origins. Still, the rule of law is upheld unevenly, and discrim-
ination pervades employment, education, and the judiciary. And if the inte-
gration of Latin America into global markets has created new opportunities
for investment and employment, these opportunities for the most part pre-
sent themselves unevenly, as evident in Gini coe≈cients that, as Luis Reyga-
das makes clear in his contribution to this volume, confirm strikingly un-
equal income distribution. In short, Latin America is experiencing an era of
unprecedented social, political, and economic opening, yet this new en-
vironment coincides with—and perhaps even reinforces or exacerbates—
longstanding, deeply entrenched dynamics of exclusion and inequality.
Seeking to make sense of current trends, some scholars have been tempted
to conclude that underlying structures refined since the Iberian conquest have
proven their enduring powers. Indeed, historians and others have often
tended to invoke durable inequalities in Latin America as evidence of the
intractable power of continuity to explain present conditions. Ironically, this
misses what is so important about examining inequality since, in spite of the
apparent timelessness of the gap between haves and have-nots, Latin America
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