To understand contemporary Latin America — in economic, political, social and cultural terms — we need to first set the basic historical context and the parameters it established for subsequent developments. Latin America, more than elsewhere perhaps, is living a present that is very much shaped by its history. We see this for example in terms of inherited land ownership patterns and external economic dependency. After a quick review of the colonial and post-colonial periods, this chapter focuses on the period since the 1930s when most countries began to move ‘beyond oligarchy’, the subject of the first section below. After World War II most countries moved into a phase when democracy was consolidated but in a variant that may be called national-statism, given the importance of the state as a matrix for social change. Democracy collapsed under the contradictions of dependent development in the 1970s (if not earlier) which led to the era of military authoritarianism in many countries. Finally, there was a period from the mid 1980s onwards of re-democratization across the continent, in spite of the constraining effects of the economic programmes of neo-liberalism set by the international economic bodies such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The achievements and contradictions of the democratic period are considered in Chapter 6 which deals in particular with the dominance of left-wing governments in many countries.
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