Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 243 | Octubre 2001


Central America

Dual Societies: A Ticking Bomb

A lucid analysis of the social and economic climate that generates violence.

Luis De Sebastián

In recent visits to Nicaragua and El Salvador, I have come to understand more keenly than ever that the problem of many Latin American countries is that they are dual societies. A dual society contains two worlds in one: the Third World and the First World coexist within the same nation, under the same authorities and the same flag. To a certain extent, this has always been the case, but the duality has become exacerbated and increasingly strident with the advance of globalization. Latin American society has always been dual, as Cardoso and Faletto cogently demonstrated in their dependency theory, but it is now evolving into an apartheid society in which the dividing line lies not between black and white but between rich and poor, between those included in globalization and those excluded or crushed by it.

The 2001 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program shows Latin America leading the world’s other regions in inequality. In Nicaragua, the richest fifth of the population receive 64% of the national income, some 28 times that of the poorest fifth. Brazil comes next in line, with the richest fifth taking 63%, or 24 times that of the poorest fifth. In Honduras, the richest fifth receives 62% and the poorest only 1.54%—a 38-fold difference. Inequality can also be found in more prosperous, better-governed Chile, where the richest fifth receives also 62% of the income but it is "only" 18 times the share of the poorest. In the richest countries of the continent as well as the poorest, inequality is rampant. For comparison’s sake, the typical difference between the richest and poorest 20% in Western European countries is around 7 times.

The reality reflected by these figures explains the traveler’s sensation that there are two distinct worlds in these countries, sometimes separated physically by urban planning, and always separated by an impassable abyss in terms of living standards and satisfaction of basic needs. If you don’t set out to look for poverty in the marginalized urban neighborhoods and rural areas, you might almost believe you’re living somewhere in a rich country with a tropical climate, a place not unlike Miami or San Diego. When I come for seminars and conferences, invited and accommodated by universities or international institutions, I barely notice the difference in work facilities and comforts of life between this world of inequality and poverty and our world of the European Union or the United States. Perhaps the only difference—and this is a sign of the situation’s unsustainability—is the sensation of insecurity given off by the high walls, the grillwork on all windows, the barbed or razor wire on the roofs, the television cameras and the armed guards protecting the houses of the rich.

The duality of society acts as a brake on change. Given that two such distinct worlds coexist in the same state, it is impossible to propose a new national project or even a different development strategy, because one part of the population is quite satisfied with the way things are. With the Marxist revolutionaries defeated and no others on the horizon, Latin America’s wealthy are relaxing to enjoy all the luxury allowed them by the reduced tariffs, the liberalization of capital movements, the availability of new technologies and the access to financial, communications, entertainment and other services now offered by the transnational companies. With the habitually efficient technical services of the First World and the low-wage domestic services of the Third, the rich of the dual society truly benefit from the best of both worlds. Why ever should they change?
After the Second World War, European nations got back on their feet through a collective effort, the result of a social pact for national reconstruction. All social classes ceded some of what they considered either their historical conquests or privileges and managed to rebuild their countries and miraculously raise their standard of living in a few short years. But at that time, the conditions existed for all social classes to enter such a social pact, because all of them were hurting.

Everyone had lost something in the war; everyone was struggling in the post-war period and had a stake in rebuilding the nation, the state and the national economy. A similar pact, which would be the only viable path of economic, political and social development for Latin America’s countries, is unfortunately not possible. One part of society, which is a minority but a powerful one, is not hurting a bit and feels no need for things to change.

Since people’s fuse for poor treatment is not infinite, it is a law of nature that the poor and excluded will inevitably respond. Since nothing is being done to deactivate the time bomb that the dual society carries in its belly, the fuse will finally burn away and the bomb will go off. The individualistic social revolution—irresponsibly labeled "common crime"—that has been growing so enormously in Latin America that it is now a conflictive meeting point between the two worlds, announces this coming explosion.

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Dual Societies: A Ticking Bomb

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