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Asunto:[CeHuNews] 27/04 - Latin America and the Evolution of World Regional Structure (Geographical-Historical Perspective on the Wealth of Latin America)
Fecha:Jueves, 13 de Mayo, 2004  14:41:16 (-0300)
Autor:Humboldt <humboldt>

CeHuNews 27/04

Latin America and the Evolution of World Regional Structure

(Geographical-Historical Perspective

on the Wealth of Latin America)


Witold J. Wilczynski




The main objective of the study is to show, how the economic position of Latin America is going to be changed in the XXIst century, against the background of the world regional structure. Particular attention is paid to the recent demise of the Western (or Atlantic) civilization and simultaneous rise of the Oriental nations (the „Pacific kingdom"). These two parallel processes are shown to be the most important aspects of the evolution of world regional structure during the last century. These Atlantic-Pacific competition creates an adequate context for the presentation of the position of Latin America in the global system. The classical (Vidalian) concept of region is accepted in the study, along with the idea of civilization developed by Polish thinker Feliks Koneczny. According to the Koneczny’s concept, contemporary world consists of some 7 regions, and each of them embraces the territory of particular civilization (tab.1). The world regions embrace national states like the civilizations consist of national cultures.

In fact, the North Atlantic region which is composed of the nations belonging to the Western (Latin) civilization, loses its former dominant position in the world (tab. 2). On the other side, East Asian economies have grown more than four times faster than Western countries over the past quarter century (tab. 3). Latin American countries have recently made essential economic reforms and their economic growth for the period of 1986-96 showed to be faster than in all other regions (nearly 2.3 times faster than the average world rate) (tab. 4). They changed rapidly their economic strategy away from state-led development behind high protective barriers and toward market determined open economies. Their achievements lead to important changes on the world economic map and can be a basis for some theoretical conclusions. They can show to be useful for all those nations which wished to improve their own economic and political positions in the family of nations.





It seems to be obvious nowadays, that the new economic geography is emerging, reflecting, among other things, the momentous changes that are taking place in the world’s financial system, particularly the impact of globalization, deregulation, privatization and technological change. The global economy is being restructured and these processes are not indifferent in relation to the world regional structure. Quite the reverse, there appeared some trends to be of paramount significance for both specific regions and world patterns. Three of them seem to be the most important. Firstly, I mean the emergence of world regions which reflect existing differences between civilizations. The world can not be longer interpreted as a composition of two or three competing economic and political systems. There exists a variety of cultures and regions which sometimes makes an impression of anarchy. Along with the emergence of world regions there started to develop various international entities and alliances. The second significant process is the disintegration, economic fall and demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. At the third place we have to mention the ascent of China to world power and the growing significance of the Pacific Ocean.

Latin America, as a region and as a civilization, is not in the center of those profound and far reaching changes. During the ending century the positions and roles played by particular regions have been greatly changed and Latin America is not the exception. To assess the position of Latin America in the future world system is the main objective of this study. However, it could not be done without taking into account the most significant changes in the world regional structure. The last decades have seen spectacular growth of the Pacific basins economies and the consolidation of the so called Pacific community, or Pacific region. Simultaneously, the community of northern Atlantic, or Atlantic region, has lost its former dominant position in the world, and started to disintegrate. Latin America as a whole is neither a part of Atlantic nor Pacific region. It creates the region itself and the aim of this study is to assess its position and role against the background of the evolution of the world regional structure.


Civilizations and regions – explanation of the notions

Latin America is one of the world regions as well as one of the world civilizations. As a region it is very well defined embracing all the American lands south of Rio Grande. As a civilization it shows a mixture composed of the European (Latin) elements and the American Indians native cultures. It is the necessity to explain meanings of the aforementioned notions of civilization and region. In the history of geographical thought they used to appear together for no less than a century. Paul Vidal de la Blache made civilisation one of the key geographical notions. Geography’s central aim should be, according to him, to grasp the ongoing dialectic of milieu and civilisation. The former provided a range of possibilities, the latter dictated the parameters of choice within that range. And at the interface between milieu and civilization was carved a paysage humanisé – living landscape recording how particular groups in their experience had interpreted, valued, and utilized their environments. Vidal understood milieu as integrated physical and biotic observable patterns and processes. Civilization is, on the other hand, set of values, habits, beliefs, and ideas accepted and used by a particular group of people. According to Anne Buttimer, the essence of Vidal’s approach to geographic study consisted in "the dialog of milieu and civilisation: milieu, a variegated mosaic of physically differentiated patterns, each with an appropriate dynamism, civilisation, the source of creative and conservative ideas that permeated society’s genres de vie" [Buttimer ]. Changes in the external milieu can disrupt the established equilibrium between milieu and civilisation. But much more often such changes emanate from civilization, due to the migrations of people or ideas and modern communication facilities. Vidalian understanding of civilization in more formal shape was articulated by Polish thinker and scientist Feliks Koneczny. According to him, civilization is the method of collective life on the level of family, tribe, nation, and the state, in both private and public dimensions. Koneczny emphasized the significance of the private law (family law and law of succession) as well as the public law. Even today, in the age of global civilization, there exist several civilizations, quite different ways of collective, private and public life. The Koneczny’s notion of collective life seems to be very close to the Vidalian genre de vie and must be essential for the geographical considerations as the main factor of environmental (or landscape) change. Most of the landscape interpretations require the knowledge of the way of life understood as the Vidalian genre de vie, that is to say, they require the knowledge of methods of collective life, the knowledge of civilizations. Civilizations are then associations of people who live in a special, typical for them ways. Of course, in the frame of civilizations there can exist some cultural variations. For example, in the frame of the Latin American civilization a distinction must be made between Mexican, Brazilian and Argentinean cultures. Civilization is then a hierarchic notion, like the notion of region. And region means the area where the landscape has been shaped by the people who have been civilized in the same way, that is to say, who belong to the same civilization. Understanding of the region as a notion closely associated with civilization does not seem to be contradictory both to its classical, Vidalian meaning, and to its modern concept formulated in the frame of the so called new regional geography. If so, there can be distinguished seven world civilizations, which are the basis for a number of the world regions (see table 1).

Table 1. World regions and civilizations




Western (Latin)

Western Europe, North America (together called Atlantic Region)

Western Europe and America north of Rio Grande


East Asia and the Pacific

Eastern Asia and Oceania

Latin American

Latin America

America south of Rio Grande


Near East

North Africa, south-western and central Asia



Indian subcontinent


Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa south of Sahara



Eastern Europe and Siberia

The system of the world regions is not a stable one. It can change and there are three kinds of processes which can lead to the change in the world regional structure. Firstly, the corrections of regional boundaries happen from time to time, and, due to this, territories of some regions can be enlarged or diminished. For example, there is a chance for Latin America to enlarge its territory in the future, due to the growing proportion of the Spanish speaking people in the south-western part of the United States. Secondly, the coherence of some regions happens to be loosened and another connections appear leading to the constitution of a new regional entities. The most important change of this kind happened in Europe in the last decade. The coherence of the Eurasian civilization showed to be weak, and some nations decided to abandon the East and to join the Western European family of nations. It showed to be important that those nations, including Poland, have had strong historical bonds with the West for no less than one thousand years. Thirdly, the change in the world economic and political balance can be a result of the change in importance of particular regions, or quasi-regional communities. Such a quasi-regional entities are the so-called Atlantic Region and Pacific Region. The demise of the former and the rise of the latter seem to be the most important aspect of evolution of the world regional structure during the last century. These two parallel processes will be shown to give an adequate context for presentation of the Latin America position in the world system.


Demise of the Atlantic

The Atlantic quasi-region consists of two parts: Western Europe and North America, or exactly – Anglo-America. Its beginnings reach the early Middle Ages, when Germanic peoples, organized into large, federated tribes under elected kings, established their feudal states on western lands of the Roman Empire. Power was fragmented among hierarchies of military landowners, feudalism replaced slavery, and social stratification was reinforced. In comparison to Byzantine Empire, western European societies had much more autonomy in relation to the state (and much more responsibility), greater tolerance for individualism and recognition of the personal rights. Differences between the Byzantine East and the Latin West become evident, when one look at the language (Greek in the former, Latin in the latter), religion (respectively Orthodox and Catholic), alphabet, law, architecture, etc. Western European nations participated in the creation of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art., in the development of experimental science and humanism. The peoples of Balkans and Eastern Europe have quite different cultural heritage. Navigation schools in Portugal and Spain, the development of large sailing ships and the invention of rifle circa 1475, aided Western Europeans penetration and conquest of the New World. But the most important turning-point in the history of Western civilization showed to be the year 1776, due to the three events. Firstly, the steam machine was built by Boulton & Watt in England – the device that gave the Western European nations their wealth and power. Simultaneously, Adam Smith published his work on The Wealth of Nations to show how important for economic well-being is the observance of the three principles, that is to say economic liberty, personal property and justice understood as the equality in the eye of the law. The ideas of liberty, property and justice constitute the fundamentals of Western civilization and they still live in the landscapes of the Atlantic states. In the same 1776 in America the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to initiate the development of democracy – the most important attribute of political life in Atlantic states. The independent United States showed to be the most dynamic economy. America’s huge resources and its liberal system attracted millions of people from Europe and after two world wars America reached the position of the world empire. Gradually, the political and economic center of the world moved to the west and the civilization born on the European soil became more and more transatlantic. In 1949 most of the Atlantic nations became member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established to defend Western democracies from the threat of the Eastern Soviet empire, representing quite different civilization and ideology. United States Army is the greatest and most powerful factor in the frame of NATO. After the collapse of the Soviet block, the threat disappeared and the transatlantic bonds have been loosened. Disintegration of Atlantic community goes hand by hand with the process of European integration. Mutual cooperation between both sides of northern Atlantic and trade has been reduced mainly due to conflicting situations resulting from the restrictions and tariffs, introduced mainly from the side of the European Union. American trade with East Asia became bigger than with Western Europe in the middle of 1980s. Simultaneously the economic growth of Western European nations became very slow mainly due to the excessive fiscal burden, which seemed necessary because the expanding social welfare systems. Costs of the economic activity are higher and higher and, as a result, most corporation prefer invest their capital abroad. The significance of the Atlantic region in the world economy has been greatly reduced: at the beginning of this century Atlantic nations produced no less than 90 % of the world GDP. This proportion is now below 50 % (see Table 2).

Table 2. GDP in Atlantic Region, 1986-1995, as a proportion of the world total value


GDP in 1986

$ billions %%

GDP in 1995

$ billions %%

United States of America

4 400 25.7

7 170 22.3


1 200 7.0

1 450 4.5

United Kingdom

704 4.1

1 140 3.5


700 4.1

1 090 3.4


824 4.8

1 080 3.4


367 2.1

694 2.2


300 1.7

565 1.8


161 0.9

306 1.0


190 1.1

302 0.9


259 1.5

227 0.7


111 0.6

197 0.6


159 0.9

177 0.5


95 0.6

152 0.5


29 0.2

116 0.4


101 0.6

112 0.3


64 0.4

106 0.3

Czech Republic

80 0.5

106 0.3


97 0.6

92 0.3


84 0.5

73 0.2


29 0.2

55 0.2


10 171 59.3

15 354 47.7

The economic policy which has been introduced in most of the Western European countries, with its high taxation, growing governmental spending that lead to the increase of the costs of economic activity, is in conflict with the fundamental values of the Latin civilization. Such a policy is the main reason of the disintegration of Atlantic region and the reduction of its importance in the world political and economic system.


Rise of the Pacific

The history of the Pacific Basin in the last century is a saga of vast changes, from colonialism to the emergence of the independent nations, from traditional agricultural subsistence economies to the industrialization, from ancient empires to the nascent democracies, from a poor, rice-paddy economy to a position of the master of the microchip. It is not possible to understand the economic growth of the Pacific countries without taking into account both the cultural characteristics of the East Asian nations and the liberal economic policy of their governments. The appearance and development of the Pacific community were not prevented by the potential conflicts on the intercultural and ideological borders which cut Pacific region. It shows how potential ethnic, religious and ideological wars can be prevented by way of economic cooperation and development. Pacific quasi-region embraces a group of nations located around the Pacific Basin. They belong to different civilizations, political systems, climatic zones and they represent different levels of economic development. The only what integrates them is that they are very quickly moving to the forefront of the world economy. Pacific region is believed to become the economic and political center of the world in the XXI century.

Pacific Ocean has been perceived as the most remote periphery of the world. This perception has been fixed in the cartographic tradition: at most of the world maps Pacific basin occupies their marginal parts, and is cut by the international date line. Till the end of XIXth century navigators seldom ventured into its remote and unsafe waters. This situation started to change when in North America the intercontinental railways were built and particularly, after the Panama Canal was opened in 1914. Western regions of the United States and Canada were growing in importance due to the huge migration of people and capitals from the Atlantic coast and the Midwest. The move of the population and economy from the east to the western coast is thought to be one of the most important aspects of American history. It was largely due to the variety of resources enhancing economic activity as well as the natural landscape attractiveness. In the end of XIXth century the transpacific contacts were initiated and Asian migrants started to establish their colonies on the western coast of America.

The opening of the transcontinental railways in America coincided with the period of Meiji restoration which ended the feudal order and international isolation in Japan. Foreign experts were engaged to help Japanese to modernize their society and economy, and in particular, to develop modern industry, to organize school system and armed forces. Simultaneously, thousands of young Japanese were sent to American universities. Factories and industrial plants were built by the government to be sold for private owners. Japan accepted many technological innovations and liberal economic system, reorganized its society and cast aside centuries of tradition to become the first industrially under-developed nation to become a modern world power. In the wake of World War II, Japan and its former foe, the United States, formed a bizarre allied relationship. America’s ambitious efforts to mold Japan into its own image showed to ineffective but helped Japanese to create their position as the second economic power in the world. Important condition of the Japanese success was relatively low level of internal consumption due to low wages and poor standards of living and, on the other side, huge expansion on the foreign markets. Very important was also typical in the Oriental tradition striving after perfection by way of regular hard work. The lingering effects of Confucian beliefs which shaped the successful formula of Japanese capitalism can not be overlooked.

The Asian economic miracle did not stop with Japan. During 1950s the Japanese way to economic prosperity has been accepted in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. These nations are well known as the Newly Industrialized Economies. Like "tigers" or "little dragons" they sprang through the gate of opportunity to corner their unsuspecting prey: the international market. They stimulated export oriented industrial production by way of various systems of preferences and tax reductions. Simultaneously they attached importance to industrial investment and technological progress. In 1960s the liberal reforms have been introduced in Thailand and Malaysia, and then in Indonesia and Philippines. These economies have been growing in the last two decades at the rate of 5-10 % per year. After 1976 the Pacific community of the quickly growing economies was joined by China. Economic reforms changed the country and made China the fastest growing economy: more than 10 % per year in the last three decades. In 1990s similar process was initiated in Vietnam and the acceleration of economic growth showed economies of Australia, New Zealand and Papua-New Guinea. All these countries became members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation inaugurated in 1989. APEC members are also three economies of the North American Free Trade Association and the most prosperous nation of Latin America, that is to say, Chile. The core of APEC is Japan and East Asian "little dragons". Their GDP value constituted no more than 8 % of the world total and has increased to 17 % by 1980. In 1995 the Asian APEC nations share in the world economy surpassed 25 %. Average economic growth in East Asia in the period of 1986-95 amounts 8.5 % per year that is to say, four times more than in Western Europe. On the other side the budget spending is 3 times smaller and amounts only 17 % of the GDP. The dynamism of APEC economies influenced the change in the economic pattern in the United States. In 1960 American economy was involved much more in Western Europe than in East Asia. American transpacific trade constituted only 48 % of the transatlantic one. In 1996 this rate was 141 %. International trade has become a great source of the revenue for the most of nations and APEC is not the exception. Its share in world trade is growing [Tab. 3].


Table 3. Export of APEC countries in 1985-1995


Export in $ bln


%% of the world total

Export in $ bln


%% of the world total














































New Zealand





Papua – New Guinea















South Korea















United States of America










APEC total





The value of international exchange between both sides of northern Atlantic was surpassed by the growing value of exchange between coasts of northern Pacific. This removal of the economic and political center of the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific was predicted more than one hundred years ago by Polish geographer WacBaw NaBkowski.


Latin America in XXIst century

Numerous theorists and futurists predicted that the economic and political hegemony in the XXIst century world will be taken over, for the first time, by the civilization of "yellow empire". But is it inevitable? The United States still try to compete with Japan and the "dragons" but we must remember that China is at the beginning of its liberal evolution. The analysis of the economic growth in particular world regions shows that the only region which could be in position to intervene in the Atlantic-Pacific, or Latin-Confucian competition between the West and the East is Latin America [Tab. 4]

Tab. 4. GDP and export change rates in the period of 1986-1995 by regions and nations

Region, country

GDP in 1995 (1986=100)

Export in 1995 (1986=100)

1. Latin America






























Costa Rica



Dominican Rep.















El Salvador












2. Asia – Pacific









South Korea



3. East India



4. Black Africa



5. Moslem World



6. North America



7. Western Europe









8. Eurasia







In the 1990s the great majority of Latin American countries changed rapidly from the kind of economic strategy that many of them had been following since the Great Depression of the 1920s and ‘30s: away from state-led development behind high protective barriers and toward market determined open economies. Mainly due to that, economic growth rate in Latin American countries for the period of 1986-1996 showed to be higher than in all other regions and nearly 2.3 times higher than the average world rate. Economic growth in Latin America is however not a result of international trade, like in Western Europe, North America and Japan. It is mainly due to the terms of trade and the less advanced process of economic integration. From the perspective of the Eastern Europe, the Latin American success is a surprise. Latin America has been perceived by the most of people in Poland as a land of weak governments, political perturbations and lack of stability. This perception is changing thanks to the optimistic news from Chile, Argentina, Peru, etc. Special role have played publications of José Piñera book and the well known essay by Huntington. This author must have noticed the development of Latin American countries and designed for this region a very important role in the future. Latin America is to be the source of economic support for the other regions. We can only hope that such support will show to be not necessary but we must recognize growing potentials of Latin American countries. What do they do to become more prosperous and rich? As we can see, they accepted some traditional principles of Western civilization, which have been neglected in Western Europe, that is to say the principle of economic liberty, private property, and justice. Also we see the growing openness of Latin American countries for the Pacific community. The "Pacific" option seems to be stronger than the "Atlantic" even if this requires essential limitations for democracy, tolerance, social rights, etc., and stronger conservative bias.

First International Humboldt Meeting. Buenos Aires, Argentina. November 1999.