Latin America is usually recognized as the most unequal region in the world. It seems clear that the region faces important obstacles to development. But how do we understand the challenges to Latin America’s development?

Despite the difficulties that Latin America has faced in terms of development, the region has often occupied a significant position in the discussion of what development means in theoretical and political-strategic terms, and regarding the structural obstacles in achieving it. Part of this discussion took place around the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

In a recent article, I analyze the changes in the idea of development in the contributions of ECLAC from its creation, in 1948, to the present day.

I argue that ECLAC had a very critical understanding of the challenges that a development strategy for Latin America entailed, especially during the structuralist period. However, this critical perspective lost relevance in 1990, after the neoliberal offensive and the shift from structuralism to neostructuralism. Thus, what we understand by development is not exempt from the power relations inherent to capitalism.

Development as a conflictual process: Latin American structuralism and the center-periphery dynamic

Since the 1950s, important contributions have been generated in Latin America to discuss the dominant ideas of development and the problems these ideas had for the development of the region. Part of this discussion was carried out around the ECLAC, through the contributions of Raúl Prebisch and other authors, such as Celso Furtado and Aníbal Pinto.

The objective of these authors was to offer a “Latin American approach” to development, avoiding the uncritical assimilation of contributions that were promoted by core countries but did not correspond to Latin America’s reality. In this way, there was a strong effort to understand the structural particularities of peripheral economies in order to transform them. This was the basis of what became known as Latin American structuralism.

At its core, Latin American structuralism has approached both the functioning of capitalism and the challenges to development from a conflictual perspective.

Latin American structuralism addressed capitalism as a global system formed by core and peripheral economies. Grosso modo, core economies were industrialized while peripheral economies were specialized in the production and export of natural resources.

The center was in a favorable position that subordinated the growth and development possibilities in the periphery. Thus, the center-periphery approach entailed a relationship of power and domination of the former over the latter.

This was manifested in the productive and commercial dynamics, and in the political regulations that the centers imposed, which not only protected their interests but directly harmed the periphery. Economic ideas also played a central role. In general, the dominant theories and strategies on development were generated and promoted by the center and also corresponded to its interests.

The dynamics of the peripheral economies were also a problem for Latin America’s development. The productive specialization in natural resources meant that a small group of the population benefited from that productive model, but a large part of the population could not find work in dynamic activities and did not have good salaries.

To transform this situation, it was necessary to promote the industrialization of Latin America. Industrialization would make it possible to increase the productivity of the peripheral economies, improve labor sources and wages, and reduce the region’s dependence and vulnerability in international trade. Industrialization was therefore a means to improve the quality of life of the masses.

This is why development was a conflictual process. It entailed modifying the peripheral productive structures specialized in the production and export of natural resources to break with the power relations in the center-periphery dynamic. This involved disputing both the power of the center and of the periphery’s dominant classes, who found the accumulation pattern associated with Latin America’s productive specialization advantageous.

A brief transition

Although several countries implemented industrialization strategies as political development projects, by the 1960s it became increasingly evident that industrialization was not synonymous with development.

The restrictions on industrialization were contextual to a process of greater economic and political conflict in Latin America, which led to various coups d’état in the region. These coups had the support of the United States and Latin American dominant classes. The authoritarian regimes sought to dismantle the social conflict around the distribution of the surplus that was exacerbated during 1960-1970.

In this framework of economic crisis and democratic instability, ECLAC went through a process of institutional transformation that marked the transition from structuralism to neostructuralism.

Development as a non-conflictual process: Latin American neostructuralism and the collaborative dynamics

Latin American neostructuralism emerged by the 1990s as an attempt to update the original structuralism to the new scenario of neoliberal globalization. However, rather than an update, neostructuralism represented a “differentiation” from Latin American original structuralism. My argument is that this is mainly explained by the loss of relevance of the center-periphery concept, and this should be understood in the framework of the neoliberal offensive in the region.

Since the 1970s, there was a strategy–promoted by the center and well-received by the dominant classes of Latin America–to dispute the concept of development on the theoretical and political level. This strategy involved strongly criticizing Latin American contributions to development and entailed the academic and political spread of ideas that gave theoretical support to the neoliberal political project.

Faced with these ideas, the ECLAC sought to redefine its approach by marking a distance from the neoliberal discourse. However, the neoliberal offensive managed to permeate the institution.

As a result, the Latin American original and critical contributions were to a great extent relegated from ECLAC’s renewed perspective, and other theories and approaches generated in the center and associated with the neoliberal discourse acquired more relevance in the neostructuralist approach. Paradoxically, the greater influence of these perspectives was carried out at the expense of Latin American structuralism’s imperative of avoiding the uncritical importation of concepts and theories generated in the center for the analysis of Latin America’s reality.

As a result, the center-periphery concept became “old-fashioned” or “obsolete” both to identify the obstacles to Latin America’s development and to propose strategies to overcome them. By leaving aside the center-periphery concept, neostructuralism offered a new approach to capitalism, which was based on a nonconflictual reading of the challenges for Latin America’s development.

The renewed perspective highlighted the importance of collaboration between different actors to develop technology and improve the international positioning of Latin American countries in the world economy. Consequently, the former addressing of capitalism as a hierarchical and unequal system, which operated based on relations of conflict, power, and domination was largely replaced by a new approach that highlights the opportunities for Latin America to develop through cooperation and collaboration.

The revaluation of the dynamics of collaboration over the recognition of the power relations and conflicts that hindered the development of the periphery, as my article suggests, led to a “depoliticization” of the discussion of the challenges to Latin America’s development. As a result, previous contributions on the political dimension of development, which highlighted the relations of conflict, power, and domination of peripheral capitalism, both in terms of center-periphery and within the periphery, lost relevance against the need to develop technologically, improve competitiveness, and to achieve better integration into the global economy.


Emilia Ormaechea holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and master’s in social sciences (Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Argentina), and PhD in Economic Development (Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina). Her research work has dealt with the evolution of ideas within the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, especially the changes in the approach to the state in Latin American structuralism and neo-structuralism. She is currently working as a Research Fellow at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

To read more, see Emilia Ormaechea. “Latin American Neostructuralism and Its Differentiation from Latin American Structuralism” in Review of Radical Political Economics 2024.

Image: “Concentración,” Paulo Slachevsky via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED).