on cultural colonialism

An essay

Clara Bezerra
Boston University '18

On Cultural Colonialism: Is Western Influence on Latin America Really That Bad?

When former senator Al Gore stated in 1989, that “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us” [1], the Brazilian community was up in arms. Scholars retorted with articles on Western dominance, Brazilian diplomats spoke back, and former president Lula da Silva even insisted on passing a law to limit access to the rain forest. To many Brazilian citizens, Al Gore’s belief that Brazil is not capable of ensuring the environmental protection of its own rain forest is a typical Western posture towards Latin America. Although Western influence is rooted in events that date as far back as the sixteenth century, in Brazilian eyes the cultural oppression imposed by the West has not changed, and its effects can still be felt today. They are felt, for example, by Latin American immigrants who move to the United States and encounter widespread misinformation regarding their origins. From culture clashes to political discourse, the pull of Westernization in contemporary societies is so strong it is not surprising that many Latin Americans—U.S. residents or not—share a contempt of the Western influence on the region. As a basic look at modern Brazilian literature on the effects of Westernization shows, several scholars from this region agree.

The view among Brazilian scholars that Western forces are responsible for racial segregation in modern Brazil is one example of this shared contempt. They argue that European colonizers left a heritage of white superiority in the country as Brazil’s Portuguese colonizers set standards of what could and could not be considered “civilized” through policies of “social whitening.” As the argument goes, these standards carried over into the country’s beginnings and continue to influence what Brazilians think is an ideal civilization. To them, the Eurocentric “whitening psychology” led a country to discriminate against its own black origins, and motivated the racial segregation that characterizes much of Brazilian history [2].

It is clear that Western influence in some Latin American states has been harmful at times. But as a Brazilian citizen residing in the United States, I began to observe an unintended consequence of this awareness. The general and academic Latin American communities tend to assume that all kinds of Western influence on Latin America have been, and will always be, detrimental. While I agree that it is important to keep in mind the negative effects of racial segregation, the current narrative on Westernization remains narrow and limited in perspective. Establishing a direct connection between colonial Brazil and modern-day Brazil means leaving out the centuries of history between two periods, and leads to a conclusion that is not well founded. Especially in the political world, there have been instances where Western ideas have actually aided the development of Latin American societies. Among many concrete examples of positive Western influence on Latin America is the first Brazilian Constitution. 

The first Brazilian Constitution of 1824 marked a shift from years of absolute rule to a constitutional regime [3]. For the most part, it follows French and American ideals of liberalism, which inspired Brazilian intellectuals after the French Revolution and the American process of independence [3]. Besides leading to a change in government structure, these ideals also prompted Brazilian policy-makers to include fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and religion, in the Constitution [3]. For the first time in Brazilian history, the concept of citizenship was defined [3], and citizens came to think of themselves as Brazilians. The success the United States experienced as a republic provided a young, newly founded country with the political framework to organize itself while ensuring the protection of its citizens [3]. In this way, Western influence was not an oppressive colonial force, but actually an aid in the formation of the country. 

Brazil’s next Constitutions were no different. The 1891 Constitution, which outlawed slavery and increased public representation in government, was so heavily influenced by Western ideals that lawmakers named the new State “The United States of Brazil” [3]. Even the policies in Brazil’s current Constitution, passed in 1988 and still in effect today, are in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the commitment to the preservation of human rights declared in the preamble of the Brazilian Constitution almost mirrors the preamble to the American Constitution [4]. This suggests that the discourse on human rights, which is now at the center of Brazilian political discussions, had its origins in Western thought.

When many Brazilians talk about racial segregation as products of Western influence, they forget to consider the political foundations of the country. Brazil’s constitutions are only one example of the many historical events scholars overlook when they make direct connections between colonial and contemporary Brazilian society. European and American ideals and growth encouraged Brazil’s development as a democratic country, establishing a foundation for civilians’ rights, ensuring civilian recognition and protection, and addressing citizen participation in government. A consideration of the influences behind Brazil’s constitutions shows that the progress the country underwent can be, at least in part, attributed to the West.

The spread of some Western ideals to Brazil, especially those that relate to human rights, benefited the country not because they are Western, but because they led to progress and development. To ignore this development and create a discussion around Westernization that only takes into account specific moments of history would be to entirely ignore Brazil’s political foundations. 

To oversimplify this literature by only focusing on a few historical instances of positive Western influence would be to make the same mistake. Therefore, wholesome literature on the subject would have to assess both the positive and negative effects of Westernization across multiple different dimensions, instead of shying away from the political sphere. Independent of one’s political agenda or what popular opinion is, the generalized claim that all Western influence is negative can be disproved by a simple analysis of a single Latin American country’s political history. As well-informed citizens—Latin American or not—we are at risk of being misled or losing our credibility if we choose to ignore this reality. It is, quite literally, written in history.


[1] Barrionuevo, Alexei. "Whose Rain Forest Is This, Anyway?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2008. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[2] Costa, Ricardo C. "O pensamento social brasileiro e a questão racial: da ideologia do "branqueamento" às "divisões perigosas."" Revista África e Africanidades 3.10 (2010): n. pag. Aug. 2010. Web. 7 Feb. 2015.

[3] Vainer, Bruno Z. "Breve histórico acerca das constituições do Brasil e do controle de  constitucionalidade brasileiro." Revista Brasileira de Direito Constitucional (2010): 161-91. Escola Superior de Direito Constitucional Online Database. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

[4] "Preamble." Law Cornell Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.