Sport and Society in Latin America

September 25, 2007

Few would argue that sports are not a reflection of the larger society in which they exist: from the grueling ball games of ancient Mesoamerican warrior societies to the conspicuous consumption of land and equipment by country club golfers. What we posit in this NACLA Report is the idea of sports as an insightful social barometer. We attempt to show how inherent social, economic and political forces in the societies of Latin America and the Caribbean are indicative of—sometimes even defined by—the given society’s relationship with sports.

Modern sports as we know them today did not take hold of Latin America and the Caribbean until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were not endemic inventions, but introduced cultural practices. It was British traders that brought soccer and cricket to the shores of the New World as they crisscrossed the oceans expropriating raw materials and importing finished goods. U.S. soldiers, merchants, engineers and missionaries facilitated the introduction of baseball to several Caribbean islands as well as Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.

The spread of modern sports was indeed an unintended consequence of U.S. and European imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean, a period in which unbridled economic interests fueled the appropriation of vast territories and whole economies. Historically, the exploitation of the local labor pool was considered standard operating procedure and corporations have operated in the region with little regard to the humane treatment of their workers.

U.S. Major League Baseball as a global corporate entity is no different. In this report’s lead article, baseball’s discriminatory recruitment practices in Latin America and the Caribbean are examined by Arturo Marcano and David Fidler, with particular focus on the Dominican Republic where U.S. teams have denied youth the same rights they provide North American and Asian talent. If baseball became the predominant sport in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean under the thumb of the U.S. military, then cricket in the Anglophone Caribbean is the indelible imprint of the British Empire. Hilary Beckles looks at how the late Trinidadian Marxist critic C.L.R. James might view the decline of the once-powerful West Indies cricket team and how that process alludes to more significant concerns about the viability of mini nation-states within the global economy.

Like cricket in the Caribbean, the British introduced soccer to South America. At first it was played almost exclusively by white elites, but, as Rogério Daflon and Teo Ballvé explain, black and mulatto Brazilians soon took this rigid upper-class sport and made it their own, turning it into “the beautiful game,” as the unique style of Brazilian soccer is known. They describe how real-life social divisions of race and class continue to determine peoples’ relationship with the game.

In stark contrast to many of these characteristics of Brazilian soccer, Cuba’s public sports system was started with explicitly egalitarian goals of inclusion and equal access. The Cuban government has made mass sports participation an essential revolutionary activity and in the process turned Cuba into an international sporting powerhouse. Paula Pettavino describes how after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s sports system made an impressive recovery and has become self-financing through the application of capitalist strategies. The question is, according to Pettavino, at what cost?
While one could argue that capitalism is sustaining Cuba’s sports system, there is no denying it played a significant role in Argentina’s 2001 collapse. Pablo Alabarces explains that before the 2001 crisis, soccer was often employed as a tool in the construction of Argentina’s national narrative. In the aftermath of the 2001 crisis and Argentina’s disastrous showing at the 2002 World Cup, however, soccer was finally severed from any political significance, leading Argentina as a nation to discuss matters of national importance in more appropriate venues than soccer stadiums.

Concluding this report, Eduardo Galeano looks at the beauty and brutality surrounding the game of soccer in Latin America, linking it to such diverse themes as national identity, collective behavior, intellectualism, war and totalitarianism. Galeano makes clear that soccer is a force in Latin American societies that deserves to be reckoned with. He notes, “Few things happen in Latin America that do not have some direct or indirect relation with soccer.”


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