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Metrocable cars travel over the slums of Medellin, Colombia, Oct. 31, 2013 (photo by Flickr user Jorge Gobbi licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Contested Cities: Latin America’s Urban Challenges

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Anyone trying to understand Latin American politics should pay close attention to urban areas. Of the 600 million people in the southern part of the Americas, 80 percent now live in cities. However, old narratives die hard, which explains why English-speaking articles about Latin America still disproportionately focus on rural issues, peasant struggles, land reform and related topics. Of course, these issues remain relevant, because land ownership, rural or urban, is still a major source of conflict. But it is clear that urban issues will increasingly dominate the region’s political future.

Take for instance Venezuela, the most polarized—not to say troubled—of all Latin American democracies. To understand contemporary Venezuela, one must go back almost half a century to an urban revolt on Jan. 23, 1958. On that day, an angry crowd invaded the unfinished housing blocks commissioned by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez that were to be inaugurated soon. Named “2 de Diciembre” after the day in December that Perez Jimenez took “legal” power in 1952, the dozens of high-rise slabs were being built on what had been the largest informal settlement in Caracas, and the apartments in them were being given to those favored by the ruling political party, rather than the original inhabitants to whom they were promised. The invasion of the construction site on Jan. 23 triggered the fall of Perez Jimenez. To this day the site is known as 23 de Enero, or 23rd of January, and has been a hotbed of political and social activism. ...

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