3: The Coloniality of Modern Slavery in Latin America

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Modern slavery is a contested and confusing issue. In recent years significant critiques have emerged of the mainstream approach that frames modern slavery as an individualized relationship linked to economic underdevelopment. This chapter addresses two such critiques: weak historicity and the lack of analysis of power relations, particularly the role of the state. This chapter applies the concept of ‘coloniality of power’ – which involves two interrelated processes of racialized categorization and the articulation of forms of labour control to produce commodities for the world market – to cases of exploitation in post-independence Latin America. The chapter draws on documentary and field research to analyse state responses to modern slavery in the guano and rubber sectors in Peru’s neocolonial state; and to the exploitation and abuse of Indigenous Guaraní in Bolivia’s ‘decolonizing’ state under the government of Evo Morales. The chapter finds a coloniality approach to have strong utility, focusing attention on overlooked interconnections between racialization, labour control, and global capitalism. It also reveals that, far from a simple enforcer of laws, the state’s role is ambiguous. While the Bolivian case provides some evidence that states can act to reduce vulnerability, more often they help to create the conditions for exploitation under the pretext of ‘development’. In both cases the state’s prioritization of capitalism saw it reproduce racialized divisions and deepen vulnerability. These findings call for a reorientation of modern slavery scholarship and practice towards critical engagement with colonial legacies, global capitalism, and the state.

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