A Whole New World?

A Whole New World?

Mini Teaser: The United States in moving inexorably toward closer political and economic association with Latin America. A quartet of recent books helps us plan the journey.

by Author(s): William J. Perry

George W. Bush has seized enthusiastically upon what had initially been his father's concept-a comprehensive Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)-as, hopefully, one of the most personal hallmarks of his presidency. At a summit of hemispheric leaders in Quebec this April, general agreement was secured for conclusion of such an historic accord by January 1, 2005-with universal ratification to follow by the end of that year. If successful, this process would make NAFTA the world's largest trading bloc, comprised of some 900 million people and boasting a combined annual GDP approaching $10 trillion. Even more fundamentally, by laying the basis for an ever-more integrated Western Hemisphere community of nations, it would imply a considerable revision of past U.S. geostrategic priorities (traditionally oriented across the Atlantic toward Europe), over the course of the new century (and era) that we are now entering.

The original impetus for this visionary construct came at a time of unusual optimism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, almost anything seemed possible. Meanwhile, on the hemispheric scene, an irresistible tide seemed to favor democratic government and the free-market economic model-something that Washington wished to encourage both to ensure local stability and to strengthen its own position in the competitive world of the future. Since that time, however, the United States-while doing much better economically vis-ˆ-vis Europe and Asia than was generally expected-has come to confront several perplexing and perilous new difficulties around the globe, dramatically highlighted by the horrific events of September 11. In Latin America, the administration now faces a fresh constellation of social, economic, security and political problems that threaten the future of democracy and the free market in the region, and that generate both direct and indirect dangers for the United States. Moreover, on the domestic front, there is an increasingly visible resistance to commercial integration-especially within developing countries (and, indeed, with respect to globalization generally)-that progressively paralyzed progress toward a comprehensive, inter-American trade zone during the Clinton years.

It is therefore time for a deeper consideration of the basis for an ambitious, long-term policy that envisages ever-greater integration of the United States with its hemispheric neighbors. The historic experience of Latin America over the past five centuries is markedly different from that of the United States and Canada. In creating any sort of hemisphere-wide association, therefore, a better appreciation of what makes Latin America distinctive from its northern neighbors is critical. In this regard, four new books, each addressing a particular facet in the history and development of Latin America, can help us.

Conquistadors, by Michael Wood, highlights the epic saga of how Latin America's most advanced native civilizations were subjugated by and integrated within a vigorously emergent Spanish empire (Brazil and the non-Hispanic Caribbean are not directly treated). Wood's work has the flavor of a somewhat whimsical travelogue (not surprising from a maker of BBC documentaries) as he takes the reader from place to often-remote place, stopping at each to explain the historical significance of the venue. In four chapters, beautifully illustrated with abundant photographs, he escorts us through CortŽs' conquest of Mexico, the Pizzaro brothers' equally amazing exploits in Peru, Orellana's travails in descending the Amazon from its source to the sea, and of Cabeza de Vaca's eight-year odyssey by boat to Florida and then on foot from Texas up the Rio Grande and across to the Pacific Ocean.

In Liberators, British journalist Robert Harvey deals with the course of events three centuries later that freed the region from the by-then decrepit Iberian monarchies-resulting in the creation of the independent nations we know today. Harvey's volume employs a series of interlocking biographies of the principal figures to illustrate the region's struggle for independence. Among those profiled are Francisco Miranda, Sim-n Bol'var, JosŽ de San Mart'n, Bernardo O'Higgins, Thomas Lord Cochrane (the British naval officer who assisted in the Peruvian and Chilean campaigns), Pedro I, first emperor of Brazil, and the Mexican triumvirate of Miguel Hidalgo, JosŽ Mar'a Morelos and Agust'n de Itœrbide.
A slim selection of the late Mexican philosopher Octavio Paz's voluminous writings-entitled Itinerary and ably translated by Jason Wilson-provides a valuable window on how Latin American intellectuals have tended to look at the world during the 20th century. As would be expected, Paz's contribution takes the form not of an academic treatise, but of an elegant, extended philosophical essay on his own ideological evolution.

Finally, Howard Wiarda's The Soul of Latin America goes more directly to the bottom line of interest today by discussing the unique elements of the formation of regional culture (especially on the political plane), and the degree to which it is now compatible with evolving trends in the developed world, especially in the United States. Of the four works, this is the one closest to a traditional academic approach in its efforts to probe the development of political culture in Latin America.

While these books vary enormously in approach and style, that turns out to be an advantage, for each one, in its own way, contributes to a better understanding of Latin America. Taken as a whole, these four volumes highlight the differences between Latin America's origins, experience and nature on the one hand, and the Anglo-American tradition on the other.
In contrast to North America, the vast and varied region south of the Rio Grande was subjugated by crusading states still evidencing strong medieval characteristics, as a continuation of their centuries-long struggle to recover the Iberian Peninsula from Moorish domination. The basic desire of those most directly involved was to extend the Catholic faith, extract wealth in the form of precious metals, and rule over these lands in a feudal fashion. In pursuit of such expansive aims, they found in native civilizations-themselves with pronouncedly authoritarian traditions-an already large subordinate class of peons. When disease decimated the native populations, slaves were imported to fill the role. Moreover, the riches drained away from their American empires served to prop up Spain and Portugal in gaudy splendor (for a time, at least), but their very success in these medieval terms removed any incentive to adapt, and thus made them losers in the modernization process then beginning in northern Europe. All of these factors left Latin America with a markedly different colonial legacy than the one bequeathed to North America.

By the early 19th century, locally-born New World elites-influenced by the American and French Revolutions, as well as Great Britain's industrial and commercial ascendancy-threw off the feeble, exploitive hand of Iberian colonialism. But the violence of that struggle (except in Brazil), the weakness of the middle class and the absence of experience with even limited self-rule meant that the practice of genuine democracy (even republicanism) soon proved a sad travesty. Rather than providing for liberation and genuine self-determination, the removal of traditional authority made vacillation between near-anarchy and local authoritarianism the rule in Latin America's political life. It made much of Latin America a synonym for misgovernment and underdevelopment until well into the 20th century.

Indeed, this debilitating cultural legacy persists to the present. Even when the worst was over and countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Mexico began to develop into their modern selves, enormous problems persisted. Even when comparatively successful, they tended to remain class-bound and statist, with many old conditions and habits conducive neither to good citizenship nor to the broad-based diffusion of economic opportunity. Thus, local intellectuals and aspiring politicians tended to be attracted by populist or Marxist dreams of utopian redemption. This trend, already evident by the end of the 19th century, led to a renewed round of often bloody contention in the new environment of the Cold War.

Only in the 1990s did it prove possible for all Latin American states (except Cuba) to support real democratic governance and to embrace a liberal economic model for economic growth and development in harmony with the advanced countries of North America, Europe and East Asia. But the question remains as to whether this represents a definitive departure from an unfortunate past, or merely a cyclical high point doomed to turn down again at some point in the future. On a higher level, it raises the general point of how much culture matters, and of whether and how fast political cultures change.

But this is no longer a matter of mere academic inquiry from the standpoint of U.S. policymakers. They perceive how seemingly irresistible forces are driving the United States into an inextricably closer relationship with its hemispheric neighbors, not merely in the conventional terms of overseas political, economic and security interests, but also in ways that uniquely affect the composition and well-being of American domestic society. Three U.S. presidents now have seen this clearly enough to support a far-sighted, integrative policy aimed toward ensuring that Latin America becomes a valuable asset to our country-not a debilitating liability-in the uncertain world of the future. But such a course would plainly be impossible if the region were condemned by cultural factors to periodic regression into authoritarianism, economic debacle and violent instability. Thus, having some sound notion of the correct prognosis has become indispensable to proper formulations of our present and future approach.

The pair of historical books in this quartet-Wood's and Harvey's-make clear that divergent natural and geographic circumstances, worldviews and experiences have yielded predictably different results between what became the Latin American nations and what was to ultimately emerge as the United States. Distinct processes of conquest and settlement produced different kinds of colonies, with different relationships to different kinds of mother countries. Building upon this, their respective and nearly contemporaneous struggles for independence gave rise to very distinct societies and forms of government. Moreover, their subsequent trajectories of development pulled them even further apart in terms of technology, material well-being and degree of power in the wider world. Within little more than a century, the United States rose from its rather rustic beginnings to a position that was so dominant as to allow the likes of Richard Olney, Secretary of State for Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt to declare something approaching a protectorate over the rest of the hemisphere.

Given this divergence, it is therefore no surprise that the intellectual framework of Octavio Paz-who was born during the Mexican Revolution and lived into the 1990s-is one that most North Americans would find rather distant from their own. In it, Locke, Smith, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and the line of thought they represent are entirely absent from the first decades of the Mexican poet's thought-despite the fact he lived in the United States for two periods during his life. Rather, the Greek and medieval philosophers, Rousseau, more modern socialist and communist thinkers in Europe, and the events of the Spanish civil war are the principal sources of inspiration for his speculations on the prospects for improving upon local Mexican traditions and creating a better form of government there. These were ideas that he basically accepted for most of his life, and this on the part of a man who achieved even greater notoriety (infamy in some leftist circles) toward the end of his life by repudiating Marxist and other authoritarian systems of government (although he always retained a deep skepticism about the "hollowness" of liberalism, especially as practiced in the United States).

Howard Wiarda ably draws these examples together to provide some basic lessons to be drawn about enduring Latin American political realities. As a whole, the region was organized by elites on a corporatist basis (originally, landholders, the church and military institutions) to rule over the masses of the population, who were more subjects than participatory citizens. In his view-despite social mobility (many of the subsequent caudillos were of very humble origin), emerging new ideologies, revolutionary movements (both successful and unsuccessful), secularism (reducing the influence of the Catholic Church), economic evolution (with business groups largely replacing hacenderos)-this tradition has largely endured. The result is something of a political museum in which contemporary institutions continue to exist on the same old corporatist bases. No one can deny the validity of these observations, particularly on an historical plane, and anyone who has had the least experience with the hierarchical, bureaucratic governments of Latin America (including the self-styled "progressive" or "radical" among them) knows that these traditional influences have left a powerful legacy.

On the other hand, generational change and galloping globalization have produced significant evolution in local societies and their expectations in recent years. Old-style forms of authoritarian government-which dominated the region as recently as two decades ago-are very difficult to imagine in the present day. Countries with origins different from those of the United States have proven able to create and maintain vibrant, enduring democracies (albeit with their own distinct characteristics). Even Spain and Portugal, the sources of most of the traditions examined in these four volumes, appear to have made the transition, as have some of the formerly communist states of central and eastern Europe. A great deal of diversity exists among all these democracies, both in terms of institutions and political culture, which suggests that a successful democracy need not be constituted exactly along the lines of the Anglo-American model.

Of course, one must be prepared to accept that some of the efforts to establish functional, pluralistic democracies in Latin America will probably fail. Indeed, the prospect of losing one or another of them (at least temporarily) is greater than most people expect. Moreover, the nations that do succeed will inevitably continue to possess characteristics quite different from those of the U.S. political system. However, fundamental, long-term socioeconomic trends and the influence of the wider world militate in favor of the eventual realization of the democratic ideal within all but the very least favored Latin American countries. And policymakers in Washington have little real choice except to push forward vigorously with policies that encourage them, given the proliferating linkages that are now propelling the United States into immutably closer interaction with its hemispheric neighbors.

President Bush's commitment to the forging of a genuine inter-American community comes at a critical time for the hemisphere and the wider world. While the literature points up the many domestic obstacles and idiosyncrasies that will have to be overcome or accommodated in the unique Latin American case, our neighbors to the south will probably emerge as a significant adjunct to a worldwide association of democratic nations. Either that, or they will constitute perhaps the single most important failure of globalization. Compared to many other areas of the globe, the prospects are comparatively favorable, but, if success proves elusive here, what can be the future of the remainder of the developing world-in socio-economic and, ultimately, security terms?

Thus, Washington must now guard against being totally distracted from developments in a region that will sooner rather than later reassert an inevitably growing influence on our society, made unique by the ever more intimate proximity of our common future. If we play our cards right, we may one day soon finally have a whole New World.

Essay Types: Essay