Culture Matters

Culture Matters

Mini Teaser: As unacceptable as the notion is to many in a relativistic age, culture is a--if not the--determining factor in the economic progress of countries.

by Author(s): Lawrence E. Harrison

The Marxist-Leninist roots of dependency theory are apparent from
another popular book published in the same year with the title
Dependency and Development in Latin America. The authors were
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, today the president of Brazil, and Enzo
Faletto, an Argentine. The book, in stark contrast with President
Cardoso's centrist, democratic-capitalist policies since 1993,

"It is not realistic to imagine that capitalist development will
solve basic problems for the majority of the population. In the end,
what has to be discussed as an alternative is not the consolidation
of the state and the fulfillment of 'autonomous capitalism' but how
to supersede them. The important question, then, is how to construct
paths toward socialism."

Neither "colonialism" nor "dependency" have much credibility today.
For many, including some Africans, the statute of limitations on
colonialism as an explanation for underdevelopment lapsed long ago.
Moreover, four former colonies, two British (Hong Kong and Singapore)
and two Japanese (South Korea and Taiwan), have vaulted into the
First World. One rarely hears dependency mentioned today, not even in
American universities, where not many years ago it was a conventional
wisdom that brooked no dissent. Contributing to dependency theory's
demise were, among other factors, the collapse of communism in
Eastern Europe; the transformation of communism in China into
conventional, increasingly free-market authoritarianism; the collapse
of the Cuban economy after Russia halted massive Soviet subventions;
the success of the East Asian dragons in the world market; the
decisive defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections;
and theretofore stridently anti-Yanqui Mexico's initiative to join
Canada and the United States in NAFTA.

And so an explanatory vacuum emerged in the last decade of the century.

Explaining the Failure: Culture

Largely unnoticed in U.S. academic circles, a new, inward-looking
paradigm that focuses on cultural values and attitudes is gradually
filling the explanatory vacuum left by dependency theory's collapse.
Recently, Latin America has taken the lead in articulating the
paradigm and contriving initiatives to translate it into actions
designed not only to accelerate economic growth but also to fortify
democratic institutions and promote social justice. The culture
paradigm also has adherents in Africa and Asia.

Of course, many analysts who have studied the East Asian economic
miracles over the past three decades have concluded that "Confucian"
values--such as emphasis on the future, work, education, merit and
frugality--have played a crucial role in East Asia's successes. But
just as the flourishing of the East Asians in the world market--so
inconsistent with dependency theory--was largely ignored by Latin
American intellectuals and politicians until recent years, so was the
cultural explanation for those miracles. Latin America has now for
the most part accepted the economic policy lessons of East Asia, and
it is confronting the question: If dependency and imperialism are not
responsible for our economic underdevelopment, our authoritarian
political traditions, and our extreme social injustice, what is?

That question was posed by the Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel in a
book published in the mid-1970s, The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate
Relationship with the United States. Rangel was not the first Latin
American to conclude that traditional Ibero-American values and
attitudes, and the institutions that reflected and reinforced them,
were the principal cause of Latin America's "failure", a word he
contrasted with the "success" of the United States and Canada.
Similar conclusions were recorded by, among others, Simón Bolí­var's
aide, Francisco Miranda, in the last years of the eighteenth century;
by the eminent Argentines Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo Faustino
Sarmiento and the Chilean Francisco Bilbao in the second half of the
nineteenth century; and by the Nicaraguan intellectual Salvador
Mendieta early in the twentieth century. Anticipating similar
comments by Alexis de Tocqueville twenty years later, Bolí­var himself
had this to say in 1815:

As long as our compatriots fail to acquire the talents and political
virtues that distinguish our brothers to the north, political systems
based on popular participation, far from helping us, will bring our
ruin. Unfortunately, those qualities in the necessary degree are
beyond us. We are dominated by the vices of Spain--violence,
overweening ambition, vindictiveness, and greed.

Rangel's book earned him the enmity of most Latin American
intellectuals and was mostly ignored by Latin American specialists in
North America and Europe. But the book has proven to be seminal. In
1979 Nobelist Octavio Paz explained the contrast between the two
Americas this way: "One, English-speaking, is the daughter of the
tradition that has founded the modern world: the Reformation, with
its social and political consequences, democracy and capitalism. The
other, Spanish and Portuguese speaking, is the daughter of the
universal Catholic monarchy and the Counter-Reformation."

One finds strong echoes of Rangel in Claudio Véliz's 1994 book, The
New World of the Gothic Fox, which contrasts the Anglo-Protestant and
Ibero-Catholic legacies in the New World. Véliz defines the new
cultural current with the words of the celebrated Peruvian writer
Mario Vargas Llosa, who asserts that the economic, educational and
judicial reforms necessary to Latin America's modernization cannot be

"unless they are preceded or accompanied by a reform of our customs
and ideas, of the whole complex system of habits, knowledge, images
and forms that we understand by 'culture.' The culture within which
we live and act today in Latin America is neither liberal nor is it
altogether democratic. We have democratic governments, but our
institutions, our reflexes and our mentality are very far from being
democratic. They remain populist and oligarchic, or absolutist,
collectivist or dogmatic, flawed by social and racial prejudices,
immensely intolerant with respect to political adversaries, and
devoted to the worst monopoly of all, that of the truth."

The recent runaway bestseller in Latin America, Guide to the Perfect
Latin American Idiot, is dedicated to Rangel by its co-authors,
Colombian Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza; Vargas Llosa's son, Álvaro; and
Cuban exile Carlos Alberto Montaner, all three of whom identify
themselves as "idiots" of the far Left in their younger years. The
book criticizes those Latin American intellectuals of this century
who have promoted the view that the region is a victim of
imperialism. Among them are Galeano, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara,
pre-presidential Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Gustavo Gutiérrez,
founder of Liberation Theology. Mendoza, Montaner and Vargas Llosa
strongly imply that the real causes of Latin America's
underdevelopment are in the minds of the Latin Americans:

"In reality, except for cultural factors, nothing prevented Mexico
from doing what Japan did when it almost totally displaced the United
States' production of television sets."

In their 1998 sequel, Manufacturers of Misery, the authors trace the
influence of the traditional culture on the behavior of six elite
groups: the politicians, the military, business people, the clergy,
the intellectuals and the revolutionaries, all of whom have acted in
ways that impede progress toward democratic-capitalist modernity. A
year later, a prominent Argentine intellectual and media celebrity,
Mariano Grondona, published The Cultural Conditions of Economic
Development, which analyzes and contrasts development-prone (e.g.,
U.S. and Canadian) and development-resistant (e.g., Latin American)
cultures. Among the differences noted was a stronger emphasis on
creativity, innovation, trust, education and merit in the former.

To be sure, Latin American values and attitudes are changing, as the
transition to democratic politics and market economics of the past
fifteen years suggests. Several forces are modifying the region's
culture, among them the new intellectual current, the globalization
of communications and economics, and the surge in
evangelical/Pentecostal Protestantism. Protestants now account for
more than 30 percent of the population in Guatemala and 15-20 percent
in Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua.

The impact of these new-paradigm books and Montaner's weekly columns
(he is the most widely read columnist in the Spanish language) has
been profound in Latin America. But in the United States, Canada and
Western Europe, they have gone largely unnoticed. A generation of
Latin Americanists nurtured on dependency theory, or the less extreme
view that the solution to Latin America's problems depends on the
United States being more magnanimous in its dealings with the region,
finds the cultural explanation indigestible.

However, one American of Mexican descent, Texas businessman Lionel
Sosa, has contributed to the new paradigm. In his 1998 book, The
Americano Dream, Sosa catalogues a series of Hispanic values and
attitudes that present obstacles to achieving the upward mobility of
mainstream America:

* The resignation of the poor--"To be poor is to deserve heaven. To
be rich is to deserve hell. It is good to suffer in this life because
in the next life you will find eternal reward."

* The low priority given to education--"The girls don't really need
it--they'll get married anyway. And the boys? It's better that they
go to work, to help the family." (The Hispanic high school dropout
rate in the United States is about 30 percent, vastly higher than
that of white and black Americans.)

* Fatalism--"Individual initiative, achievement, self-reliance,
ambition, aggressiveness--all these are useless in the face of an
attitude that says, 'We must not challenge the will of God.' . . .
The virtues so essential to business success in the United States are
looked upon as sins by the Latino church." At least in California,
the Hispanic rate of self-employment is well below the state's

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