Beyond Bolivar

Beyond Bolivar

Mini Teaser: Just why is Latin America the way it is? Indeed why is it not like anywhere else? The questions are addressed by three Latin American authors.

by Author(s): Richard Gott

Claudio Véliz, The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America (University of California Press, 1994)

Alma Guillermoprieto,The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now (New York: Knopf, 1994)

Jorge G. Castañeda's Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (New York: Knopf, 1993).

Just why is Latin America the way it is? Indeed why is it not like anywhere else? These have been the perennial questions of those external to the continent who take an interest in its affairs. Now they are being regularly addressed by a new generation of Latin Americans who have become aware of this foreign discourse and wish to participate in it. For an important development of the last thirty years has been the noticeable increase in Latin America's production of its own intellectual interpreters of the current (and the historical) scene, indigenous commentators familiar with both the United States and Europe who have been able to make the necessary connections and comparisons.

There have always been nationalist historians and writers, but now there are a plethora of political scientists working in universities or newspapers, and increasingly it is their voices and their views that predominate at international gatherings of scholars, businessmen, diplomats and journalists. And it is they who provide both the research and the reportage. This is the significance of many of the most recent books about Latin America available in the North American market, and notably of the ones here under consideration.

There has also been a marked alteration in the way that the affairs of the continent are discussed. For much of the past fifty years economic determinism was the order of the day. Whether it was Walt Rostow in the 1950s fitting Latin America's history into his "stages of economic growth," or the semi-Marxist dependency theorists of the 1960s feeding historical data into their ever more inflexible models, everyone seemed to agree that the economic history of the continent was the key to understanding what was going on. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, entire university departments, the vast resources of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the best brains of the State Department and the CIA, were all employed to focus on the region through the same prism. If the economic power of the state could be properly mobilized, if the political power of the landlords could be broken, if the bureaucracy could be modernized, then the difficult legacy of the past centuries would be overcome and Latin America would be able to walk into the sunshine: another Australia, a southern hemisphere Sweden, even--who knows?--another Japan.

These utopian (and in some ways not unattractive) visions have been rapidly fading in the past fifteen years, to be replaced by something entirely different. The engine of the state has been substantially dismantled rather than repaired; the landlords, far from being forced to hand over "land to the tiller," have been encouraged to embark on full-scale capitalist agriculture, largely dispensing with the efforts of the tiller altogether; and the unmodernized bureaucrats have been quite simply sent home. The economies of Latin America are now beginning to have a lean and hungry look (and so too, it might provocatively be added, are the people).

In this new situation, economic determinism has been replaced by something altogether more pragmatic. Journalists and academic observers of the current scene tend to concentrate on what they see and know, and refrain from fitting their knowledge into some preconceived ideological framework. Historians, meanwhile, ignore the long curves of Kondratiev and examine instead what was once unfashionable: the ebb and flow of cultures and civilizations--their art and language, their architecture and their social behavior--separate from the economic undercurrents; and they scrutinize the peculiar nature and achievements of the individuals who made up, and make up, the societies that they study.

For these new historians and writers, it has always been important to emphasize that Latin America is full of Latin Americans--not Swedes or Australians or Japanese (or for that matter North Americans). And who these Latin Americans were in the past and are today, what they do and what they want, are crucial questions in the contemporary discussion. Rousseau once pointed out that a Spaniard could live for a week on a German's dinner. On such significant differences have different societies been constructed. Nor is it enough just to be "Latin": contrast the manners and behavior during the World Cup of the Italians and the Brazilians.

The three books considered here all fit more or less into this new mode of enquiry. While all three authors would, at an earlier stage in their lives, have considered themselves to be "on the Left," little ideological residue now remains in their writing--even in that of the most overtly political, Jorge Castañeda. While one of them, Claudio Véliz, "chose freedom" more than twenty years ago, the others have had it thrust upon them by the receding tides of history. All three provide powerful, interesting, and provocative interpretations of Latin American reality.

In the case of two of them, I must declare a personal interest. I have known Claudio Véliz for more than thirty years, first as a friend and colleague at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London in the early 1960s, and later at a similar institute that he was instrumental in setting up in Santiago de Chile. Véliz is a Chilean from (unusually) an established Protestant family, a product of the London School of Economics, and by training an economic historian. More important, he is an intellectual entrepreneur, a man who buys and sells ideas--and keeps a close eye on the marketplace. In the 1960s he was a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, a partisan of the gold standard and of General de Gaulle. By the 1970s he had moved ever further to the Right, abandoning Chile and commuting between universities in Australia and Boston. He creates controversies, pounces on paradoxes, and stimulates audiences wherever he goes--with a classic mixture of youthful irreverence and olde worlde English charm. His most valuable written contributions to life and art have always come in the essay or the conference paper (like Joseph Conrad or Thomas Balogh he is a foreigner who writes more elegant English than most Englishmen); over the long haul of a book, his arguments sometimes begin to creak.

Alma Guillermoprieto, for her part, is also a champion of the sprint (and a wonderful writer as well). A reporter by trade, her strength also is as an essayist, another classic from the New Yorker stable. I have known her since the 1970s when as foreign news editor at the Guardian, I gave her meager employment as our correspondent in Managua in the dying months of the Somoza era, printing her evocative accounts of the aerial bombardments over the Intercontinental Hotel or the clashes in the streets of Estel'. Since then we have sometimes shared stories and experiences in San Sálvador, in Rio, in Bogota--the places that she writes about in this book. A Guatemalan-Mexican, brought up in Mexico and New York, she travels easily between the hemispheres, and has worked during the last decade for the New Yorker. Her book is a collection of her reportage for that magazine over the past few years, chronicling the changing nature of Latin American society.

Jorge Castañeda I do not know personally, though his lucid, informed approach to international politics will be familiar to many from the syndicated column that he writes for the Los Angeles Times. A Mexican political scientist enjoying a close familiarity with the United States, he too is a shining example of that new breed of Latin American that operates happily north and south of the Rio Grande. (It is worth recalling that only thirty years ago, Leftist intellectuals of the kind that Claudio Véliz was then and Jorge Castañeda is now were usually refused visas to visit the United States; such journeys could only be made with immense difficulty, if at all.)

In his latest book, Claudio Véliz proves to be an adept traveler in time and space, a conjurer of pyrotechnic wizardry capable of producing exotic and unfamiliar historic examples from several continents to illustrate his general thesis, an extended explanation of why Latin America is not like anywhere else. The problem with his New World of the Gothic Fox, as it was with the voluminous writings of the late Arnold Toynbee, his erstwhile colleague at Chatham House, is that the examples tend to be more interesting than the thesis. The book is really a collection of delightful essays, glued together by a rather complicated and slightly unsatisfactory metaphor.

Véliz's self-imposed task is to examine why "the heirs of the Iberian and the English cultural traditions in the New World have fared differently." It is an interesting question, for as he says "no amount of euphemistic embellishment" can disguise the fact that the United States has been a tremendous success, Latin America a huge disaster. Why? It's not often that you get a Latin American to state matters so brutally. But then Véliz, an aging enfant terrible, is a master at the role of devil's advocate.

While earlier Latin American theorists of the difference between the two hemispheres had invoked the simple metaphor of Ariel and Caliban (one singularly unflattering to the United States), Véliz seizes the more complicated line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (revived for philosophical use by Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s): "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." So far, so sonorous. Véliz then goes on to depict the hedgehog as representative of the Spanish Counter-Reformation Baroque transplanted to Latin America, and characterizes the metaphorical fox as the bearer of the cultural style of northern Europe to North America, "in harmony with the asymmetries, eccentricities, and diversities of Ruskinian Gothic."

If you have struggled with me and Véliz thus far, you will begin to see that there is quite an interesting notion seeking here to escape--the idea that these important inherited cultural differences (and not just religious ones) might possibly shed a little light on the way the two halves of the New World have gone off in opposite directions. Véliz goes on to argue that the Baroque Iberian hedgehogs have been intrinsically resistant to change, locked in immobility, while the Gothic English-speaking foxes have been endlessly mobile, "especially with their skill in making the most of the tidal transformations unleashed by their own Industrial Revolution."

Now the difficulty with such a metaphor is that although it may amuse and briefly entertain a conference audience, it creates a clumsy and often confusing framework for a book. Even now, reflecting on the hedgehog and the fox, I find myself having to try to remember which is which--and I had the same trouble with Isaiah Berlin's use of it in his original pathbreaking essay on Tolstoy of forty years ago. Some metaphors are too clever by half--and too self-indulgent; they end up being more entertaining for the writer than the reader.

That said, this is a witty and thought-provoking book that makes a good stab at answering the two questions posed at the beginning of this piece. Latin America is partly the way it is because of the baroque certainties of its cultural inheritance. The book is particularly good, as in the chapter on development nostrums and dependency theory, in turning the accepted wisdom of the past fifty years on its head. Véliz argues that the Latin Americans rejected the imposed solution to their problems represented by President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress in the 1960s, not because it was impractical or inadequate (it was both), but because there was nothing in their history or culture that would have led them to support it. They rejected it just as the earlier Spanish world had rejected the Industrial Revolution:

"Everything that sustained the imperial enterprise and the crowning achievement of the Counter-Reformation, every conceivable feature that favored their eventual outcome, every personal trait and every social circumstance, every prejudice and every social virtue that nurtures the style of life that flourished in the sheltered world, was inimical to the establishment and growth of a modern economy."

And, says Véliz firmly, it still is.

This is not to argue, of course, that Latin America is in a state of stasis. Far from it. As Véliz sees things, the flood tide of (gothic, Anglo-Saxon) modernity is already seeping in round the sides of the (baroque, ex-Iberian) citadel. "After four centuries of steadfast resistance to dangerous doctrinal innovations," the heirs to the Iberian tradition have in the end "proved defenceless against blue jeans, computer graphics, jogging shoes and electric toasters." In a memorable phrase, he concludes that "the tail of consumption is wagging the dog of production so vigorously that the kennel is disintegrating."

Most dramatic of all (and in my view the single most important development in Latin America towards the end of this century), has been the growth of Protestantism, now threatening Catholicism's long hegemony. It may eventually be judged, writes Véliz

" have been the most profound social transformation this century in the Iberian half of the New World, of vastly greater moment than the Mexican, Bolivian, Cuban, Peruvian, and Nicaraguan revolutions put together. In less than a generation, more Latin American Catholics have converted to Protestantism than ever before in the history of the Indies. Never before since the Reformation have so many Catholics converted to Protestantism in such a brief period of time."
And this is happening of course, though Véliz does not make the connection, at the same time as the northern hemisphere is becoming ever more Hispanic and Catholic.

Alma Guillermoprieto, who might possibly admit to the existence of the historically-imposed shackles that Véliz delineates so cleverly, is less relaxed about the result. She admits to the continuing obsessions of a generation younger than Véliz, an unquenchable interest in "violence, inequality, survival, the faithlessness of politicians, the faithful stubbornness with which people seek to believe." But she too, in reporting about the current scene, finds herself obliged to re-examine the old Iberian heritage as Latin America moves dramatically to shake it off. "The social upheavals that have swept through the region" since independence "have at bottom been about the terms under which the Latin American nations will accede to the modern era, about what aspect of their historical (old-fashioned) identities they will sacrifice in the process." And, like Véliz, she cannot help noticing that the great majority of the Latin Americans have already begun to move seamlessly into the modern era. The urban dwellers of Latin America "ride overcrowded subways or buses, watch television, fail to use condoms, suffer from noise pollution, and eat hormone-treated chicken, just like any put-upon New York resident."

But unlike Véliz, she sees danger ahead. She reflects ominously after discursive chapters on half a dozen different countries, that "the pervasive inequality that confronts the new urban citizens, their orphanhood vis-à-vis the state, and the sense that all past skills are worthless, have set the newcomers frighteningly adrift." In these circumstances, it is not surprising (as she reports from Brazil) that the fundamentalist evangelical sects "can't build churches fast enough." Yet this may not be the only consequence of the present sense of anomie.

Jorge Castañeda goes in search of older sects: the various forms of the Latin American Left. How have they been faring in the difficult years since the collapse of the Bolshevik dream? In spite of the apparent narrowness of its subject, this is probably the single most important book about Latin America published in recent years. It illuminates the history of the past decade and provides a cautious estimate of what might (or could possibly) happen next. It is rare for a paid-up Mexican to take much interest in anything south of Chiapas, so this in itself is a breakthrough. But to investigate and write about South America with Casta-eda's enterprise and insight is extraordinary. He has had an entrée into the most secret councils of the Left (including those of the Cubans most involved in what used to be romantically described as "subversion") for which any CIA operative would have given his eye teeth. In one section of Utopia Unarmed he writes a vivid and uniquely well-informed history of the Left's involvement in events in Central America in the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution that fills in many blanks in our knowledge.

But his ambitions go wider than mere understanding of the past. Believing that "Although it has seldom attained power, much less kept it or done much with it, the Left has exerted enormous influence on the shape of things in Latin America," the chief driving force of his book lies in his understandable desire "to ascertain whether the relevance of the Left in Latin America is still intact." To this end, he forces every Leftist he meets--from Lula to Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, from Jaime Wheelock to Regis Debray--to submit to tough questions. He asks them to re-examine the real strength of their commitment to democracy, and to explain their attitude toward the famous conundrum (difficult for all socialists in the consumer era) that more equality leads to less growth. After one stumbling explanation of his attitude toward Cuba from a former guerrilla commander-turned-democrat, Castañeda is scathing in his condemnation: his "dubious stance couched the Left's conversion to the principle of democratic rule in a highly relative light, and cast doubt on the depth of its redemption."

The difficulty comes with Castañeda's desire for change and with the solutions that he proposes. Claudio Véliz, voicing the inertia of the traditional Right, is broadly optimistic that Latin America is already changing dramatically--though he takes great care to distance himself from any moral judgments about the value of this change (indeed he has always been a partisan of the Lampedusan belief that things must change in order to remain the same). Castañeda nails his colors more firmly to a reformist mast, expressing the age-old demands of the traditional Left: "there must be a fundamental shift in resources and policy emphasis from the rich to the poor in order to solve the region's problems."

And how, one may legitimately ask, is this to be achieved? Here Castañeda, like the Left in the rest of the world, is at his most inadequate. Searching for models, he comes up, not with the old favorites like Sweden, Australia or Japan, but with a new one: Germany's Rhineland, an esoteric "back to Bismarck" solution favored by certain groups of the European Left. "The Left," Castañeda argues, "can begin to craft a paradigm for the future by blending the social corrections imposed upon the market by Western European capitalism, with the business-government complement to the market developed by Japanese capitalism." While the Left can certainly begin this task, most people would doubt whether it will get very far.

Castañeda also seems more than usually utopian when he suggests that the Latin American upper middle classes may eventually embrace reform because they also are affected by the downside of contemporary society. They "are just as subject as anyone to urban violence and kidnapping, military uprisings, an incredibly deteriorated environment, and thousands of homeless children on street corners selling everything from microwave ovens to crack and sex." The rich in Latin America are certainly threatened by these characteristic expressions of our era, but whether this will lead them to change their habits or to accept a reduction in their privileges must remain doubtful. Castañeda admits that "the Left has its work cut out for it."

Not directly raised in these three books but suggested by my reading of them are two questions which are even more fundamental than those posed at the beginning of this review. The first concerns Latin America's Spanish and Portuguese colonial legacy; the second, the very existence of the idea of Latin America.
Is the Iberian tradition really as important as Claudio Véliz and many others have led us to believe? The question is more than usually interesting because we now live in an era of collapsing empires, and it is instructive to perceive how the inheritors of these empires interpret the previous era: first they pretend that it didn't happen, and then they seek to remake it in their own interest.

The Spaniards and the Portuguese controlled events in much of Latin America for some three centuries (just as they themselves had been controlled by Islam for six centuries before that.) Theirs were not monolithic empires, but multinational enterprises. Over time, they absorbed and disgorged many of the countries of continental Europe. Their cultural impact on Latin America, as a result, was not uniformly "Spanish" or "Portuguese" but more generally "European," both diffuse and various.

When these great empires were overthrown in the nineteenth century, they were replaced in Latin America (in twentieth-century terms) by minority rule. These new rulers set about creating their own justificatory myths--they survive to this day in the annual celebration of independence days, and the glorification of individual martyrs--and making the continent safe for themselves and their progeny. Their slogans were Orwellian in their simplicity, as have been similar slogans uttered in former colonies in the twentieth century: Independence "Good," Colonial Rule "Bad." But in the case of Latin America, the sloganization has gone on for nearly two hundred years, assisted by the pusillanimity or humility of Spanish historians who have ineffectually combated the black legend. Maybe they just lost interest.

The colons set about doing what colons do everywhere: they were obliged to slaughter the local peoples and then to import new populations to fill the blank spaces. Today's Latin America is defined more by the experience of the nineteenth than the eighteenth century. It is at least arguable that the continent is now organized and run by the heirs of the immigrants of the last 150 years rather than by the descendants of those of earlier periods. Imagine Argentina or Venezuela without Italians. Think of Chile or Guatemala or southern Brazil without Germans; Sao Paulo without Japanese; Chile or Argentina without the British. While filling up their freshly emptied spaces with these new European immigrants in the nineteenth century, Latin America's ruling elites poured venom on the historical record of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, accusing them of killing off the Indians--at a time when they themselves were doing so on a vastly more systematic and sophisticated scale.

It is curious now to recall, but the Spaniards and the Portuguese lived for centuries in a strange symbiotic relationship with the Indians--the indigenous inhabitants were needed to grow food and to provide slaves; there were of course massacres, but they were the exception not the rule. Millions of Indians survived, both in the areas of European control and in the heart of the continent where the Spaniards and Portuguese barely reached. Millions also died, but this was largely the byproduct of a clash of cultures--a failure to adjust to fresh diseases, affecting both the body and the mind. In the post-colonial era of the nineteenth century, however, the slaughter of Indians was a state policy, justified by the racial theories of the day and by the perceived need to clear the land.
The second point that might be usefully raised in the context of this nineteenth-century inheritance concerns the construction of the idea of Latin America itself. While familiarity has made it acceptable, it is still an invented construct and in no real sense can it be said to exist--except as a geographical entity, a continental land mass similar to North America or Africa.

Continental unity was imagined by Simon Bolívar much in the way that Cecil Rhodes imagined a united Africa. Both sought to impose a political unity on a geographical one. In the period after 1945, the Bolivarian cause was given new life by the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America, which sought to reconstruct the continent on utopian lines. Yet arguably the Bolivarian legacy, sustained without question by all Latin American countries to this day, is now one of the more useless traditions with which the continent is saddled. Believed in by both Left and Right, it is almost unimaginable that it should ever disappear. Yet it is an entirely imaginary notion that flies in the face of reality.

Latin America is made up of some twenty countries, large and small, whose differences and historical peculiarities far outnumber the similarities that outsiders can sometimes perceive. When you read the detailed contemporary accounts of Alma Guillermoprieto or Jorge Castañeda, you are not traveling in some imprecise place called Latin America; you never for a moment fail to notice which individual country you are in, a country with a history all its own. So perhaps the two questions posed at the beginning of this article--the ones everyone asks--are not really the right ones. We perceive Latin America to be the way it is because we spend too much time looking at its continental legacies and aspirations, and not enough on the past and future possibilities of its parts.

Essay Types: Book Review