Commentary Magazine


Invisible Latin America, by Samuel Shapiro

Rising Expectations

Invisible Latin America.
by Samuel Shapiro.
Beacon. 180 pp. $3.95.

I see a grim period ahead, in which all good Americans, God save us, are going to have to worry about Latin America as we were once taught to worry about the starving children of China. There are people who sincerely believe that the southern part of our hemisphere is the key to the world’s future. Without going as far as Mr. Bundy—who (when asked why he thought Latin American Studies was a second-rate field in the United States) once disconcerted a Harvard audience by answering that he expected it was because South America was such a second-rate place—I think we are, thanks to Cuba, greatly exaggerating its importance. Latin America has become like an unfaithful mistress to a middle-aged man, the test of our potency.

As Mr. Shapiro rightly points out in his useful little guide to economical and political Latin America, we once had the illusion of omnipotence; and now, though some of our legislators and a strong delegation at the White House are not aware of it, we no longer wield the same power, or on the same basis. We are feeling the chilling fears of advancing age: we begin to worry whether we are presenting ourselves well and whether we’re generous enough, or whether the young lover will carry off the bride. If you want to know exactly why we’re suffering these pangs of doubt, fear, or loss, and how we feel them, from a liberal, fair, and objective point of view, Mr. Shapiro’s book is an excellent though very brief guide. It avoids the dullness of the academic centers of Latin American Studies and the bias of most journalism on the subject. In addition, it has a pleasantly modest and sincere tone. Mr. Shapiro is young and ardent; he believes what he says and has the good scholar’s virtue of so ordering his material that the reader who does not know much about the continent can absorb and profit from what he says.

Basically his theses are two. The first is taken from his title, itself derived from that eminent Colombian German Arciniegas: the key to Latin America is its dormant mass, the sleeping volcano on which, unaware, unheeding, and complacent, the precarious superstructure of civilization that is Latin America rests. This mass is poor, abused, and exploited and some day, if we do not take up our version of the White Man’s Burden, it will do us all in. His second thesis is that United States foreign policy toward Latin America, due in major part to business pressures, has been singularly blind and obtuse, not to speak of uncouth, immoral, and profitless.

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With neither of these theses could anyone quarrel. The first is an observable fact; the second a national shame. His argument is clearly stated in a series of essays on representative Latin American nations, classified according to their degree of political development. These are, with the countries he has chosen to illustrate them: conservative regimes with some degree of political democracy—Peru; new liberal regimes—Venezuela; revolutionary regimes—Cuba and Bolivia; and post-revolutionary regimes—Mexico. An opening chapter of classification and background and a closing chapter with modest and sensible proposals for American policy complete the book.

A number of minor errors should be noted in passing. Some are due to dating. Thus the Venezuelan land reform is slighted on the basis of its achievements by the end of 1961—750,000 acres of land distributed—when a more recent figure shows 2,000,000 hectares. Others are due to haste, or to the fact that no one can know everything about Latin America, such as Professor Shapiro’s acceptance of Mexican mythology in calling Zapata an illiterate sharecropper, when he was neither one nor the other. Still others are due to a rather indiscriminate sympathy with liberal causes, such as his defense of the Stalinist thug Siqueiros; or to a misplaced faith in such figures as A. A. Berle, Jr., or Juscelino Kubitschek, the former holding the world’s record for wrong-headedness on Latin America and the latter being only slightly better than a high-grade grafter.

A final category, like his summary dismissal of Theodore Draper’s thesis on the middle-class origin of the Cuban Revolution, is really more a question of debatable issues than actual mistakes. The Cuban rural problem, for instance, is far from solved, as a glance at René Dumont’s fascinating and tantalizingly brief study of the problem in France Observatear shows. The adherence of the peasantry to the regime has been paid for with privileges—escape to the city—for those found worthy. In fact, the whole chapter on Cuba—I am aware how sensitive the issue is—is not entirely satisfactory. Though I would rather have Mr. Shapiro’s passion and sympathy than the reams of hysteria which fill the popular press, I still cannot bring myself to value human liberty so lightly in the scale against material improvement in the lot of the masses, or to believe that dictatorship is a necessary transitional step in social change. Here I think Mr. Shapiro errs in overestimating the importance of a solution to the rural crisis in Latin America. In the United States, the most advanced nation in the world, until well into the New Deal, a large part of the rural population was both ignorant and poor, truly cut off from the material and cultural benefits enjoyed by the rest of the population.

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Much more fundamental is the fact that for all its sympathy for the plight of Latin America, the rather moralizing frame of reference and the strong flavor of right-mindedness make this a curiously (North) American book. No one who was not a yanqui could place the emphases so exactly where Mr. Shapiro has placed them, on economics and politics, and so completely omit every other aspect of Latin American life and culture. It is true that his intention was primarily to describe a “situation” and not to find the reasons for this situation, but I persist in believing that the one cannot be understood without the other.

The continent had, in the 19th century, its great men and its great visions. It faced the future as we in the United States did, with noble ideals and devoted servants of these ideals, like Sarmiento and Don Pedro II of Brazil; it had riches untold, frontiers to be explored. Somewhere in the passage to the 20th century, one half of the American dream collapsed. Why? The argument is usually made that Iberian blood and culture, language and religion were inadequate to the task; that geography prohibited it; that slavery and miscegenation diluted it. But surely these are simplistic answers. Some of the weaknesses of this book involve similar ones.

I have space to mention only one such weakness, Professor Shapiro’s good, liberal, anti-military prejudice, which I share. But we are both gringos, and our military and their role under our constitution, their composition, and a thousand other factors are totally different from those found in most countries of Latin America (not the Dominican Republic, let it be said) where the military are a middle-class elite with a historical tradition and a definite and well-understood role to play in their societies. More thoroughly and more objectively trained than any other defined group in the nation, they were never designed for warfare, but for use as a force of internal stability. They have traditionally been a means of ascension within the society and reflect, grosso modo, the same tensions and political tendencies as the middle class in general: with this difference, that they are less patient with the inefficiency, corruption, demagoguery, and instability of the civil regimes, because they, unlike any other group in the nation, can do something about it. If we want to understand Latin America, which shows many signs of incipient Nasserism, we have to take this phenomenon into serious consideration within its own context.

Not wishing to end on a sour note of dissent, let me add that I would not make this plea for a little deeper thought if I did not think that Mr. Shapiro showed every sign of being able to undertake it, and if I did not believe that a little more intellectual discernment and a little less “reporting” on the uneasy masses (“quiescent volcanos,” “restless millions,” etc.) were not greatly overdue.

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