Our Latin American Hairshirt
For a people whose greatest need is to be loved, a British journalist once observed, of all the places on earth, Americans must be unhappiest in Latin America. At the time the comment seemed both witty and apposite; today one wonders whether the same author might not console us with the thought that if Latin Americans do not love us, at any rate, they cannot dislike us any more than we already dislike ourselves. In some ways there is nothing new about this state of affairs. Self-doubt is not precisely a virgin sentiment in this country, and Latin hostility to the United States, as everyone knows, boasts an extremely venerable pedigree. What is new, however, is the peculiar fusion of these attitudes into one forming a baroque guilt syndrome, in which this country stands condemned not only for its own shortcomings but also for virtually all of the failures of its southern neighbors. Where once Americans were content to dismiss Latin America’s sufferings as the just price to be paid for Roman Catholicism, Spanish colonization, chili peppers, Montezuma’s revenge, and machismo, today they seem perilously close to accepting responsibility for the Latin American share in Original Sin. In fact, things have come to such a pass that an extraordinary number of otherwise intelligent people now believe that events in Latin America are determined in the United States to such a point that they can be understood only in terms of decisions made in Washington, New York, and the Pentagon.
It is not difficult to trace the origins of this development. Apart from the obviously seminal experience of Vietnam, Americans have been regaled for years now with vulgarized accounts of the revelations arising out of the overthrow of President Salvador Allende of Chile, the disputed confessions of a former CIA agent now resident in England, the spectacular (if sometimes inconclusive) probes of various congressional committees examining the activities of U.S. intelligence agencies overseas. If things continue along the same lines in the future, it will eventually seem reasonable to ask whether “Latin America” itself really exists at all, or whether it survives as a kind of picturesque extension of the U.S. Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the United Fruit Company.
The issue, however, is not whether the hair shirt fits us—for clearly, we luxuriate in its exquisite discomfort—but whether indeed it is the appropriate garment for us to wear. Posing the problem somewhat more conventionally, do we need to accept the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens in Latin America? To what degree does the United States in fact control the politics, the military affairs, the economic development, and the cultural life of the southern republics? To questions of this magnitude there can be no easy answer, in fact no single answer at all. What one can do with reasonable assurance, however, is to establish that in our relationship with Latin America two distinct parties are involved. One can show as well, with little difficulty, that the current demonology utterly ignores a Latin America rich in its own contradictions and conflicts, free of pejorative quotation marks and fully able to assume the historic responsibility for its own existence.
Perhaps the most widespread single misconception about Latin America now abroad in this country is the belief that, because the extremes of wealth and poverty there are vastly greater than in much of Europe and the United States, a “revolutionary” situation permanently obtains. From this notion it is deduced, with equal measure of error, that were it not for the intervention, direct or indirect, of the United States, socialist or at least “popular” governments would be in power in most or all of the Latin American states. Those who believe this ignore the sage observation of Leon Trotsky that if poverty alone were the sufficient precondition of revolution, most of the earth’s societies would be in revolt most of the time. More to the point, they overlook the unpleasant fact that in Latin America there are bound to be as large a proportion of conservatives among the general population as anywhere else. In fact, considering the sociological and cultural facts of life, there are probably more of them—and not all landed oligarchs, either. No doubt to some it is tempting to attribute the collapse of “popular” regimes such as that of General Juan José Torres in Bolivia or President Joâo Goulart in Brazil to the machinations of U.S. agents. But the truth is that these governments fell because they alienated significant sectors of the politically active population who needed no prompting from outsiders to defend themselves against challenges to their basic interests.
In any case, the logic which “explains” the downfall of some regimes in terms of U.S. intervention fails to account for the survival of others, many of which Washington has found equally obnoxious. The example of Chile is fresh in all minds, but who today remembers how vigorously the United States opposed the election of Juan Perón to the presidency of Argentina in 1946? Ambassador Spruille Braden, one of our ablest Latin American diplomats and one of the very few fully fluent in Spanish, toured that country in late 1945 speaking on behalf of Perón’s opponent, and on the eve of the elections the State Department issued its now-famous “Blue Book” purporting to establish that the young colonel had worked in collusion with the defeated powers of Axis Europe. Unfortunately, the Argentine electorate proved inattentive to American cues; faced with the alternative, “Braden or Perón,” they elected the latter by an overwhelming majority. Likewise, eight years later, when Perón had made his peace with Washington and the U.S. business community, neither lifted a finger to save his regime when it began its precipitous decline.
The case of Perón is doubly illustrative, for it demonstrates not only the frequent inability of the United States to prevent the emergence of unfriendly regimes in Latin America, but also its apparent incapacity to save its beleaguered friends. When Franklin D. Roosevelt declared of a certain Caribbean dictator, “Well, he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch,” he was not boasting of the extent of American power but soberly recognizing its uncomfortable limitations. From his own unsuccessful experiences in Haiti and Cuba he knew whereof he spoke. In point of fact not one but two Cuban revolutions resulting in governments unwelcome to the United States—that of 1933 and that of 1959—could have been prevented if only Washington could have convinced its “friends,” dictators Gerardo Machado (1924-33) and Fulgencio Batista (1952-59), to step down in favor of conciliatory caretaker governments. Nor, be it noted, was the failure to extract this concession from either due to lack of strenuous effort.
Still another side of this problem is demonstrated by the fate of the liberal-Tory government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry in Peru (1963-68). Although high on the preferential list of the Alliance for Progress, Belaunde was quickly shorn of power by leftist military officers early one morning in 1968, and bundled off to the United States where he spent several years teaching architecture. “I never expropriated anything,” the former Peruvian chief executive declared to me with some bitterness not long ago, “and yet I had to deal with the arrogance of the American oil companies and the unremitting hostility of the United States Embassy. My successors have nationalized American oil interests left and right, and Washington can’t seem to do enough for them. How do you explain that?” How indeed? Not, at any rate, by Wall Street conspiracy theories.
Finally, those who see in Washington the supreme puppeteer who pulls virtually all of the political strings in Latin America utterly ignore the generations of dictators who have learned how to manipulate the United States government on the petard-point of its own fears and prejudices. Even before the days of the “red scare,” many a tropical tyrant had mastered the art of conjuring up the specter of British, German, even Japanese imperialism, in order to get Washington to do its bidding. When all else failed, they could sternly warn a credulous State Department that the only alternative to their regime was “chaos,” and get their way. In fact, many still do.
Of course, the advent of the cold war was a positive windfall for such governments, who have used a fear of Communism to extract every manner of aid, when the most conventional common sense would have advised otherwise. Even Haiti’s François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier was not above this tactic; when beset with pressures in the early 60’s to liberalize his voodoo dictatorship, he threatened (incredibly) to turn to Communism, and the Kennedy administration was promptly brought to heel. Perhaps the Haitian leader was merely borrowing a page from the book of his long-term neighbor in the Dominican Republic, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, who eventually raised the technique of the red herring to a high art form. As Ambassador John Bartlow Martin recalls in his excellent book on that country, whenever Trujillo wanted to bait the United States, he would call home from exile a certain Communist by the name of Máximo López Molina. “Once,” Martin writes, “he even gave López Molina control of a radio station. Then, when Trujillo tired of him, or no longer needed him [to demonstrate to the United States the imminent threat of a Communist takeover in the Dominican Republic], ‘discover’ López Molina’s ‘secret headquarters,’ smash it, and throw him in jail—then release him when Trujillo needed him next.” This Opéra bouffe, Martin thinks, occurred thirteen different times.
During the early 60’s a few Latin American leaders perfected an even more complicated technique—while manipulating Washington through its fear of native Communist movements, they simultaneously posed as champions of national independence at home by flirting diplomatically with the (then strictly forbidden) Communist world. Although Argentine President Arturo Frondizi (1958-62) dabbled in this, the most advanced practitioners were Brazilian presidents Jânio Quadros (1961) and João Goulart (1961-64). The latter finally stumbled and fell victim to a military coup in 1964. But the cause was not, as some would have us believe, his intention to recognize Red China or his refusal to subscribe to Washington’s financial orthodoxies; it was a complex web of domestic factors in which Goulart’s political appeals to enlisted men in the Brazilian army over the heads of their officers figured very prominently.
This brings us to another myth nearly as widespread—the notion that the United States prefers military to civilian governments in Latin America because, presumably, the officer class is more conservative politically, more congenial to our economic interests, and more attentive to the overtures of our overseas representatives. This image is extremely difficult to dispel, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary, partly because some regimes superficially answer to this description, and because of a rich store of fictional archetypes (Graham Greene novels, Hollywood films, radical-chic journalism) which reinforce it. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there is no single military ideology in Latin America—that the service communities are as diverse and divided as their civilian counterparts, and that the United States has as much reason to prefer civilian regimes as to distrust them.
The problem of “militarism” in Latin America is a very hoary one indeed, but its meaning has varied widely over the last hundred and fifty years. During the first generation after independence, in many of the republics the only viable political “party” was the army, and the victorious insurgent generals became, by default, a new class of presidenciables. Except for the advancement of their corporate, personal, or family interest, it is difficult to find in most of these figures anything approaching an authentic “ideology.” By the end of the 19th century, however, much progress had been made toward “professionalization” of the army, particularly among the Latin American “majors”—Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and (to 1910) Mexico, and in these countries and several others civilian leadership seemed well on its way to asserting its primacy.
Partisans of professionalization hoped that the prevailing ideology of the military would ultimately become “republican,” that is, respectful of civilian supremacy, of constitutional procedures, and (at least by implication) of the socioeconomic status quo. Unfortunately for them, the first generation or so of professionally trained officers came on stream just about the time when the urban middle classes—from which most of them were recruited in the first place—were beginning to discover a political idiom of their own. The winds of populism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism, which wafted through many of the republics in the decade after 1914, carried along not only lawyers, schoolteachers, and journalists, but young officers as well. By the 30’s, in addition to the republican ethos which was most prevalent among the older generation, one could find at least two military ideologies.
One, which for lack of a better name we shall call “nationalist,” came (and still comes) in either a left- or right-wing version. In the former, it emphasized the evils of imperialism and the need for radical social reform at home, and thus shaded imperceptibly into Marxist socialism. The latter placed the blame for national ills on a selfish plutocracy (frequently accused of being in league with foreign interests) and decadent parliamentary institutions, thus borrowing two themes common to European fascism.
The other ideology was “regenerationist” in the sense that it held that national institutions could only be revitalized by the military—“the last aristocracy,” as Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones called it in a famous speech in 1924. Regenerationist officers believed that civilian politicians had proven themselves too corrupt and too undisciplined, above all too lacking in idealism, to accomplish great national goals. In this light, military governments were necessary in order to realize civilian objectives (industrialization, for example) which civilians themselves were unwilling (or unable) to achieve.
Obviously, these ideological currents were not (and are not) mutually exclusive, and in the confused environment of the 20’s many a Latin American officer accepted portions of both. The Ibáñez regime in Chile (1927-31) is a case in point, as are the governments of Generals Uriburu (1930-31) and Perón (1946-55) in Argentina. Nor has the “republican” mindset disappeared from Latin American military circles. During the early 60’s the most important political conflict in Argentina was taking place not in the halls of parliament but among “red” (regenerationist/right-wing nationalist) and “blue” (republican) officers. The fate of Argentine constitutional democracy was sealed when Lt.-General Juan Carlos Onganiá, the leading “blue” officer, changed colors. (All the while, by the way, U.S. Ambassador Edward Martin was dashing about Buenos Aires vainly trying to save the faltering civilian government of Dr. Arturo Illia.)
The fact that the United States has had to deal with armies in Latin America which spurn the “republican” outlook responds, then, not to our preferences, but to realities over which we have had little control. Misunderstandings in this country often arise because deposed Latin American civilians like to claim that their governments fell because of a refusal to “knuckle under” to U.S. pressures; this is a convenient way of excusing failure, but it explains nothing. Coups are rarely staged by officers who want to do “business as usual,” the perennial obsession of U.S. embassies. And “activist” generals are at least as inclined to flirt with ideologies potentially threatening to U.S. interests as civilian caudillos.
To be sure, most of Latin America’s heavy armaments and aircraft are manufactured in the United States, frequently with U.S. government subsidies to facilitate their purchase. A very large proportion of Latin American officers of high rank have been trained either at service schools in this country or at Fort Gulick in the Canal Zone. Much of the methodology of Latin American armies (“doctrine”) is congruent to, or identical with, American practice. And our service attachés do possess extensive perquisites to dispense among “cooperative” Latin American officers. These include trips not only to the enormous PX in the Canal Zone, but also study tours of the United States, short courses at the U.S. service schools, and so forth.
But influence, even influence of this sort, is a double-edged sword. For contact often leads not to “cooperation,” much less collusion, but to friction. American officers (with the exception of West Point graduates, a tiny minority of the whole) tend to come from less well-educated and less refined sectors of their society than their Latin American counterparts; though relatively wealthier in their foreign setting, these Americans often appear to their hosts provincial and undignified. They rarely master Spanish or Portuguese, and their efforts to influence their Latin colleagues are frequently abrasive and alienating, in societies that place an extraordinary importance on “form.”
Further, Latin American officers have long resented the near U.S. monopoly on equipment, and there has been much talk in recent years about the need either for the southern republics to manufacture these items themselves (which meshes very well with certain domestic political interests), or to diversify their sources of supply (welcome news to the British and French embassies). During the 60’s, an additional irritant was introduced by the fixation (as it then was) in Washington on counter-guerrilla training. American service attachés frequently found it difficult to convince local officers of the need to “go to the field” for this rugged type of training; many preferred (as they always have) to remain in the capital or in the larger cities, where they could enjoy the amenities of the service club, their families, and a mistress discreetly tucked away in a suburban high-rise.
Finally, we need to remember that military ambition in Latin America can assume many forms, only one of which is to curry favor with the U.S. Embassy. Some officers have striven mightily to prove that they are better patriots for having accepted Yanqui favors: Yon Sosa, leader of the Guatemalan guerrilla movement, was trained in the Canal Zone and at Fort Benning while an army lieutenant, and most of the officers of the current left-wing junta in Peru were exposed to some U.S. military education. Indeed, the Peruvian junta has in general done wonders to demonstrate the limits of American military influence in Latin America. Shortly after seizing power it nationalized the holdings of the International Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil. When our service attachés allegedly attempted to stir up resistance to this move, and the United States, by way of retaliation, cancelled scheduled delivery of some military aircraft, the Peruvian government promptly expelled all members of the U.S. military mission and began to explore possibilities with British and French aircraft manufacturers. The United States quickly came around.
Military leaders in other countries as well have discovered that domestic political fortunes can be vastly enhanced by Yankee-baiting; no less a reactionary than Argentine General Jorge Carcagno, who gained his combat decorations suppressing the 1969 uprising of workers and students in Córdoba, lambasted the United States at a meeting of the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington in 1973. (At the time he was being seriously considered as a possible running mate for Peron in the fall elections.) Even the Brazilian generals so much in favor with Secretary Kissinger may have other tricks up their sleeve. One of them recently confessed to a West German journalist that all the foreign investment flocking into Brazil was wonderful. “We hope it keeps coming,” he declared, “because . . . there’ll be just that much more to nationalize later on.”
Foreign investment in Latin America means, of course, U.S. investment—largely though not exclusively. Still, there is no disputing that this country is to an overwhelming degree the single most important source of capital and outside economic influence in the southern hemisphere. For many years our principal area of investment was the extraction of raw materials, and American concerns are still heavily involved in mining and agribusiness. But since the 30’s there has been a steady increase in national control of subsoil resources, as U.S. corporations have switched over to the elaboration of consumer goods for the local market. Today everything from Ford trucks to Sheaffer fountain pens is manufactured in Latin America, and latterly American interests have branched out into television, motion pictures, and advertising. Even in industries which are nationally owned, U.S. influence continues to be great, either through patent royalties or a near-monopoly of technology. For example, although the Chilean goverment has long owned its steel mill near Talcahuano, the maintenance and repairs on the blast furnace and auxiliary equipment continue to be done by teams brought down from this country. And earlier this year the Mexican press was full of complaints that the long-since (1938) nationalized oil industry had yet to emancipate itself from dependence on refinery chemicals and machinery imported from the United States.
American voices are likewise heard in all the areas of credit and monetary policy, perhaps to the near-exclusion of other foreign interests, although not without reference to domestic political pressures and needs. The dollar remains the reserve currency of all Latin American governments except that of Cuba, and many countries depend heavily on aid from multinational lending agencies in which the U.S. has a predominant influence, such as the Inter-American Development Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Private U.S. banks are likewise important as a source of short-term loans or as a means of refinancing national debts.
However, influence, no matter how great, is not control, and even in this area of greatest advantage the United States has had to face serious limits to its power. The nub of the problem is that, as American interests in Latin America become vastly more diversified, it has become increasingly difficult—not to say impossible—for the United States government to arrive at a single economic policy which is agreeable to all of its major constituents. The International Monetary Fund, for example, continues in Latin America to counsel deflationary policies which would be laughed out of court in the industrial countries—balanced budgets, reduced government payrolls, austerity today, tomorrow, and forever. If followed to the letter, the advice of the IMF would seriously jeopardize the political interests of the United States in Latin America, which are stability and continuity rather than chaos and upheaval. “Conservative” no less than “popular” governments in Latin America require enormous amounts of patronage in order to secure their power base, and to throw thousands of government workers on the street in the service of financial orthodoxy would win approval, perhaps, from Dr. Arthur Burns, but not, I think, from the political officers in our southern embassies nor from the Department of State. Nor can American manufacturers in Latin America find much comfort in austerity programs; like their counterparts in the United States, they depend upon mass purchasing power and easier credit to turn a profit.
Diversification of American investment and interest in Latin America has likewise created a host of countervailing pressures on the U.S. Congress and on agencies responsible for evolving policies on tariffs and import quotas. In the days when American enterprises south of the border were largely confined to the production of raw materials for resale in the United States or Europe, the only serious conflicts which could ensue were those between the U.S. producer-importer and the U.S. domestic producer, if such existed. Today the matter is vastly more complex. The amount of Brazilian coffee, Peruvian fishmeal, Bolivian wolfram, Venezuelan sugar and petroleum, and so forth, which can enter the United States determines in the most important degree the amount of U.S. manufactured goods (or manufactured goods elaborated in situ by Latin American-based U.S. companies) which our neighbors can purchase. If all of this seems a bit complicated, that at least conveys a proper sense of the way in which our economic policies in Latin America evolve—through the influence of many different interests, including, needless to say, Latin American governments themselves.
To some, no doubt, Latin America’s problem is not monetary policies or import quotas, but the structural hegemony of the United States in the international capitalist order. Those who subscribe to this view call themselves dependency theorists, and they constitute a large and growing proportion of the social scientists (especially the sociologists) now writing on Latin American affairs. The underlying assumption of dependency theory, as stated by one of its leading exponents, Andre Gunder Frank, is that there can be no development without underdevelopment; in other words, the world capitalist order and the Third World are one seamless entity, in which the former could not exist without the latter. The implication, drawn by others, is that if American workers are to have automobiles, Bolivian workers must go without shoes. The unspoken assumption of high-church dependency theorists is that if tomorrow the United States ceased to exist, or if it experienced a socialist revolution, the Latin American economic order would quickly become more rational, more developed, and more socially just. In a somewhat attenuated version current among certain kinds of Latin American conservatives, emphasis is placed on the allegedly low prices which the United States pays for Latin America’s raw materials, which, we are told, explain the difference in our standards of living. If we would fend off a social cataclysm in Latin America, it is often argued, we must immediately redress the balance.
The problem with dependency theory is that it overestimates the economic importance of Latin America to the United States. U.S. investment there constitutes only about 5 per cent of our total overseas commitment, most of which is in the safer havens of Canada and Western Europe. True, that 5 per cent includes some of the more critical strategic raw materials, but in recent years the trend toward nationalization on the one hand and the development of synthetics, substitutes, and alternative sources of supply on the other have deprived this argument of much of its cutting edge. Nor is it the case, as many Latin Americans have claimed, that for every dollar the U.S. invests in the region, it extracts four in return; if this were so, Latin America would be the most profitable field for foreign investment in the world, and would not be—as it often is—perennially short of capital.
The argument that the United States pays unfairly low prices for Latin America’s raw materials is compelling on the face of it, but it founders rather badly when one asks the inevitable question—“What is a fair price?” I have heard this question put to the scholarly Costa Rican Ambassador Rauúl Silva, and the passionate Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Dom Helder Câmara. Neither could come up with a satisfactory answer. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that in societies with a pattern of income distribution such as those in Latin America, it is difficult to imagine how a sheer increase in global income, without other, more searing changes, would do anything more than accentuate present inequalities. When Archbishop Câmara was asked about this, he replied, somewhat naively, I thought, that a change of social orders in Latin America and a change of heart in the United States should come at the same time.
Finally, those who would explain Latin American underdevelopment in terms of dependency theory face much the same dilemma as those who attribute the preponderance of conservative governments to the United States—they must credibly establish that there is another dispensation waiting in the wings of history to manifest itself. Unfortunately, this can be done only on faith. There are indeed parties and movements in many Latin American countries which espouse socially revolutionary doctrines. But their accession to power, or their capacity to carry out their programs once there, as the case of Allende illustrates, is extremely problematical. And their claim to represent the will of the masses must be taken for precisely what it is—a literary expression, nothing more.
Not long ago the term “imperialism” connoted to most people either a foreign flag flying atop a historic fortress, complete with armies of occupation and arrogant colonial civil servants who dressed for dinner; or, in the case of Latin America, a proconsular U.S. ambassador counseled by the representatives of the leading American business concerns (somewhat in the fashion of the British as depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, Burn!). Today, however, those who wish to attribute ille ills of Latin America to the United States have an entirely new variety to harp upon—“cultural imperialism.”
Now what is “cultural imperialism”? It is the forced assimilation, usually by insidious means, of native people into the homogenized dullness that allegedly characterizes suburban, middle-class America. There is no denying that since World War II Latin America has had ample opportunity to be exposed to our way of life. The obvious conduit is the cinema, which, in spite of a native industry growing in size and quality, is still predominantly imported. Even a Latin American film like Cantinflas’s El maestro (1967), which was made in Mexico by a Mexican company, strongly resembles a Walt Disney “family comedy.” Television, too, has been a display case for American products, typically superannuated detective series packaged for Latin consumption in Puerto Rico by teams that dub the dialogue in a language which, as the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has correctly observed, “is neither English nor Spanish.”
As far as education is concerned, the United States is rapidly replacing Europe as the preferential place for Latin American elites to send their offspring, just as English has replaced French as the most popular second language. Even “young ladies of quality,” formerly sent to Italian and Spanish convent schools, have recently been entrusted to the gentilities of Sweetbriar College or Bryn Mawr (where, by the way, they have had the opportunity to take courses from American Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker). For those of less exalted social status there is still the Fulbright Commission, which facilitates extended graduate study in the United States, and a host of short-term grants for what Latins like to call perfeccionamiento. The Ford Foundation has long been involved in Latin American education; when I was attending the University of Concepción in Chile in the mid-60’s, they were trying to get the administration to introduce a freshman “liberal arts” year, in contrast to the prevalent practice of having students immediately enroll in their professional faculty à la française.
It is to advertising, however, that much of the recent talk of “cultural” imperialism is directed, and, as indicated above, there are indeed a host of major American agencies now doing business in Latin America. In addition, many Latin’s have started agencies of their own, copying, as best they can, the “Madison Avenue” technique. The assumption which many critics make about all of these cultural phenomena is that, by introducing unnecessary wants related to an alien way of life—freshmen courses in the liberal arts, Wonder Bread, Hawaiian Eye, and postgraduate work at MIT—Americans (or their Latin surrogates) can destroy the fibers of national identity, and make the advance of economic imperialism just that much easier.
Yet “cultural imperialism” is woefully inadequate as a general theory of cultural development. Its limitations were recently illustrated in a film made by two graduate students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shown at an academic conference. The subject was, we were told, “the continuity of cultural colonialism in Mexican history.” The lights went out, and the screen lit up with an enormous Coca-Cola sign which, when the camera drew back, was revealed to dominate a Mexican native market. Then, in rapid succession, we were treated to images of “cultural imperialism,” starting with, Spanish armor, and passing through 18th-century coaches, Porfirio Diaz sporting Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches, elegant Mexican ladies in their Victorian best, right down to the display windows of the Sears store in Guadalajara. When the lights went on, we were left wondering, if these were inauthentic visions of Mexico past and present, where the “real” Mexico was to be found. Some, of course, might say that the only authentic Mexico is native or Indian—many Mexicans have said this, and some still do. But apart from the fact that this proposition is highly questionable (rather more than half the population is of mixed racial origin, and speaks Spanish as a first language), even if we agreed to it we would have to select among dozens of tribal groups—a competition, by the way, from which the Aztecs would be absent, having long since disappeared as a recognizable community. Even if we allow that the “real” Mexico is mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Indian origins), we are still left with the dilemma of determining at what point outside cultural influences can no longer be legitimately assimilated into Mexican life. For example, in the 19th century Austrian Archduke Maximilian von Haps-burg, who reigned briefly as Emperor of Mexico, brought with him a number of Austrians, Frenchmen, even a handful of Dalmatians, some of whose descendants remain in Mexico and regard themselves as part of the warp and woof of Mexican history. Who are we to gainsay their claims? Rather than talk about “cultural imperialism,” it seems more logical to regard “Mexican” culture (except for folk culture, whose paradigms are more or less clear) as something still in the process of formation.
Nor have the theorists of “cultural imperialism” fully addressed themselves to the manner in which, say, Mexican culture in its broadest sense—marriage practices, the position of women, the extended family, patron-client relationships, attitudes toward death—have remained remarkably impervious to American trends and attitudes, in spite of an overwhelming Yankee presence in many areas of national life. Anthropologists and businessmen alike frequently remark upon the fact that much which seems at first glance “modern” in Mexico (or any other Latin American country), beneath surface appearances is nothing more than old wine in new bottles. Of whatever we decide Mexicanidad (“Mexican-ness”) ultimately consists—and the debate is far from over—we will have to attribute to it a curious staying power in the face of pressures from Yanquilandia. Many Americans, by the way, who are freest with their accusations of “cultural imperialism” secretly despise the broadest cultural traditions of a country like Mexico—say, bullfighting or arranged marriages. This is their privilege, of course, but they must still identify for us the “real” Mexico they are trying to save.
One last word on this matter. Whenever I hear someone accuse the U.S. of eroding Latin America’s cultural identity, I wonder which Latin America he is talking about. For to me, many of the most valuable manifestations of Latin American culture—the murals of Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros, the poems of Rubén Dario or Nicolás Guillén or Pablo Neruda, the novels of Miguel Angel Asturias—originated in a creative response to the threat of American hegemony. Far from divesting Latin America of her sense of identity, we have done much to define it. (“The religion of Cubans,” an angry patriot once said, “will be hatred of the United States.”) Just as “Arabs” and “Indians” discovered in London that they were parts of nations whose existence they had scarcely imagined, in the clash of cultures Latin Americans may ultimately learn who they really are. Perhaps there is no need to thank the United States for the favor, but there is no need to regret it, either.
In his vastly informative book, The Aztec Image in the Western Mind (1969), Professor Benjamin Keen shows how a vanished aboriginal civilization in Mexico could inspire four centuries of impassioned debate among Europeans, most of whom lived very far from their subject in both space and time. His point, of course, is that in the Aztecs foreign observers “saw” not a particular people who once lived on the shores of Lake Texcoco, but themselves in a primitive mirror.
Keen’s metaphor could easily be extended to Latin America as a whole. For reasons which are not entirely clear (perhaps nothing more than the fact of its relative proximity to North Atlantic culture compared to other areas of the non-Western world), Latin America has become a theater in which many Europeans and North Americans have chosen to play out their fantasies. What they “see” in Latin America has come to tell us less about that region than about their own attitudes toward property and society. The result is not—as they think—a sympathetic interest in another way of life, but the ultimate form of cultural narcissism—it is, figuratively speaking, dressing up Aztecs and Incas in costumes borrowed from the old WPA “proletarian” theater.
The irony of all of this is that in treating Latin America thus, some of the most vociferous advocates of “self-determination” have by implication denied the region a life of its own. For if an entire continent must wait upon impulses from without in order to “be,” then (except as a purely geographical expression) it does not really exist. Perhaps this is not what many critics of our supposed role in Latin America really intend, but it logically follows from much of what they say.
Many, too, seem to forget that “self-determination” includes the right to do what outsiders—even sympathetic outsiders—feel is wrong. Underlying much of the pop-journalism about Latin America is the assumption that only when a given government (say, Chile or Peru) is doing something of which the writer approves (and of which Washington disapproves) is it actualizing its independent “self.” However, without indulging in a discussion of the merits and demerits of specific regimes, it is difficult to see why the political views of conservative and moderate Latin Americans are any less legitimate (or for that matter, less numerous) than those of a more radical persuasion.
The truth is, it is not difficult to imagine a dozen different topics, ranging from birth control to energy policy, on which any Latin American (Left or Right) would espouse views obnoxious to any North American (again, Left or Right), and, obviously, vice versa. We are dealing here not, as the dependency theorists would have us think, with one seamless entity, but with a diversity of worlds. Whether that is something to celebrate or deplore is another matter. But we could at least do our southern neighbors the honor of recognizing the fact, and shed our Latin American hair-shirt, which is an affront to them, and a disservice to