Latin America is generally included among the “developing” regions of the world. The term is an awkward one because, first of all, it suggests that a country’s or a region’s problems are primarily economic in nature, and second, it fails to distinguish among countries and even entire continents with enormous differences in their standards of living and their economic systems. Not that the all-embracing nature of such concepts as the “Third World” or “underdevelopment” has gone completely uncriticized. The Third World is now usually subdivided into zones and categories, so that at least Upper Volta and Brazil do not carry the same tags. Lately, too, we have witnessed the creation of a special category of super-rich “underdeveloped” nations—the oil-exporting countries. And the purely economic definition of underdevelopment has also come under criticism. Gunnar Myrdal, in particular, in his monumental Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of the World, has analyzed certain non-economic causes of underdevelopment—rooted in the cultures of elites and masses alike—and denounced the taboos that have led experts, especially the ones working for international organizations, to ignore such factors. Today, the myths of the Third World are beginning to undergo criticism at the hands of some of the very people who created and spread them.
Every traveler and every reasonably careful reader of the literature on the subject knows very well that it is impossible to explain in identical terms the phenomenon of underdevelopment in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America. And the same holds for development, too. The past several years have witnessed the takeoff of South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and, to a lesser degree, Thailand and Indonesia; some of these countries are becoming redoubtable competitors of the old industrial nations. Moreover, this economic and technological takeoff has been accomplished in spite of the dictatorial or authoritarian form of the political regimes in these countries, and in spite of the double “imperialism” of Japan and the United States. On the other hand, similar results have not been obtained under the dictatorial regime of mainland China, whose economic and technological stagnation and even regression and low standard of living have been noted by Mao’s successors, contradicting the earlier golden propaganda which sympathizers all over the world accepted and repeated blindly.
The issue of economic underdevelopment in Communist countries is pertinent in this context because Latin America contains a Communist society: Cuba. Of course, information on Cuba is as difficult to obtain as for any other Communist country, but it is not altogether impossible. The obstacles have been mental—interiorized censorship, whether willful or unconscious, which for fifteen years provided Castro with the sort of immunity from analysis and criticism that Stalin had benefited from previously. Despite the accumulation of lies, though, it is not impossible to gauge Cuba’s situation, both economic and political, in comparison with that of other Latin American countries.
Economic underdevelopment in a given place can have many causes: a basic lack of natural resources; climatic or demographic handicaps; the unwillingness of a culture to acquire production techniques; colonial exploitation; the disasters provoked by certain agrarian reforms that destroy the traditional agricultural fabric while slowing productivity; linguistic and tribal divisions; an inability to organize the necessary administrative infrastructure or, on the contrary, a proliferation of bureaucracies; and so forth. Examining the regions currently classified as underdeveloped, one notes that each case suggests a different explanation, and, moreover, that the presence of one or more of the enumerated ills has not inhibited many countries around the world from developing quite nicely. This proves that no single identified cause of underdevelopment is, of itself, responsible. And even taken together, the various factors have their antidotes. I would almost say that underdevelopment is a natural phenomenon, and that the problem of development consists in discovering the antidote.
What about Latin America? In Latin America, underdevelopment is not due, principally, to insurmountable economic obstacles, or to overbearing population pressures, or to any pronounced cultural gap. I would say rather that Latin American backwardness has causes that are essentially political.
I expect to hear right away: “But of course! Agreed! The cause is imperialism!” Well, no. I am speaking of perfectly indigenous, internal political causes: the permanent self-destruction of Latin American societies which has allowed “imperialism” to have its corrosive effect on societies that are already decadent.
Let us examine the possible causes of Latin America’s present-day underdevelopment. The old Spanish or Portuguese colonialism can no longer be seriously adduced as a cause. Colonial ties with Europe were severed at the beginning of the 19th century (in Cuba, at the end of the century). If such antique colonial status were still influential, the United States ought to be underdeveloped today, not to speak of Australia, South Africa, and Canada.
A second cause might be scarcity of natural resources, aggravated by demographic and climatic handicaps. This hypothesis does not stand up to scrutiny, either. From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, Latin America knows every climate. Taken as a whole, it is not overpopulated, which is not to say there is a shortage of manpower. As for natural resources, in agriculture and forestry as well as in mineral and energy sources, Latin America is vastly superior to Western Europe.
A third cause—the one unanimously agreed upon by the Latin Americans themselves—is supposed to be imperialism, the continuation of colonialism. In other words, the wealth of the rich nations is said to be due to the “plundering” of the Third World, first by colonialism pure and simple, then by neo-imperialism. To counter the first part of this charge, one need only note that the two European powers with the oldest, largest, and in many ways the richest colonial empires, and those which held on to their empires the longest, happen to be the two countries of Western Europe which did not participate, or participated only half-heartedly and belatedly, in the industrial takeoff: Spain and Portugal. By contrast, Germany, with no significant colonial empire, had become, by the end of the 19th century, the industrial engine of Europe, surpassing even Great Britain and definitely surpassing France which, in spite of its immense colonial empire (or because of it?), remained, until 1940, relatively stagnant from an industrial point of view and largely attached to a traditional peasant economy. France’s decisive industrial growth took place after the loss of its colonies; the standard of living in France rose as much between 1950 and 1970 as it had risen during the hundred and fifty preceding years.
On the other hand, for a long time the economic level and potential strength of certain Latin American countries had nothing to fear from a comparison with the Old World or even with North America. At the end of the 19th century, Argentina had a per-capita income comparable to Germany’s; on the eve of World War II, it was equal to Great Britain’s. (This does not mean that social justice prevailed there, but neither did it prevail in Great Britain. Development and inequality are two distinct problems.) In 1945, Argentina emerged as a world leader in food exports; its GNP was equal to half of all Latin America’s. The large Italian emigration to Argentina, lasting seventy-five years, proves that for the poor of Europe’s underdeveloped regions, this country was as attractive as the United States. Therefore, one can say that today’s Argentina, with its record of economic failure and political disintegration, became an underdeveloped country. And even then it is only relatively underdeveloped, and only by comparison with its past, and with North America.
Indeed, one must never forget how heterogeneous Latin America is. In 1970, Chile was a prosperous country compared with Bolivia. Between a Peruvian and a Venezuelan or even a poor Mexican, there is a greater average income disparity than between the latter two and a Spaniard in the lowest income bracket. Furthermore, one must single out those countries where a high proportion of Indians have presented, and continue to present, the classic problem of traditional mentalities and techniques confronted with modern economic and political forms. In Argentina this problem has not presented itself, any more than it has in Uruguay, two countries that have nevertheless regressed in a particularly spectacular fashion on both the economic and the cultural level.
In fact, even in those countries with large Indian populations, it is the people of European or predominantly European extraction who make up the leading class, leaving their mark on politics, the economy, the military, culture, and manners. This is also the case in countries such as Cuba, where part of the population is of African extraction. (An exception is the former British Guyana, a Communist-inclined dictatorship in which the Africans dominate the Indians.) Latin America is thus not an ex-colony like India, Algeria, or Angola but is rather like North America, a region shaped by colonists who have become independent of their home countries, not by natives who have expelled the colonists. Like the U.S., it is a projection of Europe. But of the “other” Europe: not the “good” Europe of democracy, human rights, and social cohesiveness, but the “bad” Europe of coups d’état and civil wars, of military adventurers and demagogic chieftains, of corruption and injustice, of pseudo-revolutions and bloody repression.
This is why it seems to me that the comparative underdevelopment of Latin America comes not from economic problems but from an inability to govern. After the phony Bolivian elections and the coup d’état of July 1978, General Pereda declared, “Bolivia’s problems stem from its underdevelopment.” I should say exactly the opposite, and not only with reference to Bolivia: the underdevelopment of Latin America stems from its problems, from its problem, which is essentially a problem of the self-poisoning of the political culture. What is more, self-poisoning here is synonymous with self-satisfaction. The Latin American elites have carried to an extreme a defect that is fatal to a society no less than to an individual: namely, the notion that everything bad that happens is never the fault of oneself, but always the fault of others.
From this stems the use and abuse of “imperialism.” There exist two imperialisms: the real thing and the fantasy. The latter reinforces the former. For the fantasy that consists in blaming one’s own mistakes on foreign imperialism prevents one from correcting those mistakes, enfeebling one and thereby leaving one more vulnerable to the real imperialism. One hundred years ago, Sweden was a much poorer country than most of the countries of Latin America; its population was equal to half the small population of contemporary Bolivia. Would Sweden have become one of the ten strongest economic powers in the world and the second or third (after the U.S. and Switzerland) in per-capita income if it had spent a century merely condemning the “imperialism” of the powers that were crushing it: Great Britain, Germany, and Russia?
One need not deny the existence of imperialism, especially as this is a universal historical phenomenon, known long before capitalism and perhaps even more substantial, nowadays, in the Communist bloc than in the capitalist one. But it is pathological to use the same abstract term to describe the occupation of one country by a foreign army and the establishment in another of a powdered milk factory, simply because the latter happens to be built, in part or in whole, with the help of foreign investments. When I lived in Mexico in the early 1950’s, the major supplier of telephone equipment was the Swedish company, Eriksson. Was that a case of “Swedish imperialism”? Was Sweden preventing Mexico from building its own telephones? Were Mexican entrepreneurs unable to enter the international market? Was Mexico unable to create competent technicians? The answer to all these questions is no. But the wealthy class in Mexico preferred to invest in real estate and land speculation rather than in industry; the young Mexican bourgeois preferred to study law, which allowed them to become “licenciados” and “politicos,” rather than science and technology (the opposite occurred in Japan, with well-known results); the politicians and the bureaucrats preferred to blackmail foreign companies by demanding percentages or envelopes at every step of their operations, rather than undertaking such operations themselves; and the most “anti-imperialist” Mexican President, Luis Echeverria (1970-76), was not in the least reluctant to enrich himself through corruption.
What is responsible for this mixture of caudillismo and corruption? The Eriksson company? The CIA? Is it not rather in a solid Latin American tradition? The countries of the Third World cannot demand economic aid, credit, investments, technological transfers, and complain about imperialism when they obtain them, and then again when they are withdrawn! What is known as economic imperialism has never been anything but economic activity itself, the distribution of capital, goods, and innovations. Contributions from abroad can be factors of strength or of weakness, depending on how they are used in the place in question. Multinationals, like alcohol, are neutral; it is not wine which is responsible for alcoholism, but the drunkard. In one country a multinational will build a factory to produce goods, in another it will buy politicians to sell them; it depends on the country, not on the multinational, which has no preconceptions. Nor will assassinating five Fiat executives in four years, as happened in Argentina, reduce economic dependence. On the contrary, terrorism is as underdeveloped as it is underdeveloping. Proof? The current human and capital impoverishment of one of the most industrialized regions of Spain and Europe: the Basque country.
In his illuminating commentaries on the recent tragedies of Latin America, François Bourricaud has demonstrated the emptiness of the concept of “dependence,” which nevertheless seems to be the sole explanatory factor haunting the Latin American mind. In fact, dependence always has a double meaning, and a double face. Without Middle Eastern oil and Chilean copper, the industrialized countries would not have become rich; but were it not for their industrial development, the reserves of the producing countries would be worth nothing.
Moreover, as became apparent in the wake of the oil boycott and crisis of 1973, Europe and Japan are incomparably more “dependent” on foreign supplies of energy and raw materials than is Latin America. In fact, Latin America is in a less disadvantageous position than Japan: it can train electricians, whereas Japan cannot create petroleum in its subsoil. In the 1960’s, Mexico maintained a growth rate comparable to Japan’s (6½ per cent per annum as late as 1969); if its economy has subsequently fallen apart, it is not because of the energy crisis, since, already an oil producer, Mexico has found new and abundant underground reserves during the 1970’s. And Mexico’s oil is not being “robbed” by foreign countries; it has been nationalized since 1937. Yet in human and social terms Mexico is still underdeveloped.
Similarly, Peru’s recent shipwreck and tragic famine are due principally to the unforgivable and prolonged errors made by the “progressive” soldiers who seized power in 1968. And in Chile, according to the French socialist Alain Touraine, “one cannot separate the coup d’état [by Pinochet] from the crisis within the popular-unity movement of Allende and its inability to sustain a coherent economic policy.”
This sort of diagnosis is never heard in Latin America. Except for Carlos Rangel’s great book, Del buen salvaje al buen revolucionario (published in English under the title, The Latin Americans, 1977), which treats Latin American history as the history of a failure, and a failure with human causes, Latin American civilization may be the first ever to avoid self-criticism entirely. Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, said upon returning to his country in 1971, “I am returning because I heard the word self-criticism. . . .” He may have heard the word, but I doubt he saw the thing. Only recently his compatriot, the philosopher Leopoldo Zea, professor of the Colegio de Mexico, published in the Spanish daily El Pais an article called “Latin America, Another Side of Imperialism.” In this stereotyped piece, Zea explains that (1) formerly, the protection of dictatorships in South America was evidence of Yankee imperialism; (2) today, the struggle of Washington against these same dictatorships is evidence of Yankee neo-imperialism. Naturally, Zea neglects to mention that a large number of today’s dictatorships were born as reactions to Castroite and Guevarist terrorism, and he scornfully dismisses any reformist solutions or that relative degree of respect for human rights which might assure a bit of happiness and prosperity for the masses, as is the case in Venezuela.
It is not that Latin Americans are not inclined to be self-deprecating. But self-deprecation is not self-criticism. The former comes from hating oneself, the latter from self-respect; the former leads only to inertia, the latter to progress and improvement.
In practical terms it is impossible that all the evils facing a collectivity of 19 countries, with 320 million people, in an area of 12½ million square miles, with land and mineral resources among the richest on earth, should be always and only the fault of others. So long as this insanity prevails, Latin America will remain underdeveloped, sick with the underdevelopment which is at once the most curable and the most incurable: the underdevelopment of political intelligence.