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Bossa Nova

Invisible Latin America

by Samuel Shapiro
Beacon, 160 pp., $3.95

Professor Samuel Shapiro, now teaching at the University of Notre Dame, came into prominence toward the end of 1960 when he published a long and impassioned defense of the Castro regime in The New Republic. He reported that Communism did not exist in Cuba and that American reactionaries were attempting to destroy Castro’s revolution by painting the island red. Mr. Shapiro made several more trips to Cuba in the following years, and though shedding each time a bit more naiveté, he continued to take a favorable view of many aspects of the Cuban dictatorship. Now he has written a slim book of warning and prophecy about the future of all Latin America, and it is clear that only a residue of his old sympathy for the Cuban experiment remains. A pity in one sense: his writing was much livelier when he still believed in the revolution.

The thesis of Invisible Latin America is that all the lands south of our border may follow the way of Fidel Castro unless their social and economic systems are radically altered in the shortest possible time. The book attempts to be a contemporary companion volume for John Gunther’s Inside Latin America, written some twenty years ago. While Gunther analyzed the inroads of fascism, Shapiro emphasizes the gains of Communism. The big difference is that John Gunther detested fascism, while Samuel Shapiro, though presumably anti-Communist, often seems fascinated by the possibilities of totalitarian socialism. A great many examples could be quoted to illustrate this, but a few will have to suffice. Discussing the failure of liberal democratic regimes, Professor Shapiro charges that these nations “have suffered for years from strikes, terrorist bombings, and armed uprisings,” and that their military establishments are much swollen. But this is equally true of revolutionary regimes, and Cuba has the largest military force of all. The most “peaceful” country—no strikes, no terrorist bombings, no armed uprisings—is Paraguay, the worst rightist dictatorship of the lot.

Writing on Venezuela, Professor Shapiro holds it against the Betancourt regime that the resettlement of all landless families will take fifteen years at the present rate; he warns that the country may not have that much time before the coming of the revolution. Then, turning to Cuba, he tells us that it may take decades before farm workers will be housed, “but the homes already built are a positive sign of the regime’s concern for the well-being of the long-neglected guajiro.” What is described as “concern” in Cuba is considered an ineffective delaying action in Venezuela. Referring to the failure of the large U.S. capital investments in Bolivia—and many experts would disagree with Shapiro as to the extent of the failure—he states wearily that “not even another $250 million will keep the Cubans, the Russians, and the Chinese out of La Paz.” But he does not mention anywhere the complete fiasco of the greater Russian investment in Cuba. This tendency to select facts without putting them in perspective often results in a biased view. I take it to be more unconscious than deliberate.

Much of the material in Invisible Latin America is drawn from magazine articles Shapiro wrote from 1960 to 1963. The author was obviously changing his mind during this period and many of his judgments now seem odd or questionable. In one chapter Ché Guevara is approvingly quoted to the effect that free elections—as distinguished from revolutions—do not kick out “the classes doomed by history,” while in the next chapter the Alliance for Progress is described as “Washington’s new and noble intentions.” Both statements are more than suspect. In Mexico, Bolivia, and Uruguay—the three countries specifically cited by Professor Shapiro as having had meaningful revolutions—the “doomed” classes are still flourishing. And anyone who defines the Alliance for Progress as a product of noble intentions must enjoy kidding himself. One thinks that Mr. Shapiro really knows better, but it is characteristic of the haste with which he has put this book together that he lets such statements stand. One of his major points is that the permanent trend in Latin America is away from the caudillo form of government. He is just as wrong in this judgment today as he was about Communism in Cuba yesterday: Caudillos are making a strong comeback at the present time.

Another weak point is his evaluation of the military. He should not state flatly, as he does, that the military forces are always tied to ruling oligarchies in Latin America. In Argentina the army is closer to the middle class. In Chile it has been a moderating force. In Ecuador and Brazil it has even shown radical tendencies. Some serious students of Latin America feel that the younger Army officers—as in certain Arab countries—represent the most hopeful of the revolutionary forces now present in the area. This is debatable, but very little light can be thrown on the question by a book in which “the military” remains a phrase and is not treated as a complex and living phenomenon. The same must be said for other phrases that crop up throughout the book, such as “one-party system of democracy,” “economic aggression,” and “single crop economics.”

Perhaps some of these misjudgments can be explained by the fact that Professor Shapiro is very new to the Latin American field. He first went to Argentina in 1959; his first visit to Cuba was in 1960 when the revolution had not yet hardened and still seemed an idealistic adventure to many intellectuals. If Professor Shapiro had lived a longer time in Latin America—and with people of all classes—his conclusions might have greater authority.

This is not to say that Invisible Latin America is without positive value. Despite his exaggeration of the present influence of Fidelismo, and his tendency to shift from anti-democratic to pro-Kennedy viewpoints. he does show a good deal of common sense about some of the problems facing the Latin American countries. This is particularly true of the final chapter called “Facing the Future” where he seems to sense, and attempts to resolve, the contradictions implied in earlier chapters.

Most important, Mr. Shapiro notes how the Left in Latin America and the Right in the United States both share the common delusion that America is an omnipotent power. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion has demonstrated the limits of U.S. intervention; and conversely, the present economic chaos in Cuba shows that the destruction of American imperialism does not automatically solve all Latin American problems, U.S. money, equipment, skill and technical knowledge are urgently needed and large-scale expropriations without just compensation only embitter the climate, regardless of the rhetoric of politicians. As the author correctly states: “Chile has desperate social problems, but they spring from agricultural paralysis, bureaucracy, and the indigenous social order, not from the successful copper companies,” Much the same could be said for other countries.

Latin America must help itself to be helped. And America must also have the courage to subsidize birth control programs, and to deny aid to corrupt governments as well as those opposed to democratic principles. But then, Professor Shapiro adds slyly (and truly), we may question if the U.S. has the right to preach at all: “Latin Americans, surveying the wreck of Kennedy’s legislative programs, may well wonder if it isn’t the United States which needs to be freed from an oligarchy.”

Samuel Shapiro has made no more than a preliminary dip into the Latin American waters with this book. It will be interesting to see what kind of long distance swimmer he turns out to be.

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