Inside South America
Parasitism and Subversion: The Case of Latin America
Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil
There can be no such person as a “Latin American Expert,” if we mean by this someone who is well acquainted with all the Latin American countries. For Latin America is vast, encompassing twenty independent states and several dependencies of foreign powers. Even if a writer decides to limit himself to a treatment of the Latin countries of the South American mainland, he is still faced with the problem of having to deal with ten separate countries, all different from one another. It would take a scholar about five years to become reasonably well acquainted with the history, literature, and politics of any of them. To study them simultaneously, to prevent one’s knowledge from becoming superannuated, one would have to devote about fifty years to become an expert on all of South America alone.
There are some experts on limited aspects of the Latin American scene, the trade union movement, for example, or agriculture, or financial policy. But a person recognized as a Latin American expert usually knows between two and four countries well, has superficial knowledge of perhaps half a dozen more, and knows very little about the rest. When called upon to write a book on the whole area, he will be irresistibly tempted to draw general conclusions from this small base. That is why so many books on Latin America are full of impermissible generalizations. What is even worse, one frequently finds elementary factual errors in books by specialists of high repute. I know of no other discipline of which this is so often true.
That is why some of the best books on Latin America have been written by travel writers, who did not claim infallible expertise, but have at least collected their material on the spot. This is more than one can say about some academic writers. John Gunther, who has a lifetime of experience as a political observer, is particularly well-qualified to write about a region whose interest is largely political. Mr. Gunther’s new book Inside South America avoids the pitfalls that have been the undoing of so many writers on the subject. Mr. Gunther is not afraid of the delicate subject of anti-Americanism. He readily admits its strength, while not exaggerating its extent. He does not feel compelled to defend every aspect of United States policy, nor does he fall into the opposite error of naïvely accepting the strictures of professional Yankee-baiters. While condemning dictatorship, he acknowledges that in Latin America democracy is often used as a device by which an oligarchy maintains its rule through manipulation of elections. He is not horrified by corruption and inefficiency; he has seen worse elsewhere. Moreover, he is neither deluded by the superficial resemblance of Latin American institutions and customs to those of Europe and the United States, nor antagonized by the underlying fundamental differences.
Although his statement that South America is “on the brink of revolution” is not quite borne out by his reports from the individual countries, one can certainly say that within the next two decades sweeping changes would appear to be inevitable. As he points out, the Communist Party is weak in most Latin American countries, both the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro have lost prestige, and the new revolutionary regimes, if and when they emerge, will not necessarily be Communist. He rightly warns us, however, that they will almost certainly be strongly anti-American, because the United States has been long and intimately associated with the ancien régime. He believes that “the United States should vigorously and comprehensively take the side of the people, even if a consequence of this is radical social change.” Unfortunately, such a change of policy does not seem likely at present. Even a return to a policy of strict non-intervention seems to be more than one can hope for.
MR. GUNTHER can bring to life a personality in a few dozen words, and describe a city and render its mood in a few hundred. His interests are wide. He not only surveys the political scene of each country, but sketches in the relevant traits of its history and economy, the operations of the Alliance for Progress, and even provides portraits of its most celebrated writers. He supplies us with useful miscellaneous information on an astonishing variety of subjects. Of the more than 500 pages in this book, there is not one that is dull.
But what impressed this reviewer most was Mr. Gunther’s conscientiousness, the tremendous amount of solid hard work that has gone into the book, the completeness of the documentation, the quality of the footnotes—and this on the subject of Latin America, where so many writers try to bluff their way through on the assumption that their readers know even less than they do. Inevitably there are some slips in a book of such scope, but they are never serious enough to give a distorted picture of the scene, and cannot be compared to the howlers to be found in works by academic specialists on Latin America. Inside South America is more than a travel book. It is the best general introduction to this continent on the market, and is likely to remain a standard work long after the ten Presidents whom Mr. Gunther interviewed have retired or been removed from office.
STANISLAV ANDRESKI’S Parasitism and Subversion, on the other hand, suffers from the major defects common to books on Latin America. It is full of impermissible generalizations, and there is scarcely a page in it which does not contain at least one factual error. Among the few redeeming features are a sober and well-balanced account of the Perón dictatorship in Argentina and some pertinent remarks on the social composition of the Latin American middle class. But the basic approach is unfortunate. Andreski himself calls his book a “medical report,” thus indicating that his purpose was to give a diagnosis of what is wrong with the area. His answer is simple: parasitism—there are too many people around who do not do any productive work. In his Foreword, Andreski promises analysis and explanation, but he delivers mainly diatribe. His opinion of Latin Americans may be summed up as follows: (1) These people are just no good. For the situation to improve, they would have to change their attitudes and habits completely, and there is no hope of that. (2) If only they would stop breeding like rabbits. (3) Almost everything in Latin America is wrong, because it is so different from what Europeans regard as proper. (4) And since the Latin Americans are not ripe for democracy, the best form of government for them would be enlightened dictatorship.
This is the sort of talk often heard from tourists or foreign businessmen disappointed at not having made as large a profit as they expected in Latin America. One would not expect to find it in a book by a Professor of Sociology at the University of Reading, England.
To substantiate his case, Andreski paints a weirdly distorted picture of Latin America. He claims, for example, that the influence of the Church is waning and being replaced by communism “among the masses,” whereas, apart from Chile, there is no country on the Latin American mainland where communism has a mass basis, nor is there any evidence that it is acquiring one. Andreski speaks of “the proverbial touchiness of the Ibero-Americans—their quickness to sense a veiled or imaginary insult and to answer it with violence.” I know of no such “proverbial” trait. Ibero-Americans are not particularly quarrelsome, He further claims that the Latin Americans are unable to shake off the tradition of violence, and that the “numerical preponderance of the young also encourages violence.” Yet Latin American cities, with the exception of Bogotá, Caracas, and two or three coastal towns, are more free of violence than either New York or Washington. Teen-age gangsterism is far less developed than in the United States, England, or Sweden; “rumbles” are unknown even in the most miserable shanty towns. Nor have the Latin Americans fallen to slaughtering each other by the millions, as the Europeans have done.
Andreski depicts the Latin Americans as hopelessly neurotic womanizers, spoiled through having been left as children in the care of permissive servants. It is indeed true that the sexual mores of the Latin Americans are very different from what Europeans and North Americans imagine their own to be. But compared to, say, the British, Swedes, Swiss, or North Americans, they do not strike me as unusually neurotic. In some regions of Latin America, the Indio peasants tend to be sullen but, in general, Latin American behavior is friendly and relaxed. Even the Venezuelans, who really dislike foreigners, do not demonstrate their xenophobia in quite the brutishly uncivilized manner of the French. Indeed Professor Andreski has written a singularly prejudiced, uninformed, misleading, and even pernicious book.
Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil is another “medical report” on what is wrong with Latin America, but it is on a much higher intellectual level. Although it has serious defects—mainly those arising from Dr. Frank’s pproach, which is ideological rather than empirical—he has managed to make a valuable contribution to a neglected branch of Latin American Studies: economic history.
Dr. Frank adheres to the Monthly Review school of thought. This is a group far less well known in its native United States than in Latin American Leftist circles, where it is highly influential. It professes a particularly rigid brand of Leninism, and holds the pro-Soviet Communist Parties in contempt as being opportunist and revisionist. Dr. Frank’s book, too, is directed against the Communists. It is a searching criticism of the basic assumptions underlying the Communist party line for Latin America.
The Communists hold that Latin America has not yet fully emerged from feudalism; that it is ruled by an oligarchy of big landowners and financiers allied with the United States; that in the struggle against these elements a “national bourgeoisie” of native Latin American industrialists can prove a valuable ally; and that in order not to antagonize this ally their immediate aim should be a merely “anti-feudal and anti-imperialist” revolution, and not a socialist one.
No, says Frank, Latin America was never feudal. The Conquest itself was a mercantilistic enterprise aimed at bringing the area into the incipient world market as a supplier of precious metals, dyestuffs (Brazil wood), and sugar. Ever since the Conquest Latin America has been the exploited satellite of foreign countries: first Spain and Portugal, then Britain, and now the United States. Its underdevelopment is the result of the steady drain of capital to urban centers. Thus capitalism creates underdevelopment by concentrating wealth at one pole, the metropolis, and poverty at the other, the satellite. Therefore the underdeveloped countries are not a “third world,” but an integral part of the capitalist world system, and they can only overcome underdevelopment by breaking out of that system, i.e., by a socialist revolution.
All this Frank argues brilliantly. He effectively disposes of the widespread fallacy that Latin America was only linked to the world market in the second half of the nineteenth century, having lived by a subsistence economy until then. But he does not give a satisfactory explanation for the fact that in the New World, those countries originally settled by independent farmers instead of landlords with serfs or slaves have managed to avoid underdevelopment. His own explanation is that
the development of the British excolonies in North America…was rendered possible because the ties between them and the European metropolis at no time matched the dependency of the now underdeveloped countries….
This fails to convince, since large parts of Latin America were only settled and developed after independence from Spain had been achieved. In the Americas, the pattern of original settlement and the social structures evolved from this base thus seem to have been decisive in determining whether a country could escape underdevelopment. This runs counter to Frank’s whole theory. It means that there is something to be said, after all, for the theory that “feudal remnants” are holding back development in Latin America, and also that a reshuffling of social strata far short of a socialist revolution might still, perhaps, help to solve the area’s major problems.
THE EFFICACY of the remedy which Frank prescribes is also doubtful, to put it mildly. How can one still regard socialism as the panacea for the ills of this world in the face of such events as the disasters of 1956 in Eastern Europe, the recurrent leadership crises in the Soviet Union, the severe political crisis in China, and the Sino-Soviet conflict, which has already led to border incidents and the voicing of territorial claims? Only those determined to go against all reason in order to maintain their faith can be satisfied with the argument that we are merely witnessing the growing pains of a world in which eventually all will be order and beauty, luxury and bliss. The Monthly Review group are among the last stalwarts who still deny the need for a revision of basic Marxist tenets, such as there can be no exploitation of man by man, and of nations by nations, nor any international conflict, in a socialist world.
In portraying the present critical state of Latin America Frank leans heavily on the work of several violently partisan writers. He even thinks it permissible to quote as a reliable source a document expressly produced to serve as an election platform in a Chilean presidential race. Moreover, there are several factual errors in Frank’s account of political events in Brazil since 1930, showing that he too suffers from the occupational disease of the Latin American specialist—negligence in the checking of facts. The reader of his book might well be wary of Frank’s economic determinism, his stress on the inevitability of whatever happened to occur. Yet when all this is taken into account, there still remains much of value in the book: it is an impressive and convincing presentation of the decisive way in which, ever since the Conquest, the destinies of the Latin American peoples have been affected by events which took place outside their continent, beyond their control.