• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

What’s New in Peru

The Unrevolutionary Society: The Power of Latin American Conservatism in a Changing World

by John Mander
Knopf, 331 pp., $6.95

The Colonial Heritage of Latin America: Essays on Economic Dependence in Perspective

by Stanley J. Stein, by Barbara H. Stein
Oxford, 222 pp., $5.00

Pressure Groups and Power Elites in Peruvian Politics

by Carlos A. Astiz
Cornell, 316 pp., $12.00

Politics in the Altiplano: The Dynamics of Change in Rural Peru

by Edward Dew
Texas, 216 pp., $6.00

Peru 1965: Notes on a Guerrilla Experience

by Hector Béjar
Monthly Review, 142 pp., $6.00

For the past ten years writing about Latin America has been one of the growth industries of literature. The immediate stimulus for this growth was Fidel Castro, who transformed the traditional gringo view of what a Latin American revolution was supposed to be, and with it also the conventional European view that what happened south of the Rio Grande was politically negligible to the rest of the world. Latin America ceased to be an object of history and became a subject. As it did not immediately erupt into general social revolution, and no longer posed significant problems of constitutional decolonization—most of it has long been politically independent though economically colonial—there has recently been a tendency to assume that it was all a false alarm. John Mander calls his new book The Unrevolutionary Society, and stresses “the power of Latin American conservatism in a changing world.” Another of the authors under review, Carlos Astiz, concludes with the statement that

…the present distribution of power in Peru shows a remarkable tendency to remain essentially as it is and has been for a long time…. Neither revolution from above nor revolution from below seems to be around the corner.

A view he does not modify in a hurried postscript about the present military junta.

Such are the pitfalls of writing history on the journalist’s (or the diplomat’s, the visiting expert’s, the intelligence officer’s, the social science Ph.D’s) time scale. Matters that determine the future of a continent do not oscillate at the same rate as our changing short-term hopes, fears, and political assessments. Whatever may actually happen in Latin America, a number of facts about it are undeniable. Most of it is changing with great rapidity. More especially, its rates of population growth and urbanization are higher than those of any comparable area of the world. Unless something unexpected occurs, its rate of economic growth is lower, or at least no higher, than that of its population growth. Compared to the developed countries it is for the most part becoming relatively poorer and more backward, though probably in this respect its lag is somewhat less dramatic than that of other parts of the Third World. Finally, its political superstructures remain notoriously unstable. All this does not look like the setting for a scenario of unchanging conservative stability.

In fact, the layman is much more likely to sympathize with the late Irene Nicholson, the author of the well-written study, The Liberators^*, who says: “In the next few decades Spanish America will either grow into maturity, or explode into anarchy. The pressures within and without it, and its own extraordinary energies, make any midterm impossible.” Whatever that may mean exactly, it feels a lot more like reality than phrases about changelessness, conservatism, and the like.

But ought we to talk about “Latin America” as such anyway? Historically, of course, it makes a good deal of sense, allowing for the obvious limits of wide generalizations; more sense than talking about “Europe.” In the sense used by, e.g., Stanley and Barbara Stein’s very useful survey of The Colonial Heritage of Latin America, the term is not only legitimate but necessary and precise. The value of this book lies in the demonstration that the peculiar form of direct colonial dependence of Latin America (which served the needs of the developing capitalism in western Europe through the formal empires of Spain and Portugal) was almost inevitably succeeded by the neocolonialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This, the authors argue, never provided an adequate basis for its development, but on the contrary, by permeating the continent, made a systematic “breakthrough to modernization” impossible. Without fundamental structural changes, Latin America therefore seemed doomed, like Brazil the country about which the authors know most, to remain the land of a great future which never quite arrives.

This approach is reasonable, for the continent was, after all, with the exception of Brazil, colonized by a single power for three centuries, and linguistically, culturally, and in religion and some other institutions, unified as no region of the same size had ever been before. Thereafter Latin America became (including Brazil) the economic colony of another single power—Britain—for another century, and has since been in a similar relationship to yet another, the US.

To this day pan-Latin Americanism, based on this common past and reinforced within the Spanish area by common language, is a stronger ideological force in this area than similar beliefs anywhere else, except among the “Arabs.” A group of New Yorkers setting up a guerrilla base in Queensland, or a group of Guineans in Rhodesia, on the ground that theirs is a pan-Anglo-Saxon or pan-African revolutionary movement, is hard to imagine; yet this is precisely what Che Guevara and his little band of Cubans did in Bolivia.

On the other hand it may be time to give Latin America as a unit a temporary rest, except for purposes of global economic analysis. Politically independent Latin America never was a unit nor did it even look like becoming one. Apart from the common fact of “underdevelopment,” which affects different parts of it in widely varying ways, the unity which Latin America has and had is one imposed from outside. At present it is, for the Latins, the common fear of and dislike for the domination of the US, and conversely, for the US, the habit of considering all these republics collectively as its imperial back yard. The rest of the world is where even a world power negotiates, draws lines of demarcation, compromises, or even fights local wars, because there are other interests to be considered. Latin America is where nobody else has any political or military business and the US merely “intervenes,” when not scaring outsiders off by the threat of nuclear war. As every politician between California and Patagonia knows, God, Russia, and China (not to mention Britain, France, Germany, and Japan) are far away. Only the US is near.

John Mander’s The Unrevolutionary Society suggests that its author, a contributing editor of Encounter, interprets Latin America in this imperial sense. Formally this is a travelogue written by a politico-literary journalist, and ranging over such subjects as machismo, the Indians, local anti-Americanism, Macchu Picchu, Borges, Niemeyer, and the rest of what the intelligent dinner guest should today know about Latin America. As such it suffers from too much reading of that Iberian genre, the dashing essay of national introspection—not a good influence on anyone, even Iberians—and from a desire to explain why Latin Americans behave so oddly. In brief it suffers from the Northern Tourist syndrome. Informally it is, not to beat about the bush, a defense of US policy.

As such it does not require much argument. All the essential questions are begged by anyone who believes that the relation of the US to Latin America is simply that of “the elephant…by nature a peaceable vegetarian beast” who nevertheless “cannot lie down in the jungle without crushing a number of lesser beasts” or that “the real charge against America is not that she is sometimes insolent and maladroit, but that she is muddled in her basic aspirations.” The issue is not the economic power of the US, but the paramountcy which this is believed to imply, and which makes US private and public behavior toward Bolivia and Chile different from that toward, say, Spain and Ireland, two countries which are relatively at least as weak, and considerably closer to Washington as the jet plane flies. It is not size or tact, but domination and empire.

John Mander knows this quite well. Indeed, he quotes Joseph Conrad’s famous passage from Nostromo as an epigraph to one of his chapters: “We shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics and religion from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound…we shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not.” He must know that in Latin America the US is not less interfering “than those whose mantle she has inherited,” namely the British, who confined their interest in that continent so exclusively to money that, with the exception of some natural history and a little marginal belles-lettres, a century of their informal empire produced less scholarship about it than any couple of decades of their rule in India. US relations to Latin America are similar to British relations to the Middle East in the first half of this century, except that the American power elite seems never to have produced its equivalent of that curious phenomenon, the passionately pro-Arab upper-class Englishman. Latin America is (with the Pacific) the traditional region of North American imperial dreams and realities, and its inhabitants know it.

Nevertheless, common victimization does not exhaust the characteristics of a continent and a half. Fortunately there are signs that, for a variety of reasons, general discussions of Latin America are being increasingly supplemented by books on particular Latin American countries. It happens to be a convenient accident that several of the volumes under review deal with Peru, though all of them were written before the coup of 1968, which has, to everyone’s surprise, placed that country in the center of political interest.

In many respects Peru is a classic example of informal empire (or in modern terms, neocolonialism), that is to say, of the symbiosis of local exploitation and foreign capital. The local exploitation, since the 1920s, has come from the “oligarchy,” a combination of coastal estate operators, compradors, and other racketeers involved in international business, grafted upon an older stock of quasi-feudal landowners such as still maintain themselves in power in the highlands, and hence assimilated to the social and political status of landed patricians. The foreign capital is now predominantly North American. Politically and economically the country divides into a relatively modernized coastal strip and the vast Indian hinterland of the mountains, with their haciendas, serfs, communidades, mines, poverty, and backwardness.

Alone among Latin American ruling classes the Peruvian oligarchy retained its passionate attachment to free trade and no government interference in economic matters, which expressed not only its acute reluctance to pay taxes but its conviction that the domination of foreign capital was a fact of nature, like the Humboldt current. (Even the early and revolutionary APRA party planned to replace the older quasifeudalism by a modernized state capitalism through and not against American investment.) In no country has it been more pointless to seek for a “national bourgeoisie,” or even a significant sector of native manufactures. The foreigners bought Peru’s primary products, built and ran the installations for their operation. The foreigners increasingly exploited the domestic market for manufactured goods. In return a few hundred Creole families received the large incomes which they traditionally spent in Paris, and the right to oppress their Indians any way they liked or, if on the coast, to run the country any way they liked. A rather larger middle stratum on the coastal strip received their more modest slices of pork out of the barrel.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print