• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Latin America as US Empire Cracks

The Kennedy policy was a reaction to an immediate threat, a supplement to military intervention. The “Good Neighbor” policy (about whose actual origins Mr. Green is uncommunicative) was not born of a comparable political threat, and its object was to liquidate and replace military intervention. In fact this is what it did.

Consequently Roosevelt’s policy was also less vulnerable to the political changes of the decade, to which, with the exceptions already noted, it was relatively indifferent. (The US government was not, of course, significantly worried about communism, partly because, as another ambassador wrote from Mexico in 1943, the US had “such a tremendous advantage in many respects over Russia,” partly perhaps because after 1935 local communist parties were not notably anti-North American.)

The failure of the “Good Neighbor” was economic. What Latin development took place owed little to US action, except in so far as the wartime starvation of the market encouraged local industrialization to substitute home-produced goods for imports, while the accumulating dollar balances of the Latins, which had originally looked chiefly like “a three billion dollar non-interest-bearing war loan,” proved to be extremely useful to Latin countries after the war. The numerous plans to increase the capacity of the Latin market to absorb US goods by industrialization, raising local incomes, etc., did not get very far. From the US point of view the major consequence of the Roosevelt period was to eliminate other imperialisms from the hemisphere.

Thanks to the admirable clarity and lack of doubletalk of Levinson and de Onís, the balance sheet of that “decade of maximum effort” which JFK announced in 1961—i.e., of the greatest concentration of Washington’s forces on Latin affairs in history—can now be drawn up.

During this period the US tried to provide a solution for the economic and social problems of Latin America, and failed. The results of the Alliance range from the modest and spotty to total failure. Thus there has been “an actual slow-down in job openings during the Alliance period; only about 60% of job-seekers gained employment during the 1960s compared with 62.5% during the 1950s” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 218).

Substantial industrialization has provided no significant new jobs. Even if we include the jobs generated by the bureaucracy, that well-known system of relief works for the unemployed educated strata in underdeveloped countries, the rate of employment in this sector has increased only from 23.5 percent to 24.8 percent of the total. It may be noted that, as “the US corporate system includes more than a million local employees of US-owned companies and a huge structure of subcontractors, distributors and service-agents” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 136), or 20 percent of all Latin American industrial workers (p. 142), direct North American responsibility in this area is not negligible. The annual take-out is between 12 and 15 percent of investments which amount to 12 percent of all Latin export earnings. To put it in one sentence, Latin America is today further from providing a living for the mass of its citizens than it was before the Alliance.

The US also tried to provide a framework of political and institutional stability for the hemisphere. The ideologues of empire, i.e., the ADA-New Frontier liberals, put their money, socially speaking, on those “middle classes” which were, as in old-fashioned history books, always rising, and, politically speaking, on a supposed “democratic noncommunist left,” whose firmest pillars were presumed to be Betancourt’s Venezuela, the Peruvian APRA, and for good measure Figueres in little Costa Rica; supplemented, since 1964, by Frei’s Christian Democrats in Chile.

The less ideological imperialists were in theory (according to the “Mann doctrine” of the LBJ era) content with anyone who would foster economic growth, protect US private investments, and oppose communism, irrespective of their attitude to social reform. In fact, they tended to put their money on something like a coalition of hard-nosed technocrats, preferably deflationary, with the military, which would assure political stability for their operations. Brazil and Argentina, with their respective generals’ regimes, were the model for this school of thought. The new pragmatism comforted itself with the belief that economic stability and growth would solve the social problems automatically, while a military paid for, trained, and inspired by the US must be in some metaphysical sense “constitutional,” if not actually democratic.

Both failed. All that is left today as an effective political force of the “democratic left”—we hear much less about the rising liberal middle classes—is Venezuela, whose vast oil revenues make certain kinds of reform uniquely practicable. We need not here discuss how democratic or left that country is. As for the “democratic military,” the pragmatic imperialists might have survived the discovery that the “constitutional” Brazilian generals introduced systematic torture on a scale which even the Nixon Administration could not entirely overlook, and did not introduce even a token agrarian reform. They found it much harder to survive the Peruvian demonstration that not even the local military is politically “reliable” any more. To put it briefly, “Entering office in January 1969, the Nixon administration found a small heap of discredited approaches to the dilemmas of Latin American development” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 106). It has continued to look for a policy, but it has hardly as yet found one.

Levinson and de Onís seem tempted to argue—though they never quite commit themselves to this thesis—that these failures were avoidable. To what extent were they due to errors, miscalculation, a refusal to concentrate the US effort consistently on the Latin task, the temptation to grab short-term advantages, to give in to business pressure, to the power mania of the military, etc.? It is easy enough to give examples of all these, and sometimes they are indeed flagrant, as in the case of Peru. What would have happened if the US had not virtually withheld aid from that country between 1962 and 1968—it received only $74.5 million as compared with $500 million for Chile, $450 million for Colombia—in order to force the Peruvians to settle with Standard Oil over the La Brea-Pariñas oil dispute and to buy American instead of French jet planes? If—as the authors do not stress—the old ADA mafia had not maintained its fondness for that political non-starter, Haya de la Torre’s APRA, and rooted as strongly for Belaunde?

Levinson and de Onís have no doubt that US policy thus helped to bring the generals to power on a straight national-reforming platform. Perhaps so. But quite apart from the fact that all the alleged US errors and miscalculations are systematic, tending in one direction, the question remains whether US policy was capable of achieving the results it wanted even in the best case. Experience suggests that it was not. Chile, which received almost ten times as much aid per capita as Peru, and (under Frei) enjoyed almost unlimited good will in Washington, is today governed by the Popular Front of President Allende.

The fact is that, as Levinson and de Onís themselves recognize, what happens in Latin America is something “that the United States may influence in minor ways but cannot begin to dominate or direct”:

Unquestionably the readjustment process will affect the United States in both its political relationships and its property holdings in Latin America. These effects are inevitable, in part simply because the United States has such ties to a region undergoing basic change, and in part because Latin American societies, deeply divided in so many ways, often find a degree of unity—real or spurious—in aggressive nationalism…. The lesson that the Alliance has taught in this critical area is that the United States must learn to live with and expect change, and that its response should be flexible and measured, rather than excessively rigid and tough. [Pp. 324-5.]

It is a lesson of failure and defeat, and the visible commitment of the writers of this passage to the primacy of US interests makes their admission particularly impressive.

On the other hand, the continued and growing economic influence of the US in Latin America deprives that admission of some of its bitterness. For the truth is that, while US policy has failed in a fairly spectacular manner, the US economic hold has been strengthened. In the 1960s Latin America “ranked second only to Canada as a market for the United States,” and after the brief post-Castro panic, private investment resumed its southward flow to the point where a “shift in investment emphasis from Canada and Western Europe to Latin America” can be noted (p. 136).

It is unwise to suppose that empire is unattractive or insignificant to American corporate enterprise. Indeed the results of US investment have been more helpful to the US than to Latin America. Between 1961 and 1968 $3.3 billion was invested and reinvested there, while $7.1 billion flowed northward in profits and earnings, and during the same period the share of world trade held by Latin American exports declined from 7.5 percent to 5.6 percent. Whatever the political developments, it is extremely improbable that relations with the US will not remain the dominant economic factor for most Latin countries. Still, it is increasingly evident that US capital will be subject to strict political controls and limitations. It will be able to do plenty, but not whatever it wants.

If it is now clear that the US cannot impose its own ideas of the future on Latin America, even if it knew how to set about it, where the continent is actually going is by no means obvious. Its tendencies of development have been further obscured by writers of the radical left, who have indulged in their own versions of political maximalism, a sort of mirror image of Washington’s own. Hence the unjustified despondency of a good deal of their writing. Paradoxically, both right and left look back on the 1960s without pleasure.

This criticism is applicable even to so good a book as James Petras’s collection of studies on Politics and Social Structure in Latin America. It provides convenient, concise, and informed surveys of a variety of important topics, such as class and politics, the middle class, guerrilla movements and revolutionary movements, based on a wide acquaintance with the area and the literature, and firsthand research, especially in Chile, which is dealt with in greater detail in the author’s Politics and Social Forces in Chilean Development.

Yet the tone, though not unhopeful, seems unduly negative. The impression a reading of this book creates is that “a new political equilibrium” (p. 193) has been established in the area, and that, but for a possible “new urban and rural insurgency,” the “delicate bargaining arrangements which have prevented some of the larger Latin American countries from experiencing thoroughgoing social and political change” (pp. 31-2) are likely to continue in operation.

There seem to be two reasons for this note of disenchantment. The radical left has tended to dismiss any change other than those visibly bringing closer some more Cuban-type revolutions, and (at least until the election of Allende in Chile) any political tactic other than armed insurgency. (This does not imply agreement with any specific recipe for insurgency, such as that of Régis Debray, which Petras demolishes fairly conclusively.) But the Cuban revolution remains isolated, and is clearly—in spite of marvelous achievements—struggling with great domestic problems. The tactic of armed insurgency has, on the whole, failed.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print