• Email
  • Print

Latin America as US Empire Cracks

The Alliance that Lost Its Way

by Jerome Levinson, by Juan de Onís
(A Twentieth Century Fund Study) Quadrangle Books, 381 pp., $7.95

The Containment of Latin America

by David Green
Quadrangle Books, 384 pp., $10.00

Politics and Social Forces in Chilean Development

by James Petras
University of California, 377 pp., $3.45

Down There

by Jose Yglesias
World, 181 pp., $7.50

The Quest for Change in Latin America

by W. Raymond Duncan, by James Nelson Goodsell
Oxford, 562 pp., $12.50

No empire in our century has been more powerful and apparently unchallengeable than that of the US in Latin America, and no imperialists have pitched their claims higher—though for various reasons most North Americans have persistently disliked being labeled as such. The British long ago recognized the fragility, and eventual impermanence, of their Indian empire, the French the uncertainty of their African one. Both were only too well aware that, where the relationship with their dependents happened to be informal and economic, it called for a considerable degree of political flexibility. Only the US has not merely taken its permanent supremacy south of the Rio Grande and Key West for a fact of nature, but formulated it in terms which exclude the slightest abrogation.

As Jerome Levinson and Juan de Onís point out in their lucid and valuable book,

The US security interest in Latin America, as traditionally conceived, consists of three propositions:

1) (dating from the Monroe doctrine in the early nineteenth century): The United States must keep potentially hostile extracontinental powers out of the hemisphere in order to deny them a geographically convenient basis from which to attack.

2) (dating from the days of Elihu Root in the early twentieth century): The United States, having become a capital surplus nation, must seek outlets for this surplus, generally abroad and particularly in Latin America….

3) (dating from the onset of the cold war in the late 1940s): The political apostasy of a Latin American country would cause the United States to lose face, weaken its influence in other parts of the world, and undermine the confidence of important European countries in the ability of the United States to lead the “free world” struggle against the monolithic communist bloc. [Pp. 321-2.]

The dating, the rationale, and the formulation of these propositions are open to challenge, but not their essential content, which implies that the US can not only keep any power out of the hemisphere but also prevent any Latin American government from doing anything Washington disapproves of. Both these assumptions rest on the overwhelming economic and politico-military domination of the hemisphere. The second predates the century. The first became a reality when US capital and enterprise replaced the British as the dominant factor in this part of the world, and has been steadily reinforced ever since. Everywhere else the US recognizes rivals, though perhaps weaker ones. In Latin America it does not, because none exists or is even visible.

Probably only Latin Americans are fully conscious of the effects of this assumption that the US is supreme, and they inferior, though it sometimes penetrates into the historical record. “They don’t think like us,” Thomas Mann, LBJ’s State Department man on Latin America, is reported as saying. “Their thought processes are different. You have to be firm with them” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 151). Doubtless this public servant thought he was merely stating “the obvious,” just as his well-known support for US business in Latin America merely reflects the normal attitude of his countrymen. It looks different south of the Rio Grande.

However, what is perhaps even more significant and galling than both the persistent assumption that the US knows better and its persistent subordination of Latin interests to its own is the assumption that Latin America is not even worth bothering about, outside the occasional moments of panic that punctuate long periods of neglect. What makes this even more insulting to Latin Americans is the sense that these moments of panic are due less to their own actions than to the possible reactions of more important states about which the US government is really worried, and to the effect upon its situation in other parts of the globe, where the US is more vulnerable. The prestige of Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara surely owes much to their being Latin Americans of whom big brother really had to take notice.

The history of US “aid” vividly illustrates this assumption that the US back yard can normally be left unattended. Two excellent books enable us to survey US policy in this area for the past forty years: David Green’s study of the rise and fall of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, and Levinson and de Onís’s analysis of the “Alliance for Progress.” Both record the constant tendency to subordinate Latin affairs to the wider interests of the US. During the 1930s and the war years the stimulus to action was Fascism. “At the beginning of the thirties,” wrote the State Department political adviser Laurence Duggan, “the United States Government was doing even less than private organizations; it was doing nothing at all. By the end of the thirties it was white hot with enthusiasm, born of fear of the Nazis. And therein lay the weakness of its new policy” (quoted in Green).

In 1941 an allegedly German-linked plot was discovered in Bolivia. Within a matter of weeks a military mission had been sent and a $25 million aid program announced. The war also made the US willing to settle the dispute over the Mexican nationalization of oil, which had been dragging on since 1937. “The war,” claims Green, “bailed out the faltering New Dealers in Latin America,” providing them with the argument that economic development there was essential to “hemispheric defense” against the Nazis.

On the other hand, it became increasingly clear that where Latin development failed to contribute to the US war economy (i.e., did not serve the direct mobilization of the raw materials which the US had to acquire in the hemisphere), it was sacrificed, except in so far as the US used the opportunity to freeze out European—and especially British—business and to make the continent entirely dependent on the US market. The fact that most of us would at the time have agreed with Roosevelt’s scale of global priorities, and would probably still do so, should not obscure the resentment of Latins, who did not feel themselves to be threatened by Germany and Japan, and who were in any case not asked. The only country which retained some freedom of maneuver, Argentina, took a very different view of its economic and political interests at the time.

The German danger was short-lived, and in any case the US claim to global empire, though anticipated by Henry Luce in 1941, was not yet formally established. Hence the “Alliance for Progress” period demonstrates the subordination of the continent to Washington’s world policy even more clearly. The “Alliance” was a response to Fidel Castro, the first Cuban statesman within living memory to resist the habitual economic blackmail from the north. Guevara, at the Punta del Este conference of 1961, pushed the US into committing itself to hard figures (Levinson and de Onís, p. 66). Fidel got it to resign itself to the signature of the International Coffee Agreement of 1960, to halt the price slide of this commodity which put the governments of Brazil, Colombia, and various central American republics at risk.

Conversely, the Soviet retreat in the missile crisis of 1962 immediately made social reform, adventurous planning, and the subordination of individual business interests to national interests less urgent. “The United States stopped feeling that it was one minute to midnight in Latin America” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 83). From 1964 the businessmen were back in force, from 1965 Vietnam took priority. “Take it out of the Alliance,” said the administrator of AID when asked by the Bureau of Budget where cuts should be made (p. 115). By 1968 his view was that Latin America had always had more funds than it could effectively use. The truth is that, as an official joked in the early years of the “Alliance”:

We all know that there are only three categories of loans in the Alliance for Progress: very high priority, hysterical, and if-you-don’t-make-this-loan-the-Communists-will-take-over-the-country. [p. 113.]

After the initial shock of Castro had been absorbed, it never looked as though the communists would take over any country.

This is no doubt the reason why the sheer amount of US aid to Latin America remained relatively modest in monetary terms and very small in real ones. As the director of AID’s Office of Programming and Planning pointed out in 1967, before 1960 the net flow of official funds there was less than half the per-capita level for other regions. The Alliance brought it almost—but not quite—up to this average, “but this is a much smaller percentage of development expenditures than in other areas…. Since more than half of foreign longterm lending is offset by amortization of past loans, the net resource contribution of foreign capital to Latin America has been relatively small” (p. 140). In the words of Levinson and de Onís, it has at best staved off economic disaster rather than stimulated economic development.

The US attitude to Latin America has therefore normally been based on the belief that, without the intervention of global factors, US power is virtually absolute, and Latin American forces alone are feeble to the point of being negligible. Yet a more careful analysis of hemispheric relations, and occasional bitter experience, suggest the opposite. US power is limited, and any attempt to exceed these limits leads to defeat or failure. To be more accurate, while the power of the US economy is overwhelming and remains decisive, its political (and military) power is not. Moreover, even the immense force of US capital is to some extent at the mercy of political forces which Washington cannot override.

Both the record of the “Good Neighbor” policy and that of the “Alliance for Progress” demonstrate these limitations, the latter more dramatically than the former, because US political megalomania was so much greater in the era of JFK than in that of FDR. There is indeed, in spite of David Green’s argument to the contrary, a sharp difference in tone between the two periods, although there is some continuity of personnel and ideology. We may grant that in both the US put its interests first, saw Latin development in the light of its own advantage, economic and political, and opposed “militant revolutionary economic nationalism.” Yet there is a substantial difference between the New Frontiersmen of the 1960s and the New Dealers of the 1930s.

It is illustrated above all by Mexico. This was a test case, since the revival of revolutionary and anti-imperialist dynamism in that country under Cardenas coincided with the New Deal and, through the nationalization of the oil companies, came into flat conflict with American capital. The US might well have wielded the big stick, as it had done in 1933 over Cuba, and was to do again (with disappointing results) over Argentina, admittedly moved by the fear of Nazi victory. (Mr. Green suggests that the anti-fascist arguments were not seriously held, but his material suggests otherwise.)

In fact, Washington handled the Mexican situation, by and large, with tact and a marked absence of hysteria. It is hard to avoid the impression that influential New Dealers, headed by FDR himself, felt that, whatever the dangers to the US position, they could hardly blame Latins for demanding for themselves what the New Deal was demanding for North Americans. The oil companies, wrote the US ambassador from Mexico to FDR, “are as much against fair wages here as the economic royalists at home are against progressive legislation.” The President himself was to say, in tones which no doubt grated on Latin ears, but express a genuine, if paternalistic, good will: “Give them a share. They think they are just as good as we are, and many of them are.”

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.

Jose Yglesias, who has looked for the revolutionary left in Brazil, Peru, and (pre-Allende) Chile, records its bravery, determination, and devotion, but also—unwillingly—its isolation and lack of effectiveness at the time of his journey. The most he can claim, quite correctly, is that revolutionary activity and sentiments are alive, in spite of setbacks, and that Cuba remains an inspiration for the Latin left, for reasons which his interesting chapter, “Cuba Under Twenty-Five,” helps us to understand. In so far as the left is exclusively committed to a maximum program, anything less than this must be failure.

However, the disappointment of the left is also due to what may prove to be a methodological error. It has looked for a guaranteed revolutionary force, one that cannot be corrupted, assimilated, or absorbed into a going nonrevolutionary system, and it has done so by running through the list of the various classes and other social or institutional groups, eliminating those that do not qualify: i.e., all. Petras thus dismisses the peasantry, the industrial working class (a favored minority stratum easily turned into reformist ways), and the middle classes, business and bureaucratic. They are, as he is not the first to point out, not a “national bourgeoisie,” for they oppose neither the agrarian oligarchy, which they seek to join, nor US imperialism, to which they look for protection against social revolution and for jobs in the dependencies of the US corporations. They are by no means committed to economic development and “modernization.” Of course this still leaves discontented groups, but it is to be feared that these may also prove to be disappointing, since none of them can be regarded as consistently revolutionary.

But in actual politics (which are not those of the macro-analysis of social change conducted on a very high level of generality, as by Marx), no class is permanently and under all circumstances “revolutionary” in this sense. To look for such a one is to write pessimistic conclusions into one’s premises. The important question is not about particular groups or institutions within a society, but about historic situations. Are they, to take the broad view, potentially revolutionary, as were those of, say, Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, or are they not, as those in Western Europe were not at the same period? If they are not, then the forces of revolution, however powerful, self-conscious, and organized, are likely (unless fleeting occasions are seized successfully) to be absorbed into a going nonrevolutionary system in some form, if only as institutionalized outgroups; or diverted from their course. Even revolts may then de facto resemble those “rituals of rebellion” of the anthropologists, though this does not imply that the situation of basic stability must remain permanent. If they are revolutionary, the opposite tends to be the case.

Most of Western Europe since the 1840s has been nonrevolutionary in this sense. The capitalist mechanism of growth functioned, though it had from time to time to be modified substantially, and therefore suffered not merely the short-term fluctuations built into it, but periods of major adjustment. At one point (1929-33) it actually looked briefly as though it was breaking down. The social and institutional framework was firm and stable enough to survive even the huge shocks to which it was periodically exposed, such as the world wars. Consequently the history of the revolutionary left has been one of persistent disappointment (as it saw the mass parties of Marx and later those of Lenin turning into reformist or abstentionist movements in practice), of self-delusion, or of a desperate search for some type of realistic strategy opening or preserving revolutionary possibilities in nonrevolutionary situations.

There have been moments of hope, as after the October Revolution and at the peak of the armed anti-fascist resistance, which actually produced the nearest thing Western Europe has known to revolution since 1848. There may be hope again, as capitalism enters a new phase of structural change, of which the outcome is difficult to foresee. But even in 1971 it requires a considerable suspension of disbelief to see communism on the immediate agenda in, say, Italy.

On the other hand, the situation in regions like Latin America is potentially revolutionary, because even fairly dynamic “underdevelopment” has visibly not provided a mechanism for solving the continent’s economic and social problems. These are, on the contrary, becoming somewhat more acute, as an analysis of the nature of “underdevelopment” would lead us to suppose. Its social structures, strained and changing, have not so far found a general mold or pattern comparable to those of the “developed” capitalist countries. Its political structures and institutions are labile, sensitive to such relatively slight stimuli as a run of boom years or a price slump in the international commodity markets. Uruguay was long known, and not without reason, as “the Switzerland of Latin America,” but one has only to read the phrase in 1971 to appreciate how unlike Switzerland it is.

In such regions, as in earthquake zones, the ground may collapse almost anywhere. It is pointless to look for guaranteed forces of “stability” or “revolution.” Everyone is aware that all existing solutions are provisional. Everyone is convinced of the inevitability of fundamental changes, most people of their necessity, though not always of their desirability. What is more, all possible solutions imply anti-imperialism, since the nature of the problems of the underdeveloped world derives from its relations to the developed world, in this instance overwhelmingly the US. None of them suggests that simple “modernization,” i.e. trying to become like the developed economies of the West, with their assistance, is an adequate, or even in most cases a feasible, program.

Under these conditions, aside from the diminishing forces of genuinely traditionalist conservatism, revolutionary change may emerge from the least likely quarters. The Peruvian military, whose original ideological equipment seems to have been drawn from a mixture of pre-conciliar Catholicism and the counterinsurgency policies developed by French officers in the course of the Indochinese and Algerian wars, have emerged as reformers with a program a great deal more acceptable to Fidel Castro and Allende than to Washington. An old-fashioned electoral popular front, of the kind that certainly produced no major changes in France in the 1930s, and is passionately rejected by young European leftists today as the high road to co-option, appears to release revolutionary developments in Chile; as it once did in Spain, another country with revolutionary conditions. The Latin Church itself, long notorious for its almost medieval conservatism, now breeds not only active revolutionaries in some quantity, but sections of its hierarchy and organization intervene actively in favor of fundamental change in several countries. If it comes to that, nobody would have predicted or indeed did predict in 1958 that Fidel Castro himself would turn into a Marxist-Leninist.

Such developments may not satisfy revolutionary Marxists, especially if, as is plainly the case in Peru, the reforming governments are suspicious of mass mobilization and strongly opposed to “communism,” at least at home. But, quite apart from the fact that the character of social and political changes cannot be judged by the badges which its leaders pin to their lapels (least of all in Latin America), major transformations cannot be dismissed as insignificant because they do not immediately bring about the movements and politics we favor. Nor can they be rejected simply because it is not quite certain whether one political force rather than another will finally benefit from them.

Such uncertainty is the occupational risk of politics. If the October Revolution had not occurred—and Lenin knew perfectly well that it was not “inevitable”—the Bolsheviks might today be blamed by revolutionary critics for having agreed to support their enemy Kerensky against the insurrection of General Kornilov in September, 1917. Admittedly the risk of this alliance benefiting the tottering Kerensky government by that time was small; the prospect of its strengthening the Bolsheviks, who already held the initiative, was substantial. But the Marxist left in Latin America has never been in a position to place its bets on the favorite. In all but one or two countries its forces and mass support have been relatively insignificant, and it has rarely, even in revolutionary situations, been able to establish initiative, let alone hegemony, as an organized movement.

It has therefore generally been forced to choose between keeping itself pure and not very effective, and joining major political movements in which it did not take the lead, and whose shape it could only incompletely determine. Whether, during the past half-century, it made the best of its chances, is an interesting question, by now an academic one. That it was, and is, rarely in a position to call the shots cannot be in serious doubt.

The Marxist left in Latin America therefore is obliged to make the best of unfavorable and unpredictable situations. Its consolation is negative, but substantial. Latin America today is not, foreseeably, like Western Europe after 1848. It has not found its way. It remains a revolutionary continent.

Its future cannot be confidently predicted. That it should take the form of a series of copies of stable Western capitalisms is in the highest degree unlikely. That it will take the form of a multiplication of Marxist or communist regimes on the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, or any other model is also improbable; but then this was never a perspective that looked very serious. Nobody knows where between these two possibilities the combination of mass discontent and militancy, anti-imperialism, nationalist movements for reform and development, and a Marxist intelligentsia will lead. To assume that it cannot lead to any position that might be satisfactory to the radical left is to push skepticism to excessive length. On the other hand, it is of course equally illegitimate to assume that it will or must.

In fact, the 1960s, which brought the US more setbacks than the 1950s, hardly authorize such skepticism. Naturally it is unwise to judge Latin American developments by a particular moment of the fluctuating politics of this part of the world. I daresay by now Messrs. Duncan and Goodsell would prefer to revise their anthology of sources, The Quest for Change in Latin America, which is very much a product of belated “New Frontier” liberalism and the news values of the later 1960s. Would they now devote one of their six major sections to Chile: The “Revolution in Liberty”?

But even if we accept that the balance sheet in 1981 may look rather different, we cannot deny that in 1971 it indicates a radicalization of the hemisphere. Most of its republics have not shifted much, politically, apart from minor substitutions of unrepresentative generals for unrepresentative civilians or the other way round. One major country has certainly shifted to the right (Brazil), but several (Cuba, Chile, Peru, Bolivia) have veered to the left; in most cases further to the left than ever before in their history. Observers in Washington are aware of this. The left might take more notice of their sense of failure than it has.

The lesson that the 1960s taught the US government in Latin America (as they did more dramatically in Vietnam) is that there are severe limits to the power of even the biggest, richest, and most megatonned imperial ruler. This should have been obvious, but one can understand how, in the intoxication of world power, it got to be temporarily overlooked. The lesson that this decade ought to have taught the left is even more obvious, and should never have required learning. It is that in potentially revolutionary conditions there is more than one way forward; fortunately, because the decade also demonstrated that revolutions cannot be made at will.

But the price of education has been high. It has been bought at the cost of the lives of many brave men and women, and of the fission and consequent weakening of the organized forces of the left in most of the hemisphere. Unfortunately it is by no means certain that the full price has yet been paid. The prospects facing the left in the 1970s are encouraging. Will it be in a better position to seize its opportunities than it was ten years ago? Nobody knows.

  • Email
  • Print