Out of Phase Again

More than twenty years ago I published a short article on Inter-American relations with the title “Out of Phase.” Intellectual fashions in thinking on development, I tried to show, tended to go through changes in the United States that were matched, but in the opposite direction, by shifts occurring at about the same time in the mood of Latin America, the result being an “orgy of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.” I was writing about the concrete experience of the five-year period that lay just behind us then, without any attempt to argue that this mismatch has a necessary or permanent character. But looking at the current scene and noting that my title applies more than ever I almost wonder whether I might have stumbled on some sort of law.

In the earlier paper I talked about switches from one set of beliefs to another. This time I am concerned with a more fundamental, if less easily defined, shift: from total confidence in the existence of a fundamental solution of social and economic problems to a more questioning, pragmatic attitude; from ideological certainty to open-ended, eclectic, skeptical inquiry. Latin Americans have of course long been criticized in the North for the ideological rigidity with which they are supposed to approach many issues. And in the field of economic policy—where discussion often proceeds along ideological lines, the consequence of a long history of antagonistic debate in the North—it is probably true that many Latin Americans have tended to take “ideological” positions (of both left and right) on such matters as planning, the market mechanism, foreign investment, inflation, the government’s role in economic development, and so on.

But recently there have been signs of substantial change in this picture, largely as a result of bitter experience. In the aftermath of the repressive authoritarian regimes that came to power in the Sixties and Seventies, many Latin Americans did more than rally to a politics that accommodates a range of opinions (each of which is firmly held). They were sufficiently shaken in their certainties to wish to engage in open-ended dialogue and deliberation, ready to discover something new about their own opinions and values. In Argentina, the Latin American society that has had perhaps the most severe internal conflicts over the past fifty years, the idea of social “concertation,” a process involving much give and take on the part of various social groups, has achieved considerable prestige during Alfonsin’s presidency; and I was told that nobody would today proudly give the name Intransigente to a political party—even though a minor party with that name (dating, as might be expected, from the Sixties) still is functioning. At the same time, the spectacular miscarriage of economic policies inspired by ideology (again of both left and right) has given rise to a new experimental spirit among Latin American economists, intellectuals, and policy makers. This spirit, with its readiness to draw on a wide variety of insights, was strongly evident in the monetary …

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