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* (of the early nineteenth century), 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.

The results of more than a century of this collaboration were until recently unimpressive, though they managed to keep central Lima largely intact as a colonial capital, until it was systematically destroyed in the property boom of the 1960s. It produced a few spectacular mountain railroads, monuments to Victorian British engineering, a number of extremely efficient cotton and sugar estates on coastal oases, a relatively modest percentage of the world output of some metals, a lot of fishmeal, and for its size and population the most backward country in Latin America. Except for a few mines, the foreigners took no serious interest in the Indian highlands, which contained two-thirds of the population, but even the coastal population was no great advertisement for the benefits of economic development through foreign investment. Peru was a country whose social injustice and plain misery made the blood run cold. If ever a country needed, and needs, a revolution, it was this. But none seemed likely.

Indignation, contempt for the Peruvian ruling class, and pessimism have shaped the book of Carlos Astiz, an intelligent Argentinian. Like other observers, he is equally struck by the country’s vast potentialities, the modesty of its achievements, its dependence on the US, and the apparent impossibility of achieving any major political change. Where is it to come from? From the feeble middle strata, content to ape the foreigners and the oligarchs on whom they depend, not least for jobs in the swelling civil and military bureaucracy which, as in all underdeveloped countries, exists to provide jobs for them? From the favored minority of organized plantation and industrial workers, who can bargain within the system? From the APRA, long a part of the political racket and sold to the US? From the weak, isolated, and increasingly fissiparous revolutionary left?

Yet his pessimism is patently mistaken, for since 1968 there have been dramatic changes which this book would not have allowed us to predict or even to expect. They are no doubt, so far, changes of style rather than of substance. It is too early to hail the achievements, as distinct from the intentions, of the agrarian reform, though also (skeptics should be reminded) too early to write off the anti-imperialism of the generals. Still, there have been some startling changes. Who would have expected any Peruvian administration to provoke a confrontation with the US, even if its purpose was only to make a better bargain? (Carlos Astiz, for instance, has been unable to discover a single issue of foreign policy in the twentieth century on which Lima disagreed with Washington.) Who would have expected the Peruvian army to expropriate the sugar estates, not only of Grace and Gildemeister, but of the great oligarchic families themselves? In Peruvian politics the takeover of Hacienda Tumán was as extraordinary a step as the nationalization of the Schenectady works of General Electric would be in US politics. Who would have expected a Peruvian government to hand over newspapers to cooperatives and seriously to consider, as this one is doing, giving votes to illiterates?

The new factor in Peru’s politics is not simply the conversion of army leaders to anti-imperialist nationalism and desarrollismo, for this is no longer uncommon among Latin American officers, a middle-class group which is today far from the old stereotypes of the aristocrat or the roughneck aspirant caudillo. It is the emergence of the forgotten majority of Peruvians—the Indian peasantry, at home or in emigration—into politics. Their actual role in national life was potentially always decisive, though in practice it was generally negligible. The weak point of the regime always lay in the instability of its domination over the sullen, powerless, unreconciled Indian masses, whose frequent rebellions are virtually unrecorded by historians. Like Tsarist Russia, oligarchic Peru lived on a volcano. Only the lack of leaders, and the localization, brevity, and political irrelevance of the peasant revolts, kept it secure.

Conversely, the Left knew the importance of the Indians, though it failed to mobilize them effectively. Fifty years ago the first major shift in the Peruvian colonial economy—the victory of the coastal, American-oriented sector over the highland, quasi-feudal, and British-oriented sector under Leguia (1919-1930)—produced the first appearance of the masses as a serious factor in Peruvian politics. It was sufficient to stimulate two unique phenomena in Latin America: the home-grown (though Italian-influenced) Marxism of José Maria Mariategui, the most original socialist thinker of the continent, and the first genuine left-wing mass party, Haya de la Torre’s APRA. But neither APRA nor Mariategui’s much smaller Communist Party succeeded in breaking into the highland Indian masses, though the C.P. established a few bridgeheads in the South (especially in that bastion of Indian tradition, Cuzco) which were to be the bases of a later and wider peasant movement. The Indians remained outside the nation, outside citizenship—people not merely forgotten, but politically almost invisible.

The social earthquakes of the 1950s and 1960s have provided a firmer basis for their political mobilization. For the first time in history the highland society was breaking up, as demonstrated most vividly by the mass migration of Indians to the coastal cities. In Lima the number of inhabitants living in the shantytowns increased, between 1956 and 1961, from ca. 120,000 (10 percent) to ca. 400,000 (26 percent). The crucial phenomenon of this period was the mass insurrection of the highland peasants, mainly through a series of decentralized “invasions of land,” which began at the end of the 1950s and reached their peak in 1963-64. At this stage something like 300,000 peasants in all but one of the highland departments were involved in it.

Less dramatic, but politically no less significant, was the emergence of the cholos, an Indian petty-bourgeoisie distinct from the traditional ruling class of mestizos and the rare whites, which for the first time provided a cadre of political leaders (or political bosses) for the local peasantry. Edward Dew’s Politics in the Altiplano is a remarkably interesting study of the rise of this stratum in the much researched department of Puno, and especially of the career of the Caceres brothers, whose Frente Sindical Campesino swept the municipal elections in most provinces of this department. Mr. Dew’s book has no high ambitions, but he has been lucky to observe the grassroots politics of an important region of dense Indian settlement at the moment of social awakening, and we can benefit from his observation.

With the emergence of the Indians into political visibility in the 1960s, the parameters of Peruvian politics changed. For the first time the rumblings of the social volcano had to be taken seriously: it had shown that it could erupt. At the same time, the possibility of by-passing the political system now existed, and with it the possibility of hauling Peru out of its state of backward dependence, an aim with which all except the oligarchy sympathized. The Belaunde regime of 1962-68 failed, largely because it allowed itself to be paralyzed by a system of which it was a part. The army, which had installed it, eventually took over. There was nobody else to do so.

Unlike the Brazilian generals’ coup of 1964, the Peruvian takeover was not the response to an immediate revolutionary danger, real or imagined. The army was certainly not afraid of the APRA, that thinnest of paper tigers, which so often threatened to win elections and invariably yielded to the army veto. It was not frightened by the revolutionary Left, which had demonstrated its impotence outside the universities. In 1958-64 the Left had been unable to do more than detonate peasant movements, which it had not the resources to control, and in 1965 it had utterly failed to launch an effective rural guerrilla movement, as Hector Béjar’s little book tragically demonstrates. Mr. Béjar, the leader of a small guerrilla movement which took part of the abortive risings of 1965, has had the leisure while in jail (where he still is) to reflect on the failure of the 1965 experience, and to provide an invaluable account of his own group’s unhappy experiences in one region of the Andes. His book is a precious addition to the still exiguous literature about the concrete guerrilla experiences of his continent in the 1960s, though we need to remind ourselves (preferably by publishing an English translation of Jabobo Arenas’s recent Colombie, Guerillas du Peuple, Paris, 1969) that not all such movements have been as amateurish or unsuccessful as the Peruvian ones.

The generals were and are afraid of a social revolution which might one day be led by the Left, for—as Béjar also shows—the potential peasant support for insurrection was substantial. But they had and have time to cut the ground from under such a revolution by agrarian reform, which, as every Peruvian intellectual since Mariategui and Haya de la Torre knows, would also destroy the political power of the oligarchy.

The generals came to power at a time of political calm. They still enjoy this tranquillity, perhaps fortunately for their political cohesion, less fortunately for their prospects. Even progressive generals tend to be happier if the civilians keep quiet, but progressive generals may well be saved from reactionary ones by the readiness of the civilians to come out on the streets on their behalf. Only very recently have the workers of the great American mining corporation of Cerro de Pasco begun to mobilize en masse with consequences which cannot yet be foreseen.

What are the generals trying to do? One of them has explained their aims fairly recently (Le Monde, February 20):

We discovered the deeper reasons for the guerrilla insurrection of 1965: poverty, the scandalous exploitation of the masses, the social injustice of archaic structures…. Communism is no solution for Peru. So our objective is clear: we must fight against foreign dependence, which is at the root of underdevelopment. This implies that we must confront the foreign interests, mainly North American, which do not bother about Peru’s interests. This again implies that we must fight against the local oligarchy, which is closely linked with the foreigners.

In other words, their negative aim is to avoid a social explosion by well-timed reform, and more immediately and superficially, to break up their old antagonist, the APRA; their positive aim, to develop the country’s resources by a planned state capitalism, acquiring foreign aid on more favorable terms, and for purposes more directly useful to the Peruvian economy than in the past.

Whether they or anyone else have a clear idea of how to achieve these aims is another question. Politically they have played a strong hand well inside Peru, a weak hand carefully in international relations. At home, since there is no effective opposition or alternative, their main problem is how far they can go without mobilizing their potential mass support, which they have so far not attempted to do either by building up any leader’s charisma (which might cause trouble among his colleagues), or by organizing any mass movement or party (which might create enemies by creating friends). Internationally, they are extremely vulnerable to US pressure, e.g., the withdrawal of the sugar quota, all the more so as they are naturally reluctant to face economic disruption. But they probably would face it, if pressed too far, and the threat to move sharply to the left is their major diplomatic asset.

The US does not want big trouble in a country remote from the area of quick and cheap military interventions, especially as plenty of Latin Americans are already looking to Lima for the demonstration effect of militant anti-imperialism, including influential officers in various countries, whose political views look no more incendiary today than the Peruvians’ did three years ago. Who can forget where Castro and Nasser went when pushed too hard? Hence Washington and the junta are both cautious. They are playing for time. Both would be happy to find a formula which avoided conflict.

Is such a formula possible? In theory it is. The US is prepared to write off the present oligarchy and the backward agrarian system of the highlands. The Peruvian generals are patently in favor of North American investment and technical development, on terms which, as the recent Cuajone copper deal shows, are not unacceptable to US investors. Nobody will plan to send in the marines just because any American property is taken over, especially as sending the marines is not so easy. If the Kennedy policy (which failed) was to encourage anticommunist but “economically realistic” democratic reformers such as APRA-type leaders and Christian Democrats, why should not the Nixon policy be to encourage reforming military governments, which is at any rate better for publicity than backing the Brazilian torturers?

The prospect may be acceptable to Washington. The trouble about it is that it offers no immediate answers to the economic, social, and political problems of Peruvian backwardness, which are unusually acute. It offers time, which is valuable to a regime which is still (and inevitably) improvising and feeling its way. It offers agrarian reform (or rather the breakup of the large highland haciendas, the transfer of ownership of the agro-industrial plantations on the coast), but this in itself, however welcome, is not an adequate solution to the problems of Indian Peru.

The agrarian problem is no longer the only significant problem of the country, nor can it be isolated nowadays from the other problems of Peruvian society with which it is intertwined. For these the formula would merely offer yet another, updated, version of the theory that somehow imperialism can be the first stage of a national capitalism in an underdeveloped country. The history of Peru does not encourage confidence in this theory. It suggests rather that the combination of economic liberalism and foreign dependence must be broken, if relative underdevelopment is not to be perpetually regenerated.

Peruvian reformers, in and out of uniform, know this perfectly well. US interests and Peruvian interests do not coincide. However tactfully the confrontation is conducted on both sides—and if the generals carry out their program, it is likely to generate an internal dynamic which will get in the way of mutual politeness—it will have to be a confrontation. If it is not, President Velasco and his colleagues will fail to achieve what they have set out to achieve. And Peru will still need and cry out for that social revolution, peaceful or violent, which is long overdue.

This Issue

May 21, 1970