Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

Some of President Reagan’s advisers believe that Jimmy Carter had a clear policy for dealing with Third World countries, and that it was wrong, above all in Latin America. Probably the most detailed and influential statement of their view is the article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” published last year by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the new ambassador to the UN.1 The central problem, according to Professor Kirkpatrick, is “that of formulating a morally and strategically acceptable, and politically realistic, program for dealing with nondemocratic governments who are threatened by Soviet-sponsored subversion.”

Drawing principally on Iran and Nicaragua, she describes what she takes to be a typical “non-democratic” government and the wrongheaded response to it she had come to expect from the Carter administration.

In such a government, a long-established autocrat is supported by a private army—which owes allegiance to him and his family rather than to some abstract idea of the state. The autocrat tolerates “limited opposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties.” But because he is “confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution,” he must sometimes invoke martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, “and occasionally, it was alleged” (Kirkpatrick says, referring to the specific cases of Iran and Nicaragua) “torture [his] opponents.” The autocrat enriches himself in large part by confusing his own resources with those of the state and makes no attempt “to alter significantly the distribution of goods, status, or power.”

In the past, this model autocrat was a good friend of the United States and successive American administrations gave him tangible and intangible support. But then came Jimmy Carter.

“The pattern [of response] is familiar enough,” Kirkpatrick writes.

An established autocracy…is attacked by insurgents, some of whose leaders have long ties to the Communist movement, and most of whose arms are of Soviet, Chinese, or Czechoslovak origin. The “Marxist” presence is ignored and/ or minimized by American officials and by the elite’ media on the ground that US support for the dictator gives the rebels little choice but to seek aid “elsewhere.”

Kirkpatrick goes on to elaborate this scenario, which turns out to be a tendentious but not crazily distorted version of the Nicaraguan case, cobbled together with incidents from the Shah’s fall. As US aid is steadily withdrawn, there are rising expressions of concern about the dictator’s popular support and his failures in human rights, all echoed by “liberal columnists” and “returning missionaries.”

As the conflict worsens, the United States calls for the autocrat’s replacement by a broadly based coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime. To hasten the friendly old retainer on his way, Washington cuts off aid entirely so the legitimate government becomes weaker while the rebels continue to accumulate weapons and intensify hostilities. Finally, either the dictator, effectively disarmed by the perfidious Carter, is overwhelmed by the rebels or he dutifully abdicates to a moderate backed by the United States who is in turn replaced by radicals. In either case, Kirkpatrick argues, “the US will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world” and even more repressive than its predecessor.

Kirkpatrick’s remedies follow ineluctably from her diagnosis of Carter’s errors. The United States must not undermine friendly authoritarian governments. It may encourage a “process of liberalization and democratization, provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries, and that proposed reforms are aimed at producing gradual change rather than perfect democracy overnight.” When Marxists or other enemies of the United States seek violently to overthrow the traditional order, the United States should send aid, not excluding the Marines.

Of this proposal, it may be said, first, that it rests on an almost demented parody of Latin American2 political realities as well as on a grave misperception of Carter’s policies and achievements. On the most elementary facts Kirkpatrick is misinformed, for example when she claims that Carter “disarmed Somoza. Before the last round of the Nicaraguan conflict, Somoza’s National Guard bristled with weapons supplied by Argentina and Israel. Passing to more important misconceptions, dictatorial regimes of the Somoza type are far less common today than they were twenty or thirty years ago when Kirkpatrick’s views seem to have been formed. A few relics survive: Duvalier, Jr., in Haiti, Stroessner in Paraguay. But in number, population, resources, and strategic importance, such countries are inconsequential compared to the Hemisphere’s other nondemocratic, anticommunist governments, including those in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, and Uruguay. Nor, despite his success in eliminating all personal rivals, does her model apply to Pinochet’s Chile.

In these authoritarian countries, the names at the top can and generally do change without any shifts in the pattern of wealth and political power. Formidable institutions are in control, usually the armed forces, a notable exception being Mexico’s dominant political party, the PRI, and the huge state bureaucracy dependent on it. And these institutions work within a complicated setting of interest groups—including various sectors of the national business community, multinational corporations, the Catholic Church, professional’s guilds, the state bureaucracy, and occasionally (and in most cases marginally) trade unions—all struggling to influence the regime’s economic and social policies. It is a political world very different from the one conjured up by Kirkpatrick.3


While the eccentricity of Kirkpatrick’s account may raise doubts about her competence for public service, what matters more is the effect her account is likely to have on policy makers who confuse it with reality. Any political order sustained by little more than the force of a single autocrat’s or family’s prestige is bound to be precarious, especially where that prestige is linked to the ruler’s bestial behavior or his special relationship with a feared or admired great power. Regarding such cases as the norm, Kirkpatrick not surprisingly demands we form a circle of fire around our proteges as soon as reformers of any kind appear armed in the streets. What would she do about those missionaries (nuns?) and other “activists” as she calls them who get in the way of hard-nosed policy? One possible hint appears in an interview Kirkpatrick gave after the election. Commenting on the torture, mutilation, and summary execution of the civilian leaders of El Salvador’s left-wing coalition, she said that “people who choose to live by the sword can expect to die by it.”4 So apparently any form of association with rebels makes one fair game.

If we turn from Kirkpatrick’s model to the real world, we find instead of the old-style caudillos regimes of a very different character. Roughly half the members of the Organization of American States are recognizable democracies, including, for example, Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and most of the Angiophonic states of the Caribbean. Kirkpatrick has little to say about democracy in such Third World countries other than to doubt its existence when it elects leaders who practice socialism, criticize the United States, and talk with Castro. While castigating Carter for tolerating the Manley regime in Jamaica, she refers to it as a “so-called democracy.” One wonders whether the recent transfer of power there has shaken her implied assumption that socialism is totalitarianism aching to be born. For her, the heart of our Third World problem is the regime that is anticommunist, but authoritarian, brutal, poor, corrupt, and hence unloved by the liberals.

One redeeming feature of Kirkpatrick’s essay is its demonstration of how a distinction that could be useful, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, is being subverted by dogmatists who assign practically all rulers professing capitalism and trying to liquidate leftists to the category of “merely authoritarian” while coincidentally expelling every revolutionary government and movement into the outer darkness of totalitarianism. In this way the distinction has become simply a polemical weapon, useful for attacking Carter’s human rights policy and for countering criticism of regimes that brutally crush proponents of reform, liberals, socialists, and Marxists alike.

In order to maintain their Manichaean vision, former liberals like Kirkpatrick must practice a heroic indifference to detail. The revolutionary who haunts their hysterical prose never acquires a face. Neoconservatives ask no questions about the particulars of time and place and program, about why a man or woman has assumed the awful peril of rebellion; they never ask because, for their crabbed purposes, they have all the necessary answers. Having taken up arms—some of them Cuban or Russian or otherwise tainted—against an anticommunist government, the revolutionary is either a totalitarian communist or a foolish tool, not to mention a “terrorist.”

You find an equivalent coarseness of thought in the pages of Pravda, where the Soviet counterparts of our intellectual thugs ask not, “Who is Lech Walesa?” but rather, “Whom does Walesa consciously or unconsciously serve?” Since his opponent is a loyal communist government, for Pravda the only possible answer is “US Imperialism.”

Kirkpatrick herself admits that absolute monsters such as Hitler and Stalin or Pol Pot and Papa Doc Duvalier will occasionally appear at both ends of the imagined political spectrum. What concerns her, however, are the

systemic differences between traditional and revolutionary autocracies that have a predictable effect on their degree of repressiveness. Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.

Traditional autocrats…do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill.

The other presumed moral advantage of anticommunist autocracies is their capacity for evolution toward more humane societies.


Although there is no instance of a revolutionary “socialist” or Communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies—given time, propitious…circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government.

Nothing so well illustrates the stupefying power of dogma than this attribution of permanence to revolutionary regimes and of an always latent fluidity to most conservative ones. In any fair test of durability, the latter make an impressive showing. The Somoza family, for example, lasted forty-five years. By monopolizing so much of the nation’s economy, it had, by the time of its overthrow, actually reduced the possibility of democratic evolution.

Military rule in El Salvador, to take another current example, has endured since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first election. If we use a measure more relevant to human rights and equate the “regime” with a very rigid structure of power and wealth and opportunity, then El Salvador had a stable autocracy from its independence in the early nineteenth century at least until the armed forces coup of 1979. 5 What was characteristic of this period was not “evolution” toward democracy but prevention of that evolution. In Peru, one hundred and fifty years of oligarchic control ended in 1968 not through democratic evolution but by means of reforms imposed by the armed forces.

Authoritarian governments of every ideological hue extend their jurisdiction as far as necessary to achieve their ends. They tolerate autonomous activity outside the formal state structure only when it is harmless or when it is informally but effectively integrated with the regime. In El Salvador before 1979, the military government and a small group of capitalists (“the fourteen families”) consciously shared virtually the same interests and acted together. Though the press was nominally free, mass circulation newspapers in San Salvador conformed to the policies of the ruling groups.

“Preserving the existing distribution of wealth and power and poverty” is a deceptive summary of the goals of Kirkpatrick’s “traditional autocrats.” It is deceptive in that it implies that Latin American nations exist in a state of muscular placidity, as if society were ruled by a group of not necessarily good-natured but decidedly unambitious thugs who have no serious ambition beyond retaining control of their privileges and extorting protection money, and are willing to live and let live. When threatened by violent assault, of course they will actively hurt people—the violent malcontents and their sympathizers. But once the problem is liquidated, the “ordinary people” who want only to be left alone will come out of the cellar, where they have been hiding to avoid getting caught in the cross-fire, and docilely resume their “habitual rhythms.”

This image is unreal because it misses the dynamic character of contemporary Latin American societies. When the masses are quiet, unambitious rulers can be placid. Today their serenity is constantly disturbed. All the interconnected tendencies of recent years—urbanization, industrialization, rapid population increase, the vast spread of TV and transistor radios, revolutionary ideas about man and society—have unleashed a torrent of demands that may seem all the more terrifying because they cannot be suppressed by a government’s administering exemplary punishment from time to time. Feeling a consequent need for sterner and more sweeping measures, rulers claim that national security requires them to impose comprehensive surveillance and more tightly controlled social institutions by increasing the power and reach of public authority.

This political project is “corporatism,” fascism’s cousin. As the Yale political scientist Alfred Stepan notes in his penetrating study of Peru’s corporatist experiment,6 it has two poles. At the “inclusionary pole,” the state offers working-class groups positive inducements to take part in its political and economic plans, as did the first Perón regime in Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas in pre-war Mexico, and Peru’s military government before it turned to the right in 1975. At the “exclusionary pole,” the state elite relies heavily on coercion to break up existing working-class organizations and then to institutionalize docility. Chile under Pinochet is a particularly harsh example.

When the second of the two patterns predominates, as in Brazil and Chile following their respective military coups,7 it follows that universities are purged, political parties dissolved, unions reorganized, dissidents murdered, the Church harassed, all as part of a huge effort first to demobilize the popular classes, and then to direct and strain their demands through new, purified institutions subject to manipulation by the state. In this effort, which has been analyzed with particular brilliance by the Argentine social scientist Guillermo O’Donnell,8 the ruling groups can be said to be following, consciously or not, the example of empires like that of Rome which for several centuries aggressively expanded its domain in a furious effort to liquidate threats to the status quo before they became unmanageable.

Seeking to preserve their own status quo, uncompromising right-wing governments ape the campaigns of classical revolutionary regimes to remove every source of dissent. They call themselves conservative. They are anticommunist. They will say nice things about the Free World. And contrary to Kirkpatrick’s optimistic speculations, they often take society on a road without any democratic exit.

The defense of right-wing authoritarian regimes finds a receptive, uncritical audience among many Americans because deeply ingrained ideological commitments affect their moral sensitivity. Anyone familiar with conditions in Haiti, for example, knows that its desperately hungry people would emigrate en masse if only a country able to provide life’s basic needs would open its doors. Although poverty and the nature of the Duvalier regime are linked, since that autocracy is noncommunist the US government presumes that its refugees who reach our shores merely flee economic “conditions” and must therefore be turned back. On the other hand, practically all Cubans who arrive here are presumed to be fleeing political persecution rather than economic privation.

Another case of selective perception: If a revolutionary state commands people to move from one section of a country to another, we naturally condemn this ugly act as violating the right to travel freely and choose one’s place of residence. But if the state enforces an absentee landowner’s decision to expel sharecroppers who have tilled the land for generations, and if the landowner’s choice was a rational response to market forces, even if those forces were themselves determined by political decisions about subsidies or the tariff on imported farm equipment, many economists will applaud it. Farming will be more efficient, free marketeers will say, and sharecroppers will eventually find employment in more productive and hence better-paying activities. Or at least, it is claimed, they would if only markets could be manipulated to function in accordance with theory.

The account of the Third World provided by Kirkpatrick and those who think like her obscures the realities of life under authoritarian governments—not only the torture and murder of political dissidents but also the more subtle yet often more comprehensively destructive acts carried out through the operation and manipulation of economic forces in societies with vast gaps between the power and education and wealth of a relatively few people and the rest of the population, a pattern of inequality often inherited from a precapitalist era. In countries like Brazil and Guatemala, these differences and the statist tradition that goes with them multiply the community-shattering impact of capitalism by placing the state at the service of a relatively few powerful people.

Acting through the state, the few can require proof of land tenure which illiterate peasants cannot produce. They can manipulate the exchange rate to encourage high technology imports at the expense of high employment. They can prohibit strikes and hold wage increases below the rate of inflation. They can subsidize large-scale agriculture and monopolize irrigation, while withholding subsidies for basic consumption goods. They can and do intervene in a thousand ways which have the predictable effect of uprooting whole communities, because neither they nor the state apparatus is a neutral arbiter guided by some abstract calculus of national interest. One certainly need not be a Marxist to see this. And one needs only a minimum of candor to admit it.

Quietly and anonymously, economic and social forces unleashed or at least aided by the state can eliminate entire cultures. Sylvia Hewlett notes in her recent study of Brazil that there remained during the 1950s “a major concentration of indigenous tribes (numbering approximately 200,000 people) in the Amazon and central regions….” 9 As a consequence of the decision to open up these regions through highway building, colonization schemes, and other means, the indigenous population is disappearing. Some Indians will survive disoriented, adrift on the edge of an alien world. As for their “habitual patterns of family and personal relations,” soon the world will forget that they ever existed.

Honest scholarship would have to ask what is the difference between a revolutionary state that decides to eliminate a group with bayonets and one that proceeds to do so by indirection. Both claim that they are promoting modernization and advancing national interests as defined by those who rule. Yet one case rightly horrifies us and will command the attention of Walter Cronkite while the other passes almost unnoticed.10

Conservatives are properly impressed by Brazil’s rapid expansion and the deepening of its industrial base during the era of intense political repression—1968-1973. They tend to be silent about its record in producing equity or welfare. A recent World Bank study using 1977 figures estimates that 65 percent of the Brazilian population age fifteen and above is functionally illiterate; the figure runs close to 90 percent in rural areas.11 Roughly 20 percent of the children in Brazil are in a state of second or third degree malnutrition (body weight 25 percent or more below normal).

According to figures cited by Hewlett, between 1960 and 1973 the rate of infant mortality in Sao Paulo (the richest part of Brazil) increased 45 percent to a high of ninety-seven deaths per thousand live births.12 Life expectancy for the middle and upper classes of Sao Paulo is estimated to be around sixty-seven. The poor in parts of the rural northeast still have a life expectancy of only about forty years. Such misery is no doubt “familiar,” as Kirkpatrick claims, but unlike our new ambassador to the UN, even a minister in the Brazilian government wonders if it is bearable. In a recent interview with Veja, Brazil’s equivalent of Newsweek, the present Minister of Industry and Commerce, Joao Camilo Penna, said:

The country possesses today a social stratum with high managerial capacity that has, however, a great debt with 40 million humble Brazilians. A debt that, if it is not paid, will result in these humble people being turned into humiliated people. And after humiliated people, I don’t know.

Preoccupied with such games as distinguishing between the “authoritarian” and the “totalitarian,” many people concerned with US diplomacy have failed to notice changes in Latin American institutions that have been unfolding in the shadows cast by state and private terrorism. Perhaps the most important of these is the emergence of national human rights movements. Under a variety of names, often supported by the Catholic Church, these movements have united hereditary political enemies in alliances reminiscent of wartime France. In countries where the armed forces agree to return to their barracks, these Latin analogies to the Resistance could emerge as stable, center-to-left political coalitions able to carry out orderly programs of economic and social reform. In most of the Western hemisphere today, moreover—unlike postwar Western Europe—the orthodox Moscow-oriented party is only a fragment of the left, in many countries a trivial one.13

The experience of modern authoritarian government has enhanced the prospects for such coalitions. Frustrated in the 1960s by the obduracy of vested interests, their imagination fired by illusions about the Cuban revolution, susceptible to a rigidly Marxist view of norms and political institutions, reformers in such countries as Brazil, Colombia, and Chile tended to see democratic politics only as the means of preserving privilege. They became correspondingly insensitive to the violence lying beneath the accumulated restraints and tolerance of relatively decent social orders.

They have since learned how ferociously competent modern security forces can be and how private leftist terrorism can evoke deep antipathy throughout societies with liberal if not always strictly democratic traditions; the result in such countries as Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil has been increased support of unrestrained counterterrorism. However, moderates and conservatives who have seen their children ground up in the state’s security machine also have had a lessons in the difficulty of stopping violence once it rushes into the streets.

The failure of Cuba’s economic model is another factor in the education of the left. Fidel Castro himself has helped to disseminate the bad news and has drawn one of the appropriate conclusions. In conversations with Alfonso Robelo, leader of the political opposition to the present Nicaraguan government, and with Sandinista leaders, Castro emphasized the importance of preserving a significant private business sector… Some Central and South American leftists may still be reluctant to admit it, but they cannot indefinitely evade the fact that a commitment to a private sector is also a commitment to some species of political pluralism.

Advocates of democratic reform face enormous difficulties. In many Latin American countries a demographic explosion is taking place while the economy relies on a capital-intensive technology that was developed in the labor-scarce states of Europe and North America—a combination that usually creates very high levels of unemployment. Also imported from the developed states are consumer appetites that stimulate the greed of the well-to-do. Because international capital is hard to obtain, politicians and businessmen feel they must compete for it by suppressing every sign of social disorder; and modern technology provides an apparatus for official terror beyond the dreams of nineteenth-century rulers. Western stagflation meanwhile threatens export markets and consequently the ability to finance growth of any kind.

The rush to authoritarian governments in the Sixties and early Seventies heightened academic appreciation of these and related obstacles, and encouraged a pessimistic determinism about projects for social and political reform.14 But the failure of countries like Chile and Uruguay to reproduce the Brazilian economic “miracle” by combining assaults on the working class with an open door to international capital has helped to undermine confidence in the stability of that formula for social order.15 It received another blow recently when Uruguayan voters rejected a constitution designed by the armed forces to perpetuate their rule. The democratic impulse has not yielded to competing claims to legitimacy.

The great question is whether reform coalitions can increase equity and welfare without sacrificing the long-term growth necessary for peaceful relations between classes. If they can, they should satisfy the demands of the Latin American military officers who have seized power in order to halt class warfare and the consequent disintegration of all traditional institutions, including the armed forces themselves. Plausible blueprints are available.16 In the case of Brazil, for instance, a recent confidential study shows how moderate changes in government policy designed substantially to reduce inequality could also do much to relieve the shortages of energy and foreign exchange that threaten the country’s future. A more equitable distribution of income would coincidentally benefit domestically controlled private businesses because they enjoy a comparative advantage over multinational corporations in producing basic consumer goods.

Most of Latin America is now open to renewed projects for democratic social reform, or could soon become so. Carter helped to shape this more promising situation by insisting that the way a regime treats its own people has to affect the quality of its relations with the United States. Having initially disarmed himself by foreswearing intervention in trade or private capital as a means of defending human rights, he could, however, offer few incentives and he used few convincing threats. By 1977, only a derisory amount of bilateral economic aid was available to reward good behavior.

In a few cases Carter could and did block or delay aid to authoritarian states such as Argentina from international financial institutions; but various, partially self-imposed, constraints made this a rarely used and only marginally threatening weapon. In cautioning authoritarian governments against repression, Carter drew mainly on the accumulated prestige of the United States among Latin American military establishments and the upper classes. His considerable achievements, including fair elections in the Dominican Republic, are partly owing to the weight of American influence, but primarily to the gathering force of human rights as an ideal that cuts across deep divisions of class and ideology in Latin America. That force powerfully multiplied the effect of Carter’s efforts.

Simply by acting to demonstrate some continuity in Washington’s support for human rights, Ronald Reagan could easily match Carter’s achievement. He needs to act quickly. His victory has particularly encouraged the predators in those few remaining social jungles where an alliance of corrupted soldiers, industrialists, and landowners would rather fight to the last worker, peasant, politician, and priest than accept reform.

While campaigning for the presidency, Mr. Reagan allowed certain ideologues who were vindictive toward all critics of traditional capitalist order to speak in his name. Responsible Republicans such as Congressman Jack Kemp should urge the president to reject association of American power with conservatism that relies on vicious repression. They should act because it is the right thing to do; and because it is in the national interest that Latin Americans succeed in establishing capitalism with a human face.

This Issue

March 19, 1981