Traditional narrative often paints Latin America as a defenseless victim of international lust for power. Latin America has habitually been thought of as a poor region full of merry people being always exploited by countless empires or armies of greedy people willing to sack their seemingly endless resources. The fact that this region full of hard working people and vast resources, is still one of the least developed areas in the world, might lead anyone to believe they are under a permanent spell cast by the great world powers, especially the United States, that condemn them to eternal poverty. Many would claim that all the implanted traditions from outside, European customs and institutions, and North American influences, have alienated Latin Americans in such a way that they are now unable to find their own identity. Moreover, these cultural and institutional influences are being held responsible for the economic lag that the region suffers from. This work will show where these traditions come from, and how they have influenced, for better or worse, the Latin American psyche.
The New Man
Men have always needed to believe there is something greater than what they perceive as real. Ever since Plato, philosophers, poets and all kinds of intellectuals have dreamed of an ideal world out of the reach of mere mortals. The Greek philosopher wrote about a world where things were all perfect, and convinced many that what we know as reality was nothing but an imperfect mockery of what things really are. Other books like the Bible also talk about ages of purity and innocence that were lost because of man´s greed, but will return at the end of time.
When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus brought news of a new and virgin world across the western ocean, these myths were revived. The myths of a city made of gold called El Dorado, the stories about an island called California populated by a tribe of warrior women called the Amazons, and the supposed existence of a fountain of youth in a place close to paradise, were all part of the Judeo-Hellenistic tradition , but were brought back to the minds of people by Columbus´ news. Columbus, in an effort to receive more funding from the Spanish crown for his expeditions, convinced the kings that the Indies were the best of lands, and its inhabitants were the kindest race in the world . Thomas Moore himself wrote about this innocent and perfect society that was about to be corrupted by civilization. The colonizers brought all these myths to America, and started building a folklore around the new lands and its inhabitants.
In the following years the crimes committed by the Europeans were many, but the same wrongdoings, or worse, were being done by other native civilizations. The cruel Aztec empire, specialized in slavery and human sacrifices, and the Incan kingdom dedicated to raze and erase all signs of any culture they encountered, were two nations that would have kept on decimating other native Americans for centuries in their quest for new lands and human resources if they had not met the Europeans . They would have definitively done the same with Caucasians if they could, it was a matter of chance that the Europeans developed better ways of killing and travelling before the Americans , and nothing can assure that things would have been different if technology had been in the hands of Indians and not of white men.
Even so, Latin Americans have chosen to forget the sins of Pre-Columbian civilizations, and believe the myths brought by Christians about their innocence and virtue, it is certainly more comfortable being a pure and innocent race spoiled by the coming of blood thirsty conquerors. The European tales of a pure America corrupted by the greedy white man, were fully embraced by the inhabitants of the new world.
When the idea of an independent continent was growing, the most powerful people in the continent, all of European origin and educated in England or France, wanted to have the chance of building their own utopias in these unscathed lands . Many brought liberal ideas, such as Simon Bolívar at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Others talked about the return of the lost glory of Athens, like José Enrique Rodó when he wrote his famous Ariel in 1900. During the twentieth century many talked about the race that was called to fulfill the socialist dream, being Eduardo Galeano one of the most representative authors in this vein. Surprisingly, these ideas that talked about freedom, the purity of the new land, the corruption and artificiality of western civilization, or the need to create a new revolutionary race that would bring about the Marxist utopia, were all of European origin and were the most influential in the political history of the continent . Even the anti-North-Americanism that grew after the First World War was not a sentiment caused by a relative inferiority. Many rulers, including Venezuelan Juan Vicente Gomez and Argentinian Juan Domingo Peron, openly admired and supported European nationalism and fascism, and they regretted that it was the United States and not Europe the one and only world power .
Rich Land and Poor People
One thing that puzzles social scientists and politicians alike, is the fact that even when Latin America boasts great amounts of fertile land and mineral resources, no country in it has yet reached the levels of economic and social development of its northern neighbors. The most heard of explanations are those based on theories of dependency and imperialism, all are rooted in Marxist postulates, asserting that poverty is product of economic relations between the exploited peripheral colonies and the central metropolis . These assumptions took great discursive power after 1945 and the commencement of the Cold War, but come from even older roots: Newtonian scientific method and positivism.
When Isaac Newton unveiled the universal laws of gravitation, there was a strong interest in all fields of science to discover other laws that governed nature. Social scientists were eager to discover these laws, and soon Auguste Comte formulated his law of three stages that govern human progress, giving birth to positivism as a school of thought . After newton, mankind has grown to believe that anything can be solved using the scientific method , and after Comte, sociologists have looked at history as a succession of progressive and inevitable stages that come invariably one after the other . Those are the roots of Marxism-Leninism and the theories of dependency that would be the base of al policies formulated or suggested by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and would dictate, with scientific rigor, the way governments and dissidents of the region should act during the second half of the twentieth century. The two positions will be discussed next.
Even though Marx proposed to wait until the masses of workers in fully developed capitalist countries started the socialist revolution themselves, Lenin did not find it convenient to just sit down and wait for capitalism to be brought to Soviet Russia by the English and Germans, so he could start his revolution . Moreover, rich capitalist countries did not seem to be on the verge of destruction, as Marx had prophesized, and their workers were not feisty enough to start the revolution themselves. Lenin then proposed a new thesis: capitalism had created a fistful of rich and powerful countries dedicated to looting and oppressing the rest, and that the true revolutionary force must come from the working class of peripheral nations. He proposed these ideas in the Third International (Comintern) and, from that point on, political history of the world would be reduced to a permanent struggle between peripheral countries or colonies against global capitalism . Lenin made sure to convince many political leaders of the third world that only the triumph over North American Capitalism could ensure the freedom of all nations. The Comintern gave precise instructions on how to make the revolution without waiting for the proper conditions to arrive, and every country in Latin America had a communist party executing them. Those parties, constituted by professional revolutionaries, were given the task to lead masses of workers toward virtuous objectives by any means necessary, even though their countries would sometimes end being worse off . All that mattered was that North America and global capitalism lost ground to Soviet Russia . These movements would play an important part in the conflicts of Latin America, especially in the Cuban revolution, the constitution of the Colombian FARCs, the Venezuelan guerrilla, the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, the rise to power of Allende in Chile and many others. Curiously, all the leaders of these and other communist or socialist groups have vigorously denounced that they fight against foreign intervention in their countries. Of course, the United States is to blame for that, having taken part in many infamous military incursions in Latin America or even supporting bloody distatorships in an attempt to stop the Soviets from having satellite colonies close to their borders or to defend their commercial interests in the region .
The other part of the guidance received by Latin American leaders came mostly from a United Nations commission called ECLAC. Raul Prebisch, an Argentinian economist and the appointed director of the ECLAC right after the Second World War, based his dependency theory on various premises. First, he assumed that economic and social development occurred as a transit through various stages, just like positivism and Marxism said it would. Second, that social change occurs as a result of a confrontation between backwardness and modernity. Third, the already developed countries could serve as models to follow, this of course would mean the recently victorious United States and Soviet Union. Fourth, Prebisch would assume that only the State, as national entity, can lead the process of development, making it an all-powerful system that would oversee all human activity. Fifth, he would embrace the Marxist principles that would limit market freedoms and property rights. And finally, backwardness is caused by the relations between developed countries and peripheral nations, in other words, the causes of poverty were all external . Even though the dependency theory is a creation of an Argentinian, it was infused with Keynesianism, many of Talcott Parsons ideas and lots of Marxism-Leninism . One other detail that would evidence ECLAC´s foreign foundations is that it would try to emulate either the capitalist success of North America, or the impressive bureaucratic organization of the Soviet Union through the implantation of their most successful policies . Decades later, Prebisch would ultimately accept the failure of his ideas.
Legal Systems in Latin America
The choice of legal system appears to be another cause for economic failure in Latin America. Yet, the predominant sets of rules are entirely foreign as well.
The legal system in North America is based in the British Common Law. This system was conceived to keep the power of the ruler in check, so it gives more power to local judges and juries to decide over a dispute, property rights and community issues. This is important because it tends to protect private property, and gives the public more confidence in law enforcing since it ensures more stability . On the contrary, Latin American legal system is based on the Napoleonic code, deliberately made to limit the power of judges and give the executive branch of government control over property rights . Latin American rulers adopted it partly because, at the time of gaining their independence, it was regarded as a modern legal system, and partly because they saw it would be easier to implement policies at will with such a system . Consequently, just as it happened during the French Revolution, property rights were subject to the will of the rulers, and rulers changed quite regularly. It appears that countries that adopted the British system tend to be more prosper than those who adopted the French civil code .
Peruvian economist and Nobel laureate Hernando De Soto goes a bit further to explain the differences between developed and third world countries, also based on the rules they choose for themselves. He agrees that the backwardness of the region might be due to a faulty set of rules and laws (De Soto). But De Soto also studied the informal markets in many developing countries all over the world and discovered that between 50% and 80% of the people operate outside their legal systems (De Soto 180). This happens when the cost of registering a business and following the formal rules is too high for most of the people. Poor people in informal economies have huge amounts of capital but are not able to trade it or use it as investments, because the government would not recognize it. This, according to De Soto, is a limit imposed by their countries to the poor through heavy regulation and codification, which forces them to remain poor (De Soto).
He argues that the North America had the same problem during the eighteen and nineteenth century, especially in the far west where it was hard for the Federal government to enforce laws that were formulated in the east coast. Those laws were totally alien to Californians, who already had their own informal rules and were comfortable with them but had no clear property rights recognized by a government. The problem was solved when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American government recognized their informal rules and their ways of acquiring and trading property. They could finally have all their assets represented in legal documents so they could start investing and trading, thus making the United States one of the wealthiest nations in the world .
In Latin America, the cost of having any asset represented on paper is prohibitively high for most of people. The only people able to do so is the people who is already wealthy, making legality and commerce a privilege of an elite, almost always in league with the political class . Most of the time it is not caused by any evil entity willing to make people poor, but by the adoption of legal forms and policies, such as those suggested by ECLAC, that impose rules and regulations with aims to industrialize, nationalize, regulate and make states stronger, forgetting about the individuals that are forced to remain silent and waiting for their governments to tell them what to produce and how to do it .
Whose Fault is it then?
It appears that the actual situation of Latin America is a result of bad choices made by their own rulers who have always looked out of their borders for their domestic problems. It is not necessarily a bad idea, but it depends on what one wants to find. Economic historian David Landes states that there are two questions people can ask when things go wrong, one can wonder if there was a mistake in the line of action, or if someone else is to blame. Some nations, many Asian and European, asked themselves the first question, which led them to ask themselves if they could do something to make things right. Latin America chose to ask themselves the second question, which led them to constant paranoia and an inability to solve their problems . Fortunately, countries like Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru and Mexico, have started to ask the first question.
Apuleyo, Plinio, Carlos Montaner and Alberto Vargas. Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot. Lanham: Madison Books, 2000.
Casella, Antonio. Ciencia, Individuo y Estado en las Teorías Latinoamericanas del Desarrollo. Maracaibo: La Busaca, 2012.
De Soto, Hernando. The Mystery of Capital. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
La Porta, Rafael, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes and Andrei Shleifer. "The Economic Consequences of Legal Origins." Journal of Economic Literature (2008): 285-332.
Landes, David. "Culture Makes Almost All the Difference." Harrison, Lawrence and Samuel Huntington. Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. New York: Basic Books, 1997. 2-13.
—. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Rangel, Carlos. De Buen Salvaje al Buen Revolucionario. Caracas: Monte Ávila, 1976.
Zeitlin, Irving. Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968.