Latin American liberalism: a mirage?

AuthorLlosa, Alvaro Vargas

It is said that Latin America's misfortune is instability. I believe the opposite. "Next to instability," German Arciniegas wrote in 1958, "there at times occurs something worse: stability" (all translations from Spanish-language material are mine). A word with a double meaning, stability signifies continuity yet also denotes a static or immutable quality. In the two centuries of Latin America's existence as independent republics, a permanent institutional and political order has followed a path of continuity under the constant swings of the present and the mirages of turbulent change. At the same time, we Latin Americans have not known how to be unstable where we should be. For this reason, Latin America's standard of living is one-tenth that of the United States and Canada; one-half of our population is poor, and one-quarter lives in misery (Sol M. Linowitz Forum 1997). A decade after the poorly named "liberal" reforms south of the Rio Grande, dismay is spreading from one end of Latin America to another. The developed countries are stable in essential matters and unstable in the rest--perfectly inverse to our own realities. In the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, railroad stocks, the symbol of heavy industry, were the only stocks that a conservative investor took into account in the so-called blue chips. At the close of the century, with a recorded increase of 26,130 percent in the Dow Jones index, the stars of the American stock market were companies with no profits, examples being such dissimilar endeavors as Amazon and the Internet Capital Group (Norris 2000). Can there be any greater instability? Yet, thanks to fundamental stability, this transition, a revolution that has changed the symbols of the modern economy, has taken place, transferring the locus of universal progress from industrial goods to the world of the mind and the imagination. In Latin America, however, our sense of what must be changeable and what must be constant in a society has determined that the only progress recorded during the past century was that forced by the progress of the developed countries. Whereas some countries of the world rode on the back of the universal technological Pegasus, we clutched its hooves and were dragged along. Ours was a passive progress.

Auth is the word I would use to describe the basic characteristic of our institutional organization and, by extension, of our societies. Caudillismo, the overwhelming influence of the strongman in government that emerged from our battles for independence, is still the mark of our political life, even in democracy. Together with the strong positivist influence inherited from the nineteenth century, caudillismo has placed the will over legislation and legislation over law to the point that we have been governed by a teleocracy (a government of objectives) instead of by a nomocracy (a government of laws)--to apply the formula used by Bertrand de Jouvenel. Heliocentric like the Inca society, which revolved around a Sun god incarnated by the emperor, our societies have circled the orbit of political and military power. For us, order has not been that "balance generated from inside" a society, but rather the "pressure exerted from outside it," according to Ortega y Gasset's conception ([1927] 1974). Therefore, the distinguishing Latin American figures at the end of the twentieth century were authoritarian caudillos--from Fidel Castro to Augusto Pinochet and from Alberto Fujimori to Hugo Chavez--a strange cocktail of populism, nationalism, theatricality, and antiliberalism arising in the homeland of Francisco Miranda and Andres Bello (also the homeland, to be sure, of the military caudillos Simon Bolivar and Antonio Jose de Sucre).

In our countries' collectivism--or disdain for the individual--has been another constant, the offspring of an ancient tradition. The Greeks gave personal, individual characteristics to abstractions of the mind. At some point, human intelligence began to do the opposite: to give an abstract, later collective, meaning to the individual and to the human. Perhaps Roman law, a great achievement in many ways, later contributed through legal abstractions to the birth of collectivist concepts such as race, nation, and people. In any case, the collectivist rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took deeper root in us than did ideas of freedom. Since then, collectivism has been a political seal, a product and extension of our authoritarianism.

Is it strange, then, that in this context during the 1990s the rule of law and the market economy were magically separated? Not at all. The magic consisted of making it appear that they are different. When it was no longer possible to deny the failure of collectivism, we Latin Americans in the 1990s embarked on a supposedly great reform in the name of a market economy, viewing it separately from a government of laws, which is in truth the other name for a free economy. The result has been not just a partial and frustrated reform, but an ideological confusion whose denouncement and rectification are perhaps the greatest of all the tasks engaging Latin American liberals today. Many people had a notion of what a market economy is and how it works, but few understood the transition from a closed to an open society. Consequently, we have had many surprises during this transition. It is one thing to design a free society from scratch, another to journey toward it from a closed society, in the here and now. This journey is what has failed, not the free society (which we still do not have).

Nothing provides greater evidence of our disdain for the rule of law than the continuous changes to our constitutions or, worse, the perpetuation of ourselves in power or the attempt to create the world from nothing with each new government, but without truly altering anything essential, so that our constitutions today are--as they were in the nineteenth century, after independence--a dead letter at best, mere legal cover-ups for the murder of the individual at worst. "I have been told that you are good at drawing up constitutions," Napoleon said to Father Sieyes. "For the new order I need you to write a short, obscure constitution for me" (qtd. in Fernandez 1999). Likewise, our leaders draw up custom-made constitutions. Even worse, they make them not short and obscure but interminable and detailed, like a military plan.

The Weight of Our History

Throughout the 1990s, a more critical view of our political, economic, and cultural tradition advanced, although its practical expression left much to be desired. This is no small matter because the politically authoritarian and economically mercantilist tradition has long standing. Our theocratic pre-Columbian states, despite their differences (the city-states of the Mayan civilization were more scientific, and the Aztec and Inca Empires were better organized socially) were centralist and vertical, collectivist and despotic. Superimposed on this sociopolitical structure were the Spanish colonies, which were (as was the Portuguese colony in Brazil) quite different from the ones established by the Anglo-Saxon settlers in the North American colonies. The peninsular vision that arrived on our coasts was well summarized by Claudio Veliz in defining baroque art, the symbol of Counter-Reformation Spain: "The Baroque is a reminder of imperial greatness, an obstacle to dissolution, a technique for the preservation of unity, an alibi for the central control of diversity, a justification for the pursuit of glory, a noble excuse for the recurrence of defeat.... An assertion of stability, a refusal to give way, a glorification of obstinacy, an affirmation of belief, an indictment of change as an illusion. The Baroque is the mode of the hedgehog" (1994). In the North, in contrast, the "Ruskin gothic" vision prevailed, a world of asymmetry, eccentricity, and diversity, common law instead of civil codes, romanticism rather than canonical classicism (Veliz 1994).

Through a monopoly of commodity exchanges, the Spanish Empire controlled the trafficking of goods, capital, and human beings between the mother country and the colonies through the ports of Porto Bello, Panama, and Veracruz, Mexico (Pendie 1976). The Crown also controlled religion through the Patronato de Indias (Council of Indias), and the Roman Catholic Church introduced the Inquisition (in cases such as the Jesuit settlements in Paraguay, it established quasi-totalitarian systems). Even language was part of the political power, as demonstrated by Antonio de Nebrija, who upon completing the first grammar of the Castilian language, offered it to the Crown, stating "language is the companion to the empire" (Veliz 1994). The result was smuggling, which in the seventeenth century represented two-thirds of commerce, along with the buying and selling of public offices and the disregard for law and authority. "I obey, but I do not comply," said officials of the colony. The Bourbon reforms of the eighteenth century, which promoted local administration, perhaps helped to accelerate the independence movements carried out by the Creoles, who distrusted the Peninsular authorities, but although some mestizos, such as the Mexican priests Morelos and Hildalgo, were among the rebels, independence was not a movement primarily from the bottom up, but rather a rebellion of one privileged caste against another. One report illustrates the enormous difference between what occurred in 1776 in England's North American colonies and what happened in the Spanish colonies of Latin America in 1820: in the revolutionary North, there were three thousand newspapers; in revolutionary Mexico, there were only three (Harrison 1997).

The colonial experience seems especially futile if we consider the fascinating intellectual phenomenon that had previously taken place in imperial Spain: a group of Scholastics writing about economics had...

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