In memory of Pedro Pick
Pedro J. Pick, was one of my dearest friends. I went to Harvard as a fellow, 1981-1983, thanks to his efforts. During this period I maintained a constant dialogue with him about the causes of Latin America’s inability to progress, see: http://lasarmasdecoronel.blogspot.com/2009/03/conversations-with-pedro-j-pick.html .
I will never forget Pedro’s intellectual brilliance and human warmth. He left this earth in October 2004.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once advised President Richard Nixon to assign a low priority to Latin American foreign policy. “Latin America”, he said, “is a region where nothing important ever happens”. And I am sure you have heard the saying “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be”.
Stereotypes about Latin America abound, such as the man with the big “sombrero” taking a siesta. The region is perceived as a corner of the planet where nothing is urgent. Latin America is rarely in the news because few major political conflicts or huge natural catastrophes afflict the region.
And yet, Latin America is far from dormant. Social violence is rampant. In Brazil some 30,000 people between 17 and 29 years of age are violently killed every year. Venezuela has a crime death rate of about 85 people per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the three largest in the world. Central America cities are significantly controlled by criminal gangs, while drug kingpins have infiltrated the highest spheres of the Mexican and Venezuelan government. Great social forces are in conflict in the region, those that strive for social progress and equality and those which would prefer to keep the region as an enclave for the benefit of privileged minorities from the political left or right, while handing out leftovers to resigned, uneducated, majorities. Latin American societies are extreme under achievers, falling way short of their potential.
Most of the region has a common language, a rich cultural heritage and a uniform ethnic blend that should minimize its potential for social conflict. Yet, development has been painful and slow. The same cultural ingredients that could have served as motors for progress seem to have worked as obstacles.
A little known Venezuelan philosopher, recently deceased, José M. Briceño Guerrero, wrote extensively on the subject of Latin American culture, trying to explain the reasons for the slow development of the region. “grow up seeing statues of men on horseback. They learn to admire an armed man, a military man”. He suggested that this could explain our deficit of civic values.
He wrote (1):“Three great, underlying discourses govern Latin American thinking… one is the European rationalist discourse.. Its key words in the nineteenth century were modernity and progress. Its key word in our time is development… a discourse which has served as an ideological vehicle for the intervention of the great foreign powers in the region… In parallel, there is the Christian-Hispanic Discourse, inherited from imperial Spain… linked to a social system of inherited nobility, hierarchy and privilege… structuring aspirations and ambitions around the personal and familial (or clan-based) striving for privilege, noble idleness through kinship rather than merit… Finally, there is the savage discourse, a result of the wound produced in the pre-European cultures of the Americas by their defeat at the hands of the conquerors, and in African cultures by their passive transfer to the Americas under slavery, executor also of the resentments produced in the mixed race people by the indefinite postponement of their aspirations. It is a vehicle for the nostalgia for non-European, non-Western ways of life, a refuge for cultural horizons apparently closed off by the imposition of Europe on Latin America”.
These three discourses, said Briceño Guerrero, are locked in fierce struggle for the Latin American soul, often generating political leaders alternatively possessed by dreams of social redemption for their peoples and obsessed by greed for unchecked power. In 1999 Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about meeting Venezuelan deceased leader Hugo Chavez just before he became president. He said: “I left the meeting with the feeling that I had traveled and talked extensively with two opposite human beings: one who had the opportunity to save his country, and the other, an illusionist who could go into history as one more despot”. Chávez, a despot, would become a classical representative of Briceño Guerrero’s savage discourse.
Briceño Guerrero’s thesis is only one of the many attempts to explain why Latin Americans behave the way they do. While many Latin Americans pay lip service to democracy, they admire and pay homage to authoritarian political leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. When Fidel Castro visited Venezuela, in February 1989, invited by Carlos Andres Perez for his second presidential inauguration, more than 900 Venezuelan intellectuals published a welcome letter, offering him their respect for his role in “upholding the dignity of Latin America”, adding that he remained “a hope for all of us to build an independent and just Latin America”. Later on, many of those who signed that letter also endorsed Hugo Chavez’s arrival to the presidency and accompanied him, at least for a while, until he proved to be too inept a dictator. More recently, Pope Francis I, during his visit to Cuba, had special words of respect for Fidel Castro and visited with him. Why would a Pope or those intelligent men and women of Venezuela coexist peacefully or, even, admire leaders who have largely been undemocratic demagogues highly harmful to their peoples? In looking for an answer to this paradox many analysts see Latin American political leadership as performing significantly below expectations due to attitudes such as the following:
1. Latin American political leaders often have a perverted sense of their mission, one that aspires to “immortality” through power rather than good deeds.
This yearning for power is often more important than quiet, efficient management of their duties. Their initial social plans for the redemption of their peoples are often abandoned for the sake of perpetuating themselves in power. This has been the case with contemporary leaders such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega and Evo Morales. Older authoritarian leaders, such as Anastasio Somoza, in Nicaragua, or Rafael Trujillo in Dominican Republic, did not even bother to formulate social plans but went straight into repression.
2. They prefer a theatrical approach to politics, featuring rhetorical grandeur and pomposity, rather than substance.
José M. Velasco Ibarra, who was president of Ecuador five times once said: “Give me a balcony and I will return to the presidency”. Hugo Chávez spoke for some 1500 hours during his 13 years in power, including a speech at the National Assembly in January 2012 that lasted almost 10 hours. Fidel Castro gave 24,000 speeches during his tenure, up to 1986, including one at the U.N. which lasted 4 hours and 29 minutes. He started this speech saying: “Do not worry. I will try to be as brief as possible”. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa gave 50 speeches in 2011, including six speeches the same day in March 2012 and Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez inaugurated the Congressional sessions of 2012 with a 3 hour and 20 minutes speech.
3. They believe that ethics in politics and in private life are separated silos and have different rules.
Latin American politicians have traditionally considered public life essentially regulated by personal liaisons, not by the impartial rules of the law. In their homes they often assume a benevolent patriarchal role, as loving husbands and parents. Trujillo was married three times and loved family life, naming his five year old son Ramfis a colonel of the Dominican army, with full pay and other benefits. Haiti’s dictator Duvalier was a devout catholic until he was excommunicated for expelling some bishops from the country. Both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez acted as devout Catholics during their political life. Latin American political leaders seem to feel no conflict in trying to dwell, simultaneously, in the City of God and the city of Man, in each case playing under different ethical rules.
4. Most heroes are on horseback
Most authoritarian political leaders in Latin America have come from the armed forces: Trujillo, Batista, Gómez, Perón, Chávez, Rojas Pinilla, Velasco Alvarado, Videla, Castelo Blanco, Da Costa e Silva, Galtieri and Pinochet among others. Even some civilians have adopted at times a military attitude and military garments, like Fidel Castro in Cuba and, in almost comical style, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. For every civilian hero like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Andrés Bello or Romulo Gallegos we have had dozens of military men involved in politics, moved by greed for power. In a region where the father figure is largely absent from the home a paternal, authoritarian figure in military uniform frequently plays that role in the minds and hearts of millions. A civic education has never been an important requirement to reach political power in Latin America. Venezuelan dictators Cipriano Castro and Juan V. Gómez were rustic mountain men. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s replacement is a functional illiterate. Fulgencio Batista, Rafael Trujillo or Anastasio Somoza had very little formal education. Others with more education, such as Fidel Castro, soon forget what they learned about civic life.
5. They see widespread poverty as the result of the perversity of the rich, not as a consequence of poor education. Therefore, their preferred solution is to redistribute the existing wealth dismissing the generation of new wealth
The region is made up of millions of people very much aware of their rights but relatively few citizens conscious of their duties. This has allowed authoritarian leaders to consolidate political power through promises and handouts. In Latin America demagoguery has largely replaced effective social and economic policies and has levelled societies downward by transferring wealth from the middle class to the poor.
6. Leaders from the right and the left share a caudillo mentality
Ideology has often been replaced by simple, brutal authoritarianism. Dictators from the right such as Trujillo and Somoza never had other ideology than self-aggrandizement. Leftist autocratic presidents such as Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, have had no deep seated ideological basis for their political actions. They have basically depended on populist strategies to extend their terms in power. Even Peron in Argentina, Chavez in Venezuela or Castro in Cuba have had no solid ideological substratum to what became very personal dictatorships. Their rhetoric blended vague ideas about socialism, populism, nationalism and resentment against the U.S. to make up what became to be known as “Castrismo”, “Peronismo” or “Chavismo”.
7. Latin American leaders find it more desirable to be important than to be useful servants to their people
They prefer being the center of attention than to act silently. This is why they are always late to meetings. To them lack of punctuality is an essential characteristic of the important leader. They make citizens wait, which – in their minds – is an exercise of power. Policy making is just a tool to consolidate political power, not for proper governance. Their speeches are events, not vehicles to inform the people about important national issues: Peron in the balcony of the “Casa Rosada” , Chavez in the balcony of Miraflores (El Balcón del Pueblo) , Velasco Ibarra in any Quito balcony or Fidel Castro in the Plaza de la Revolución were performers to be seen and admired, not policy makers offering the solution to national problems.
8. Latin leaders believe that a perquisite of power is the free, unrestricted personal use of public resources
Many of them have had no particular greed for money but for power. Yet, almost all of them have never cared to make a distinction between what is theirs and what is the Nation’s. The old style despots, such as Somoza and Trujillo were hoarders of wealth while some of the new ones, such as the Ortega brothers in Nicaragua, have also been greedy for money. Others, like the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez, have chosen to use national assets like if they were their own. They felt that houses, airplanes, yachts and public money were theirs to us freely or to give away to friends and allies. The resources of the nation were at their disposal without restrictions. This is probably the worst type of corruption.
9. Latin American leaders feel that the position makes the person. Therefore, the investiture places them above the law. They do not consider themselves bound by the rules that apply to common citizens.
In a strange letter to the Supreme Court of Justice written shortly after his inauguration, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez wrote as follows (my translation): “In the midst of a dangerous scenario of general causes which are dominating the planet (Montesquieu, Darwin) I must confirm before this most honorable Court of Justice the principle of presidential exclusivity in the handling of state affairs” (3).
Of course, this was madness, but the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice essentially kept as mum as the Romans did when Caligula wanted his horse (Incitatus) to be a consul.
10.Latin American leaders tend to believe that friendship is more important than justice and that laws do not apply to friends and colleagues
The idea that friends and family should not be subject to the impartial dictates of the law is widespread in Latin America, especially among politicians. Friendship, in political terms, has a meaning that differs from the usual one, which is based on affection. Political friendship depends on exchange of favors, on a system of patronage where the patron dispenses benefits to clients in exchange for their political loyalty.
11.Latin American Leaders rarely undertake projects and programs that would extend beyond their time in power. What has to be done must yield results while they are in power, so they can reap political benefits
This is one of the most formidable obstacles to real progress in Latin America, this reluctance of political leaders to engage in long term policies or to continue policies and programs started by predecessors of different political parties or ideologies. Each president tends to start all over again, trying to leave his/her mark. Few Latin American political leaders have realized that progress is a continuum and that most fundamental social changes require generations, not a simple political cycle.
12. Latin American leaders consider popularity as the supreme mark of success
Inordinate amounts of time, money and presidential efforts are dedicated to the winning of approval and popularity from the people, rather than to the task of managing the country. This means that most decisions are made because they will be popular, not because they are the ones most needed. Statesmanship is the exception in Latin America, populism the rule. Honest and truly visionary leaders such as Betancourt in Venezuela, Cardoso in Brazil or Alfonsín in Argentina are rare. All rankings of Latin American presidents I found in Internet are based on popularity, not on their quality of governance.
The result is mediocrity
The attitudes described above lead Latin American political leaders to over-blown ideas of self-importance to alliances with unsavory characters and to performances which are far below what is needed for social progress and for the consolidation of liberty and democracy in the countries of the region. For example:
· Hugo Chavez gave replicas of the spade of Bolivar to the most notorious despots of the planet, such as Moammar Gadhafi, Raul Castro and Robert Mugabe. In the Island of Margarita he organized a 2009 meeting of allies which included Gadhafi, Robert Mugabe, Teodoro Obiang, Hasan Al Bashir, Ali Saleh, Joseph Kabila and Adelasis Bouteflika, among other African despots. The Chavez/Maduro regime in Venezuela has aligned itself with the most notorious dictatorships of the planet: Iran, Syria, Belarus, North Korea, Cuba, as well as terrorist groups such as FARC, ETA and Hezbollah.
· During Hugo Chavez’s presidency Venezuela gave an estimated $50 billion to the Cuban regime as a show of political solidarity. This money was urgently needed by Venezuela, which currently has a national debt of some $200 billion. In total, some $65-70 billion of Venezuelan money have been given to ideologically friendly countries during the last 16 years of the Chavez-Maduro presidencies, in exchange for political solidarity in international organizations.
· In an effort to isolate Latin America politically from the U.S. and Canada, Latin American presidents have created two more OAS-type organizations: CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and UNASUR, South American Community of Nations. These two organizations respond to the anti- American obsession of Latin American leaders and are largely ineffectual, bureaucratic and expensive
· The economy in the region is largely dominated by socialist, ultra-nationalistic and anti-U.S. tendencies, which distort their effectiveness. Economic policies in Latin America generally follow models such as ALBA’s, a group dominated by political ideology, exchange and/or price controls and very low institutional quality, mainly made up by Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia or by MERCOSUR, a group in which a market economy is modified negatively by protectionism and distrust among members, essentially integrated by Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. On the positive side important Latin American countries such as Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru are following an open, modern and institutionally strong economic model and have formed a prosperous Pacific economic alliance.
· Political corruption is rampant in most countries of the region, notably in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil, tolerated and, even, promoted by political leaders. In Venezuela corruption has reached record levels during the last 16 years, due to the large petroleum income the country has received (4). In Brazil, Petrobras scandals involving oil managers, politicians and private businessmen might end in the impeachment of President Roussef and prison for former President Lula (5). In Argentina, the president, vice-president and several ministers have been accused of corruption and this is causing a political backlash that threatens to expel Peronismo from power (6).
A prime example of corruption among Latin American political leadership: the case of Venezuela
Perhaps the main illustration of mediocrity and lack of ethical principles among Latin American political leaders is their complacent attitude towards the disastrous and undemocratic government of Venezuela. With almost no exception these leaders have failed to condemn or, even, criticize mildly the abuses of power, corruption and repression that have prevailed in Venezuela during the last 16 years. The underlying reason for this attitude seems to be their feeling of false “solidarity”, their distorted sense of duty towards “family”, no matter how they behave. Latin American political leaders believe the Venezuelan regime is one of “their own” and should be supported. This solidarity has been expressed by presidents of almost all Latin American nations and by the former Secretary General of the OAS, the Secretary General of UNASUR, by ALBA, ECLA and MERCOSUR, in an almost unanimous show of hemispheric complicity. This complicity is driven by two strong factors: one is the distrust and resentment that most of the Latin American leadership shows for the U.S. As a result of this collective attitude any regime that adopts a defiant attitude against the U.S. will be considered as a true Latin American representative, even if it is as despotic as the Venezuelan Chavez/Maduro or the Cuban Castro regimes. The other factor is even more clearly unethical: great amounts of petroleum money have been distributed by the Venezuelan regime among the Latin American countries in order to gain their political support.
Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy has said that the “silence of the political leaders of the world about Venezuela has been bought with oil money” (7). This strategy has worked well for a long time: Jose Mujica, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, Lula da Silva, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Daniel Ortega and the Castro brothers, among many other Latin American leaders, have been beneficiaries of Venezuelan prodigality. It is only now that much of this support is weakening, due to the Venezuelan financial crisis. Recently, even Jose Mujica started calling for the release of Venezuela’s political prisoners and no longer sounds positively about the Venezuela regime. Lula da Silva, fighting for his political future, no longer calls Hugo Chavez “the best president Venezuela ever had”. Rafael Correa has been avoiding contacts with the Venezuelan regime for some time now and Raul Castro and Evo Morales have started to look for better relations with the U.S. Some of the Latin American political leaders still eulogizing the Venezuelan regime are less prominent, such as Ernesto Samper, former president of Colombia, who recently said that “with Maduro Venezuela was in the best possible hands” or Jose M. Zelaya, former president of Honduras, who is actually in the Venezuelan government payroll.
As long as the Latin American political leadership fails to behave as statesmen but as mercenaries driven by greed for power and by resentment against the big neighbor of the north, the region will keep muddling through. For attitudes to change, the people of the region will have to be transformed into citizens through long term programs of civic education that have, so far, found no champions. These programs are less difficult to accomplish than the U.S. program to put a man on the Moon and bring him back alive.
They did it. Why can’t we?
2. For an excellent discussion and list of references on this topic, see: “The Latin Americans”, by Glen Caudill Dealy, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado
3. Original in Spanish in http://www.ilustracionliberal.com/4/carta-de-hugo-chavez-a-la-corte-suprema-de-justicia-carlos-sabino.html. In this letter Chávez claimed total authority to rule the country, almost as a monarch would.
6. see: http://www.wsj.com/articles/argentine-probe-sparks-dispute-between-government-judiciary-1417130837