domingo, 9 de noviembre de 2014

The (dismal) quality of Latin American political leadership

A Sunday Reflection

I have been asked to write an essay on this topic for a French publication, dead line in January 2015, and have started to put my ideas in order. One of the first things I have tried to clarify in my own mind is if I am using the same criteria for success or failure that most Latin Americans do. Perhaps I am not a typical Latin American but have been greatly influenced by the U.S. philosophy of life, country where I have spent, off and on, a significant portion of my life.
I say this because for many of my countrymen political leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have been very successful while I consider them to be failures. 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 for him, offering him their respect for his role in “upholding the dignity of Latin America” and telling him 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 an inept dictator.  Why would these intelligent men and women of Venezuela idolized leaders who, in my opinion, had been despicable strongmen, highly harmful to their peoples?
In looking for an answer to this difference of perspective I have been doing some reading about Latin Americans, about what makes us the way we are, looking for the sociological (and, even, philosophical) explanations given by authors who have discussed this theme before.  For example, thanks to the blog Caracas Chronicles I have read some pages by a man I did not know anything about, Jose M. Briceño Guerrero, who recently died in Merida, Venezuela.  I have also looked for inspiration from the likes of St. Augustine, Bolivar, Rodó and some U.S. authors like Glen Caudill Dealey and Samuel Huntington.
Some of what I have gathered, so far, suggests that when I define Latin American political leadership as failed I might be using an Anglo-Saxon rule of measurement which is essentially Unitarian, in the sense that there should be no difference between politics and ethics or between  public and private personae, while those Latin Americans who see them as successful might be thinking in binary terms, disaggregating them into public, political leaders and private, moral individuals. Of course, this would only represent a very partial explanation because there seem to be other apparent reasons for the difference in perspectives.
Below I list some of the traits of Latin American political leaders that, in my opinion, lead to their failure, although some or all of them could be considered to be qualities by many Latin Americans. They are listed without order of importance, only as food for further thought:
1.    Latin American political leaders often have a perverted sense of history, one that aspires to immortality through the exercise of power rather than good deeds
2.    Their yearning for power is often more important than quiet, efficient management of their duties
3.    They prefer theatrical approach to politics, including rhetorical grandeur and pomposity, rather than substance
4.    They believe that politics and morals/religion should be kept separate. To Cesar what is Cesar’s, to God what is God’s.
5.    They tend to think of heroes as men in horseback, not in the universities
6.    Poverty is the result of the perversity of others, not a consequence of ignorance and lack of personal empowerment. Therefore, redistribution of existing wealth becomes more important, as a political solution, than creation of new wealth
7.    Leaders from the right and the left share an addiction to Personalism, a caudillo mentality
8.    They exhibit a duality of morals, a separation of the ethical world into the public and private domain. Religion and morals is one thing, politics another. As Machiavelli said: “It is better to act and repent than not to act and repent”.
9.    Latin American leaders share the catholic approach about religious faith being more important than good deeds to go to heaven. Church going cleans political misdeeds. It is possible to separate neatly the City of God and the City of Man. St. Augustine says: ‘It is possible for a citizen of the kingdom of heaven to hold some office upon earth: proconsul, Emperor, directing the earthly republic”
10.                       Latin American leaders find it more attractive to be important than to be useful, they prefer being the center of attention than to act silently. Lack of punctuality becomes an essential characteristic of the important leader because forces everyone to “wait for them”
11.                       Latin leaders believe that a perquisite of power is the free, unrestricted personal use of  the public resources
12.                       Latin American leaders feel that the position is more important than the person. Therefore, the investiture places him, her above the law and never as a simple servant of the people.
13.                       Latin American leaders seem to believe that friendship is more important than justice and that laws apply to the people at large, not to friends
14.                       Latin American Leaders often cannot think of projects and programs that extend beyond their time in power. What has to be done must yield results while they are in power

There are more ingredients that could be considered to explain why the performance of Latin American leaders often fail to improve the conditions of their people while, at the same time, giving them an aura of success among those they have failed to help effectively. The reason is that both the leaders and the led share a similar cultural criteria for success. Even when being humiliated and oppressed many Latin Americans seem incapable of not feeling admiration of, and dependency in, the powerful and the audacious.  

Another line of reflection has come to me from reading Briceño Guerrero’s prologue to his book “The Labyrinth of the three Minotaur”, one of his most important works. Jose M. Briceño Guerrero was a little known Venezuelan philosopher and linguist, recently deceased (October 2014), who merits more exposure. In trying to explain the Latin American soul he says, beautifully translated by Caracas Chronicles blogger Francisco Toro, see, :  

Three great, underlying discourses govern Latin American thinking. This can be seen in the history of ideas, the observation of political events, and the examination of artistic creativity. First there is the European rationalist discourse, imported at the end of the eighteenth century, structured by instrumental reason and its outcomes in science and technology, driven by the possibility of deliberate and planned social change tending to realize universal human rights, expressed in the texts of constitutions as well the platforms of political parties and in the scientific conceptions of humanity and their consequent collective manipulation, and invigorated verbally by the theoretical boom of the various positivisms, technocracies, and of socialism, with its doctrinaire rousing of civil or military or paramilitary movements of revolutionary intent. Its key words in the nineteenth century were modernity and progress. Its key word in our time is development. This discourse acts as a screen onto which the aspirations of large sectors of the population, as well as the collective psyche, are projected – but also as an ideological vehicle for the intervention of the great foreign powers in the region and is, in part, a result of that intervention; only in part, however, because it is also, powerfully, a function of Latin American identification with rationalist Europe. In parallel, there is the Christian-Hispanic Discourse, or Mantuano Discourse, inherited from imperial Spain, in its Latin American version, typical of the criollos (white elite) and the Spanish colonial system. This discourse affirms, in the spiritual dimension, the transcendence of man, his partial belonging to a world of meta-cosmic values, his communion with the divine through the Holy Mother Church, his ambiguous struggle between transient interests and eternal salvation, between his precarious terrestrial citadel and the firm palace of multiple celestial mansions. But, in material matters, it is linked to a social system of inherited nobility, hierarchy and privilege that found its theoretical justification in Latin America as paideia (the dissemination of western culture to the Americas) while, in practice, it left as the only route for socioeconomic improvement the remote and arduous path of race whitening and cultural westernization through miscegenation and education, exasperatingly slow twin paths, strewn with legal obstacles and incremental prejudices. But, while access to equality with the criollo class was in practice closed off to the majority, the discourse entrenched itself over centuries of colonialism and persists with silent strength in the republican period up and into our time, structuring aspirations and ambitions around the personal and familial (or clan-based) striving for privilege, noble idleness through kinship rather than merit, built on relationships of seigniorial loyalty and protection, grace rather than function and territory rather than official service, even on the fringes of power. The mantuano ethos survives in a thousand new forms and extends through the entire population. Finally, there is the savage discourse, executor 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 pardos (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. To this discourse, both the rationalist European and the Hispanic-colonial discourses are foreign and strange, strata of oppression, representatives of an alterity that cannot be assimilated and cannot rid itself of the savage’s apparent submission, occasional rebellion, permanent mischief and dark nostalgia. These three great underlying discourses are present in every Latin American, though with an intensity that varies depending on social class, place, psychic level, age, and the time of day…..”.

This text generates in me the same fascination that does the poetry of T.S. Eliot.  I intuit its great importance without understanding it fully. It forces me to read and re-read it, trying to make it mine.

These are the ingredients which I have come up with, so far. I will look for others to use in my essay, applying them to our Latin American leaders to try to document my opinion that they are a pretty sorry bunch. I would welcome any suggestions. 

2 comentarios:

Anónimo dijo...

Political success is unfortunately measured by one thing in Latin America: degree of hostility toward the USA. The fact that there is no toilet paper and that the government is a bunch of incompetent crooks doesn't seem to matter to the voters as long as the handouts continue and the fiery anti-gringo rhetoric of scapegoating continues.

Jacques dijo...

Dear Gustavo Coronel,
Unfortunately Anti Americanism (anti-US) is a dimension of the leadership in latin America, as pointed out by Anonimo. Carlos Rangel's book "del buen salvage al buen revolucionario" is useful for an analysis of latin American politics. By the way which french review will publish because you know that antiamericanism is also a dimension of the french politics as Jean-François Revel demonstrates in one of his books.
Jacques Carbou