Review: Redeemers who led Latin America astray
By Martin Hutchinson
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
What has gone wrong with Latin America? In 1900, the region contained six of the world’s 30 richest countries, according to economic historian Angus Maddison. In 2010, Argentina, the richest Latin American country in per capita terms, was 51st on the International Monetary Fund’s list. Enrique Krauze explains in his book “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America” that the disastrous economic ideas of a group of intellectuals and charismatic leaders led the continent astray. That was a century ago, but the lesson remains topical.
Until the Spanish-American war of 1898, most Latin American intellectuals admired the United States, believing it showed the way to a successful democratic future. The continent’s political leaders, for example Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz (president, 1876-80, 1884-1911) and Argentina’s Domingo Sarmiento (president 1868-74) and Julio Roca (president 1880-86 and 1898-1904), were more equivocal about democracy but whole-hearted in their support for foreign investment and American-style free markets.
But the United States’ naked imperialism of 1898 changed the mood. Even Diaz in a 1908 interview for Pearson’s magazine said: “It is useless to deny a distinct feeling of distrust, a fear of territorial absorption, which interferes with a closer union of the American republics.” With suspicion of the United States came antipathy to free markets.
Jose Marti (1853-95) didn’t wait for the war. The first of Krauze’s four “prophets” and the inspiration of Cuba’s revolution against Spain was deeply suspicious of U.S. motives by the time he returned to Cuba and his death in 1895. The second “prophet” was Uruguay’s Jose Enrique Rodo (1871-1917). In his 1900 “Ariel,” Rodo postulated a radical opposition between idealistic Latin American culture and the materialistic world being forged in the Anglo-Saxon United States.
The third, Mexico’s Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), ran for president in 1929 on a radical socialist platform. He proposed a mystical nationalism supposed to liberate Mexico from the capitalist, pro-American “porfirismo” of Diaz. Finally, Krauze’s fourth “prophet,” Peru’s Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930), decided that Marxism wasn’t sufficiently indigenous for Latin Americans; instead they should return to the Inca economics of communal property.
In “The Redeemers,” the prophets are followed by four charismatic political leaders: Argentine populist icon Eva Peron (1919-52), Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara (1928-67), Mexican guerrilla leader “Subcomandante Marcos” (1957- ) and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez (1954-).
Only Marcos can qualify as something like an intellectual, but all of them were strongly influenced by the anti-American, anti-capitalist intellectual climate. Peron and Guevara provided a transmission mechanism to popularize the worldview for future generations. Marcos and Chavez may yet do the same.
Krauze goes a bit off-topic with his literary diversions – essays on the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-98), and on two novelists, the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927- ) and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (1936- ). None of them has added much to a leftist intellectual current that was already in full flow. He would have done better to study the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-73), whose maunderings are now taught in U.S. high schools.
Krauze examines in detail the political and economic ideals of his subjects, as well as their writings. As a Mexican, he has his own presumptions, one of which is that the autocratic and charismatic “caudillo” leadership style contributes heavily to the region’s problem.
Not being Mexican, I would cast as much blame on the succession of uncharismatic, oligarchic Institutional Revolutionary Party political leaders at the country’s helm from 1929 to 2000.
Krauze presents a detailed case that Latin American intellectuals have had a uniquely poisonous influence on their countries’ politics, and through misguided political leaders, on the economy. Cristina Fernandez’s bad economic policies – nationalization of foreign-owned oil company YPF, confiscation of private pension schemes and seizure of central bank reserves – are squarely within the Peronist political tradition.
In pragmatic Anglo-Saxon lands, public intellectuals have less influence than leading businessmen – Warren Buffett, John Harvey-Jones and, in his day, Andrew Mellon. Latin America might have been better off if it had more such business wisdom and fewer heirs to the intellectuals whose baleful influence is well chronicled in Krauze’s book.