- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

When Americans think of foreign policy, its usually China, Europe and NATO or the Middle East that comes to mind. But if we recall that it was the Cuban emigre population in Florida that was critical in bringing George W. Bush to the White House, or that it is the Hispanic population in California that has delivered that state to the Democrats we might feel our neighbors to the South deserve a bit more attention.
Howard J. Wiarda, a scholar concerned with the cultural and political history of that part of the world, gives to us who may not be too familiar with the area some helpful insight and background. In his aptly named "The Soul of Latin America," the author shows how profound the differences are between the lands north and south of the Rio Grande, and that although our goals may be the same, the ways of reaching them differ.
In Latin America, Mr. Wiarda tells us, the Spanish sought to re-create the feudal society, political authoritarianism and religious orthodoxy they had used with such success to drive the Moors out of Iberia. Arriving in the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries fresh from their Moorish triumphs, their medieval society continued to function effectively. Theirs was a rigid two-class society (bottom and top, but no middle), with a mercantilist and feudal landholding system, and a religious pattern of orthodoxy that reinforced the political absolutism of their government.
In contrast, the North American colonies were for the most part settled by persons fleeing the feudal restraints of the older world so vividly personified by the conquistadors. The United States, settled and colonized in the 17th and 18th centuries, belonged from its beginning to the modern world. It was nascently capitalistic, middle-class (if one can exclude the slavery establishment), supportive of representative government and religiously pluralistic. It had no feudal past to overcome on the road to modernity. Two societies in one hemisphere, starting from different sources and remaining different.
Mr. Wiarda describes in detail the various political doctrines, including Marxism, which influenced Latin American thought. They all originated in Europe and two in particular are worth singling out because of their wide influence. Positivism, as espoused by Auguste Comte, arrived in the 19th century with a motto of "Liberty, Progress and Order," although the term "Liberty" was soon dropped. Its hierarchical structure in which race was a factor made it fit easily into the traditional way of thinking.
Corporatism was a semi-fascist belief in which individuals received their identity from the organizations they were a part of, be they military, church, university or labor. Quite contrary to American thinking the individual alone had no rights but played a part in governance through his corporate identity.
These two ideologies had no impact in the United States, since they went so clearly against the American grain, but they helped nurture the absolutist feelings prevalent in Latin America. Nevertheless, there has always existed in Latin America a yearning for the kind of liberal democracy practiced here. George Washington was venerated as a hero during the first half of the 19th century, and the United States was considered an ally against despotism until the advent of gunboat diplomacy.
The author feels that as the pendulum has swung back and forth, democracy has inched forward. He writes that in the year 2000, of the 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere, only Cuba remained "outside the democratic tent." Such a statement gives democracy a rather broad definition, but at the least it shows the trend. Certainly the world triumph of free-market capitalism and the break up of the statist economies is a force for democratization, as is the insistence of such donors of foreign aid as the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on democratic values.
Although Mr. Wiarda describes the heart and soul of Latin America exceedingly well and is quite exhaustive in his approach, in viewing the future of the area he fails to discuss the influence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexico, which many economists see as profound. When NAFTA expands, and expand it will, it could well sweep away many of the oligarchic holdovers that still exist in the countries it may embrace.
In conclusion, the author makes the valid point that for democracy to work it must conform to the social and moral standards of the country it operates in. These may not coincide exactly with those of the United States, but as long as the democratic goal is reached, and it is being reached, differences hardly matter.

Sol Schindler is a retired foreign service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.


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