The Return of the Idiot
Throughout the 20th century, Latin America's populist leaders waved Marxist banners, railed against foreign imperialists, and promised to deliver their people from poverty. One after another, their ideologically driven policies proved to be sluggish and shortsighted. Their failures led to a temporary retreat of the strongman. But now, a new generation of self-styled revolutionaries is trying to revive the misguided methods of their predecessors.
Ten years ago, Colombian writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, and I wrote Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, a book criticizing opinion and political leaders who clung to ill-conceived political myths despite evidence to the contrary. The "Idiot" species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs — revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law — derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct.
Because of the inexorable passing of time, today’s young Latin American Idiots prefer Shakira’s pop ballads to Pérez Prado’s mambos and no longer sing leftist anthems like "The Internationale" or "Until Always Comandante." But they are still descendants of rural migrants, middle class, and deeply resentful of the frivolous lives of the wealthy displayed in the glossy magazines they discreetly leaf through on street corners. State-run universities provide them with a class-based view of society that argues that wealth is something that needs to be retaken from those who have stolen it. For these young Idiots, Latin America’s condition is the result of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, followed by U.S. imperialism. These basic beliefs provide a safety valve for their grievances against a society that offers scant opportunity for social mobility. Freud might say they have deficient egos that are unable to mediate between their instincts and their idea of morality. Instead, they suppress the notion that predation and vindictiveness are wrong and rationalize their aggressiveness with elementary notions of Marxism.
Latin American Idiots have traditionally identified themselves with caudillos, those larger-than-life authoritarian figures who have dominated the region’s politics, ranting against foreign influence and republican institutions. Two leaders in particular inspire today’s Idiot: President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Chávez is seen as the perfect successor to Cuba’s Fidel Castro (whom the Idiot also admires): He came to power through the ballot box, which exonerates him from the need to justify armed struggle, and he has abundant oil, which means he can put his money where his mouth is when it comes to championing social causes. The Idiot also credits Chávez with the most progressive policy of all — putting the military, that paradigm of oligarchic rule, to work on social programs.
For his part, Bolivia’s Evo Morales has indigenista appeal. In the eyes of the Idiot, the former coca farmer is the reincarnation of Túpac Katari, an 18th-century Aymara rebel who, before his execution by Spanish colonial authorities, vowed, "I shall return and I shall be millions." They believe Morales when he professes to speak for the indigenous masses, from southern Mexico to the Andes, who seek redress of the exploitation inflicted on them by 300 years of colonial rule and 200 more of oligarchic republican rule.
The Idiot’s worldview, in turn, finds an echo among distinguished intellectuals in Europe and the United States. These pontificators assuage their troubled consciences by espousing exotic causes in developing nations. Their opinions attract fans among First-World youngsters for whom globalization phobia provides the perfect opportunity to find spiritual satisfaction in the populist jeremiad of the Latin American Idiot against the wicked West.
There’s nothing original about First-World intellectuals’ projecting their utopias onto Latin America. Christopher Columbus stumbled on the shores of the Americas at a time when Renaissance utopian ideas were in vogue; from the very beginning, conquistadors described the lands as nothing short of paradisiacal. The myth of the Good Savage — the idea that the natives of the New World embodied a pristine goodness untarnished by the evils of civilization — impregnated the European mind. The tendency to use the Americas as an escape valve for frustration with the insufferable comfort and cornucopia of Western civilization continued for centuries. By the 1960s and 70s, when Latin America was riddled with Marxist terrorist organizations, these violent groups enjoyed massive support in Europe and the United States among people who never would have accepted Castro-style totalitarian rule at home.
The current revival of the Latin American Idiot has precipitated the return of his counterparts: the patronizing American and European Idiots. Once again, important academics and writers are projecting their idealism, guilty consciences, or grievances against their own societies onto the Latin American scene, lending their names to nefarious populist causes. Nobel Prizewinners, including British playwright Harold Pinter, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, and American economist Joseph Stiglitz; American linguists such as Noam Chomsky and sociologists like James Petras; European journalists like Ignacio Ramonet and some foreign correspondents for outlets such as Le Nouvel Observateur in France, Die Zeit in Germany, and the Washington Post in the United States, are once again propagating absurdities that shape the opinions of millions of readers and sanctify the Latin American Idiot. This intellectual lapse would be quite innocuous if it didn’t have consequences. But, to the extent that it legitimizes the type of government that is actually at the heart of Latin America’s political and economic underdevelopment, it constitutes a form of intellectual treason.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR
The most notable example today of the symbiosis between certain Western intellectuals and Latin American caudillos is the love affair between American and European Idiots and Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan leader, despite his nationalist tendencies, has no qualms about citing foreigners in his speeches in order to strengthen his positions. Just witness Chávez’s speech at the United Nations last September in which he praised Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.
Likewise, in presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky has pointed to Venezuela as an example for the developing world, touting social policies that have achieved success in education and medical assistance and rescued the dignity of Venezuelans. He has also expressed admiration for the fact that "Venezuela successfully challenged the United States, and this country doesn’t like challenges, much less so if they are successful."
But in actuality, Venezuela’s social programs have, with help from the Cuban intelligence services, become vehicles for political regimentation and social dependence on the government. Furthermore, their effectiveness is suspect. The Centro de Documentación y Análisis Social de la Federación Venezolana de Maestros, a teachers’ union think tank, reported in 2006 that 80 percent of Venezuela’s households have difficulty covering the cost of food — the same proportion as when Chávez came to power in 1999, and when the price of oil was one third the price it is today. As for the dignity of the people, the real story is that there have been 10,000 homicides per year in Venezuela since Chávez became president, giving the country the highest per-capita murder rate in the world.
Another nation that certain American opinion leaders have a soft spot for is Cuba. In 2003, Fidel Castro’s regime executed three young refugees for hijacking a boat and trying to escape from the island. Castro also sent 75 democratic activists to prison for lending banned books. In response, James Petras, a longtime sociology professor at the State University of New York’s Binghamton University, wrote an article titled "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights." In his essay, which was reprinted by various left-wing publications around the world, he defended Havana by arguing that the victims had been in the service of the United States government.
Noted Castro sympathizer Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper that champions every unsavory cause coming out of the Third World, maintains that globalization has made Latin America poorer in recent years. In fact, poverty has been modestly reduced in the past five years. Globalization has given Latin American governments so much revenue from the sale of commodities and from the taxes paid by foreign investors that they have handed out cash subsidies to the poor — hardly a solution to poverty in the long term.
Two decades out of date, Harold Pinter delivered a flabbergasting account of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in his 2005 Nobel lecture. Perhaps thinking that a vindicatory look at the populists of the past might help the populists of today, he said that the Sandinistas had "set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society," and that there was "no record of torture" or of "systematic or official military brutality" under Daniel Ortega’s government in the 1980s. One wonders, then, why the Sandinistas were thrown out of power by the people of Nicaragua in the 1990 elections. Or why the voters kept them out of power for nearly two decades — until Ortega became a political transvestite, declaring himself a supporter of the market economy. As for the denial of Sandinista atrocities, Pinter would do well to remember the 1981 massacre of Miskito Indians on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Under the guise of a literacy campaign, the Sandinistas, with the help of their Cuban cadres, tried to indoctrinate the Miskitos with Marxist ideology. But the independent-minded Indians refused to accept Sandinista control. Accusing them of supporting opposition groups based in Honduras, Ortega’s men killed as many as 50 Miskitos, imprisoned hundreds, and forcibly relocated many more. The Nobel laureate should also remember that his hero Ortega became a capitalist millionaire thanks to the distribution of government assets and confiscated property that the Sandinista leaders split among themselves after losing the 1990 elections.
The current enthusiasm with Latin American populism extends to correspondents for major news outlets. Take, for instance, some stories filed by the Washington Post‘s Juan Forero. He is more balanced and informed than the luminaries mentioned above, but, from time to time, he betrays an uncanny enthusiasm for populism of the kind that is sweeping the region. In a recent article on Chávez’s foreign largesse, he and coauthor Peter S. Goodman paint a generally positive picture of the way in which Chávez is helping some countries rid themselves of the strictures imposed by U.S.-backed multilateral agencies by providing them with enough cash to pay off their debts. Supporters of this policy were quoted favorably and no mention was made of the fact that Venezuela’s oil money belongs to the Venezuelan people, not to foreign governments or entities allied with Chávez, or that those subsidies have political strings attached. Note Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s attack against the United States and his praise of Chávez during a recent visit to the Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz, in return for Chávez’s commitment to back yet another bond issue on Argentina’s behalf.
THE PROBLEM WITH POPULISM
Foreign observers are missing an essential point: Latin American populism has nothing to do with social justice. It began as a reaction against the oligarchic state of the 19th century in the form of mass movements led by caudillos who blamed rich nations for Latin America’s plight. These movements based their legitimacy on voluntarism, protectionism, and massive wealth redistribution. The result, throughout the 20th century, was bloated government, stifling bureaucracy, the subservience of judicial institutions to political authority, and parasitic economies.
Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and "clientelismo," a form of patronage by which government jobs — as opposed to wealth creation — are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a "captive vote" in the elections. The legacy of these policies is clear: Nearly half the population of Latin America is poor, with more than 1 in 5 living on $2 or less per day. And 1 to 2 million migrants flock to the United States and Europe every year in search of a better life.
Even in Latin America, part of the left is making its transition away from Idiocy — similar to the kind of mental transition that the European left, from Spain to Scandinavia, went through a few decades ago when it grudgingly embraced liberal democracy and a market economy. In Latin America, one can speak of a "vegetarian left" and a "carnivorous left." The vegetarian left is represented by leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. Despite the occasional meaty rhetoric, these leaders have avoided the mistakes of the old left, such as raucous confrontations with the developed world and monetary and fiscal profligacy. They have settled into social-democratic conformity and are proving unwilling to engage in major reform — which is why Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is not expected to top 3.6 percent this year — but they signify a positive development in the struggle for modernizing the left.
By contrast, the "carnivorous" left is represented by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. They cling to a Marxist view of society and a Cold War mentality that separates North from South, and they seek to exploit ethnic tensions, particularly in the Andean region. The oil windfall obtained by Hugo Chávez is funding a great deal of this effort.
The gastronomy of Argentina’s Kirchner is ambiguous; he is situated somewhere between the carnivores and the vegetarians. He has inflated the currency, established price controls, and either nationalized or created government-owned enterprises in major sectors of the economy, but he has avoided revolutionary extremes and paid his country’s debts to the International Monetary Fund, albeit with the help of Venezuelan credit. Kirchner’s ambiguous position has been helpful to Chávez, who has filled the power vacuum in the South American Common Market to project his influence on the region.
Oddly, many European and American "vegetarians" support the "carnivores" in Latin America. For instance, Joseph Stiglitz has defended various nationalization programs in Morales’s Bolivia and Chávez’s Venezuela. In an interview with Caracol Radio in Colombia, Stiglitz said that nationalizations should not cause alarm because "public firms can be very successful, like the Social Security pension system in the United States." Stiglitz has not called for nationalizing major private or publicly traded companies in his own country (the Social Security system was created from scratch), and he seems unaware that, south of the Rio Grande, nationalizations are at the heart of the disastrous populist experiences of the past.
Stiglitz also ignores the fact that in Latin America, there is no real separation between the state’s institutions and the administration in charge, so government companies quickly become conduits for political patronage and corruption. Venezuela’s main telecommunications company has been a success story since it was privatized in the early 1990s; the telecommunications market has experienced an increase of about 25 percent in the past three years alone. By contrast, the government-owned oil giant has seen its output systematically decline. Venezuela today produces about a million fewer barrels of oil than it did in the early years of this decade. In Mexico, where oil is also in government hands, the Cantarell project, representing almost two thirds of national production, will lose half its output in the next couple of years because of undercapitalization.
Does it really matter that the American and European intelligentsia quench their thirst for the exotic by promoting Latin American Idiots? The unequivocal answer is yes. A cultural struggle is under way in Latin America — between those who want to place the region in the global firmament and see it emerge as a major contributor to the Western culture to which its destiny has been attached for five centuries, and those who cannot reconcile themselves to the idea and resist it. Despite some progress in recent years, this tension is holding back Latin America’s development in comparison to other regions of the world — such as East Asia, the Iberian Peninsula, or Central Europe — that not long ago were examples of backwardness. Latin America’s annual GDP growth has averaged 2.8 percent in the past three decades — against Southeast Asia’s 5.5 percent, or the world average of 3.6 percent.
This sluggish performance explains why about 45 percent of the population is still poor and why, after a quarter century of democratic rule, regional surveys betray a profound dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and traditional parties. Until the Latin American Idiot is confined to the archives — something that will be difficult to achieve while so many condescending spirits in the developed world continue to lend him support — that will not change.
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