Religion, Security and the Future of Latin America
National Defense University Washington, D.C.
The Pew Forum co-sponsored a symposium with the National Defense University’s School for National Security Executive Education on “Religion, Conflict and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America.” In a presentation entitled “Religion, Security and the Future of Latin America,” keynote speaker Howard Wiarda of the University of Georgia, Athens, examined how religion broadly affects security issues in Latin America, the rise of evangelical Protestant movements and recent security concerns over Islam’s impact on Latin America. He also discussed the recent elections in Bolivia and Peru and their implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Other symposium speakers focused on “Islam and the Global War on Terrorism in Latin America” and “Christianity and Conflict in Latin America.”
Howard Wiarda, Dean Rusk Professor and Department Head, Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens
Johnnie Carson, Senior Vice-President, National Defense University
JOHNNIE CARSON: Welcome back to the second half of this symposium on religion, conflict and the global war on terrorism. Before I introduce our keynote speaker, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life for sponsoring and teaming up with National Defense University’s School for National Security Executive Education [SNSEE] to host this important and extremely relevant symposium.
In that regard, I would like to thank Mrs. Erin O’Connell, who is representing Pew here at this symposium, for her support and assistance. I also want to thank my colleagues at SNSEE, Dr. Joe DeSutter, Dr. Skeets Meyer and the SNSEE staff for the excellent work that they do for the university.
This forum brings together several issues of importance and ongoing concern for the United States: the role of religion in the lives of people, sectarian conflict, global terrorism and how these may impact on Latin America. Although modern communications and rapid transportation have made the entire world smaller and flatter, for the United States, Latin America remains our closest and most important geographical partner. And for all of us in the United States, the threat of transnational terrorism remains one of our most important national security concerns.
I applaud the effort of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and SNSEE for organizing this conference to analyze and to explore in depth the issues that are before us this afternoon. It is only through close examination and careful analysis that we can get the correct facts, discredit the myths and inaccuracies, understand the real problems and, therefore, develop sound, thoughtful and appropriate policies and policy responses.
We are extremely fortunate to have as our keynote speaker a gentleman of uncommon experience and wisdom on the issues that are being discussed today. Professor Howard Wiarda is one of our nation’s most respected, prolific and influential scholars on Latin America and the Iberian world. In an academic career that has spanned over three decades, he has taught at some of America’s finest universities and written some of the best books in print on Latin America’s history, politics and culture.
Before assuming his current position as the Dean Rusk professor of international relations and head of the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, Professor Wiarda taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has also taught here at the National Defense University at the National War College, and he has served as a visiting scholar and professor at Harvard University.
Many gifted academics avoid the world of policy advocacy and of policymaking. Professor Wiarda has combined an outstanding academic career with a strong emphasis on promoting sound, thoughtful and well-reasoned policies toward almost every aspect of Washington’s interaction with South and Central America. In advancing his views in Washington, he has been a consultant to both the Department of State and the Department of Defense, and he has had an opportunity to be associated with some of this country’s finest think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Wilson Center for International Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution and also the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Professor Wiarda has written or edited over 60 books, anthologies or monographs on Latin America, some of which have become standards and minor classics in their field. Latin American Politics and Development, one of his early books, has been reprinted nearly half-a-dozen times. And The Soul of Latin America, which was published by the Yale University Press in 2003, was regarded as one of the half-dozen best books on Latin America written that year.
I can think of no better person to speak about Latin America, religion, conflict and the global war on terrorism, and to help us separate the fact from the fiction than the person we have speaking tonight. It is my distinct pleasure to invite Professor Wiarda to the podium. Thank you. (Applause.)
HOWARD WIARDA: Thank you very much. No one can possibly live up to that introduction.
I am an old Washington hand, and I also understand that at this time of the day, first of all, you are eager to get home, much more eager to do that than to listen to another droning speaker at a late evening hour. Second, as an old Washington hand, I’m also aware of the fact that you would much rather be out in the corridor drinking and eating the good food provided by the National War College than listening to still one more speaker at the end of the day. So I will try to keep my remarks quite brief. I want to be a little provocative and talk about maybe half-a-dozen or seven main themes that perhaps help integrate some of this discussion and bring this together in a policy kind of way. Maybe since I’m outside of Washington, I can be a little bit cynical about the process as well, since my livelihood no longer depends on any Washington connections.
Let me start off with point number one, which is that there is, in my lifetime as a scholar, from the ’50s and the ’60s on, a great deal of literature that would suggest that as societies modernize and develop, they also become more secular, that religion ceases to be important as people become preoccupied with economic advancement, personal advancement, or professional careers, that religion is an aspect of an older traditional society, as it’s called in much of the literature, and that at a certain point on the path toward modernization, religious beliefs tend to become much less important.
I suppose evidence for that is mostly found in Western Europe, one of the most advanced and developed areas of the world, where attendance and adherence to religious beliefs is down to about 4 percent of the population. So in the European context, there does seem to be a relationship between the rise of a modern, urban, developed, highly literate and sophisticated society, and the decline of religion, particularly after World War II. During World War II, many people in France, the Netherlands and Great Britain still went to church, mainly because of German attacks and there were good reasons to go to church in those days. But after the war, religion significantly declined.
And I, along with Peter Berger and others, take issue with the literature that suggests that there is a relationship between modernization, through which many of your societies are going, and secularization, or the decline of religion. I don’t believe, contrary to much of the literature, that secularism, or the decline of religion, is necessarily correlated with modernization. In fact, what we are seeing, and frankly the primary purpose of this seminar, is that religious sentiment is on the rise in various areas of the world. There are growing movements among Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Confucian groups for the rediscovery or the re-orthodoxization of religion in various parts of the world.
There is, among large groups of people, a search for values in this modern world. Modernity does not necessarily lead to the decline of religion, either in Latin America, as we have seen here today, or in Muslim societies, as we are now becoming even more aware. On the contrary, I would argue, conservative, orthodox and traditionalist movements are on the rise all over the world.
Just one story might serve to illustrate this. I was recently in Caracas, Venezuela, in one of the big hotels and noticed one evening that there was a sign out in the corridor for an Indian speaker whom we would, in an earlier, irreverent era, refer to as a swami, who was on a global lecture tour, undoubtedly raising money, but also preaching his gospel.
And, just out of curiosity and because I’m a social scientist, and that is what we social scientists do for a living, I went to this meeting. There were approximately 15,000 Venezuelans in what has historically been a Catholic society, one in which, as our earlier speakers this afternoon indicated, there is a rising evangelical and Protestant movement — 15,000 Venezuelans, largely middle-class, gathered to listen to this Indian swami.
It occurred to me that this was part of what is a global trend in this modern world; there is a search for values, for beliefs, for something to hang onto. And it may be Catholicism, it may be Islam, it may be these rising Protestant movements that we have talked about. It may be a new militant Hindu movement, and we have all seen that a more militant Hindu movement as a political party and political organization wrested power from the long-ruling party in India over a period of time.
So, I want to make the point, first of all, that in this modern world, secularism is not necessarily on the rise, but in fact, religious sentiment may well be on the rise. Obviously, there are still islands of secularism; Europe is one of them, and probably the international academic community is another of them. But, I think, globally what we’re witnessing is a rise in the search for values, some of which can take quite fundamentalist and even disagreeable kinds of positions, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Second, I want to emphasize that there are considerable differences among these movements and that they should not all, by any means, be lumped together. Catholic reassertive fundamentalism is very different from the Protestant sort that we have seen emerging in Latin America. There is a vast difference between the Islamic movements that have taken on political colorations and the Hindu movements, which are often more spiritualist and less political, although they may take political directions as well. We need to distinguish, obviously, between Sunni and Shi’a and other forms of Islamic and other movements. There are, as I emphasized in the question that I posed this afternoon, enormous national differences as well. That is, Indonesian Islam is very different from, let us say, Iraqi or Iranian Islam, and all of those are very different from Turkish — much more secular, more integrated into Europe — forms of Islam. So we need to be very careful about characterizing religious movements and belief systems through monolithic or much too simple kinds of descriptions and phrases. There are enormous differences among the world’s populations in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia, even internally within Islam, in terms of their belief systems, the degrees to which those belief systems have been politicized, the type of politics that Islamic movements and others may follow, and so on.
I suggested earlier in my comments also that it makes an enormous difference in terms of the national origins of some of these movements — and our colleague this afternoon from Brazil was quite articulate, I thought, in presenting the argument that early in the history — I’m talking about Professor Vitoria Peres’ presentation this afternoon — was really quite insightful in pointing out the differences between the early movements of Middle Eastern peoples around the late-19th, early-20th centuries into Latin America versus some of the newer movements, both immigration patterns and conversion patterns, and it is important to keep these significant differences in mind. Too often in the United States and elsewhere, we lump all of these elements together without making the kind of very careful distinctions that need to be made among different kinds of groups and movements.
The third point I want to suggest is that some groups and classes are more affected by these kinds of fundamentalist movements than others. And some of our earlier speakers also alluded to that, particularly in the panel this afternoon on Latin America. For example, my own research has indicated — and it’s striking that some of that research was done 30 years ago and still may be useful — that the appeal of more fundamentalist Protestant movements in Latin America, for example, some of the evangelical Protestant movements –tend to be among, first of all, the less-well educated elements of the population, often among recent migrants to the cities, as distinct from rural peasant elements — in other words, these are people in transition, in movement, leaving behind an earlier agrarian society and moving into a more urban or industrial society. Racially, they tend to be mulatto and mestizo and from darker racial elements, at least in the Latin American context, as distinct from some other areas that are also represented here. And I would suggest that they tend to come from lower but aspiring and rising classes. In other words, they’re migrants who moved out of the countryside into the cities, for the possibilities of better jobs and opportunities, maybe for their children. They tend to be people who may still be of lower-class ranks but who aspire to middle-class ranks.
The values associated with the movements that they’re identified with — working hard, saving their money, not getting drunk when they get their paychecks on Friday afternoon, not coming home and beating up their wives or children — all are associated with rising Protestant kinds of values. Therein lies an explanation, incidentally, as to why wives tend to convert faster than husbands, which is that if you hold out the promise that by converting to Protestantism, your husband will actually bring home the check rather than spending it on booze and women on Friday evening before he gets home, that when he does get home, he won’t beat up his wife and children, there is a certain positive incentive for wives and children to convert and that is, in fact, the pattern; then often they bring along their husbands a little later on.
My own sense is, and it would be interesting to check this among some of the newer sociological studies, that those who convert from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America tend to be those who are either threatened by change, for example, — Catholic elements who may feel threatened by rising new social and political movements — or those who want change, but are themselves in transition. The key is that these are transitional people who tend to be aspiring, and who identify often with middle-class virtues — working hard, saving your money, getting ahead, allowing an education for your children that is better than the one you had. And it’s very interesting that those values are then carried over among Hispanic groups in the United States as well. We find among the large, rapidly increasing Hispanic communities in the United States a considerable attraction to Protestant values because those values are assumed to be the values of the broader North American society as distinct from Latin American society and, more than that, the way to get ahead. By converting to Protestantism there is a certain assumption that you are automatically — by the very values that you take on in those regards — a middle-class kind of person. We ought to note here, that we must also distinguish among clans, tribes and ethnicity, some members of whom may convert to one or another form of religious beliefs because their clan, community, tribe or family has converted, and therefore it becomes the thing to do.
The second thing to emphasize internally, in terms of this point, is that it may apply to upper-class elements as well. It’s not just limited to aspiring middle-class, upwardly mobile, urbanizing folks, as I’ve suggested. But in such movements as the Opus Dei in Spain and Latin America and, by this time, other Catholic countries or maybe in Scientology, for example, we may be seeing the rise of religious movements that appeal to upper-middle and even wealthy upper-class elements, as distinct from some of the other movements that we’ve talked about. It is often the case that persons who convert to the new Protestant or evangelical beliefs are attempting to cling to religious values, which they see threatened, or are seeking new ones, as in the case of those Venezuelans who went to hear the swami. They are looking for a new set of values to replace those in the historic Catholic Church of Latin America, which they see as not useful, not helpful and not relevant, in many respects, to their lives. In general, I think we can see that elites globally have tended to become, but not universally, less religious, but that religious movements of the sort that we’ve been talking about tend to come from lower and lower-middle class ranks, and are associated with many of the political populist movements that have emerged in the Latin American region and others in recent decades.
In Latin America, I wish to suggest as my fourth major point, the rise of evangelical Protestantism is really one of the major phenomena of the last 30 or 40 years. It has been largely — except by the handful of persons in this room — overlooked by social scientists. It is not limited to Latin America by any means, but encompasses much of Sub-Saharan Africa as well. It also includes, some of you may know, South Korea, a very interesting case, where roughly 35 to 40 percent of the population is now evangelical Protestant. You see very interesting parallels with Latin America, because once again it’s aspiring, rising, urban, lower-middle class elements who see Protestantism, particularly in its evangelical form, as an entryway into the middle class. And I think all of us are aware that South Korea is one of the great economic success stories of the modern world of the last 30 years. South Korea has taken its place, along with Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, as one of the real miracle economies of the last 30 or 40 years, and the transition to newer forms of Protestant evangelical religion is very closely associated with that.
I think I’d like to suggest, therefore — again, it depends on the country — that in many of the Latin American countries we’re looking at, 10, 20 or perhaps even 30 percent of the population have accepted or been converted to evangelical Protestantism, which is a remarkable social transformation in a relatively short period of time. I think I want to go further than that, although it’s open to some argument, and suggest that I agree with our old friend Max Weber. Some of you will remember he used to suggest that the Protestant ethic — not just the Protestant religion, but the Protestant ethic — of hard work, saving your money, don’t beat up your wife and children, don’t get drunk, bring home your paycheck and send your children to college — is also very much alive and well. It may not be alive and well in the United States of America anymore, but it’s certainly alive and well in many of the Protestant evangelical communities of Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere, including Hispanics in the United States. In other words, it’s associated with an upwardly striving or getting-ahead ethic — work hard, save your money, frugality, family, education, become middle class. It’s particularly the case in Latin America that the evangelical clergy has also become native-born rather than foreign-born, and therefore much more associated with national social and political movements than was the case of earlier religious movements. And as we’ve indicated, women often convert first. My own sense is, as a political scientist, that this kind of Max Weberian Protestant ethic has value from a purey secular, developmental point of view and is very useful to societies at early stages of modernization. I would remain to be convinced, however, that it’s of the same value at later stages of modernization. But that’s quite arguable.
The next point is what the Catholic Church has done in response to these movements. Again, I think politically in all of these regards, and so I tend to look at the Church mainly as a political institution, not necessarily as a body of religious beliefs. As a political institution, what the Church has done is frantically try to recover its lost ground. It often feels threatened by rising Protestant movements. It feels that its position in society, in governance and among its flock of adherents and believers is being lost. I would argue that liberation theology — this more radical, quasi-Marxian position that some elements within the Church adopted a couple decades ago — was in fact a partial response to the challenge of the Protestant evangelical movement, an effort on the part of the Catholic Church to get on the side of change instead of standing against it, as it had done often historically, and to lead change into the modern era rather than being overwhelmed by change in the form of Protestant groups simply outstripping the Catholic Church. I was struck also by the recent comments of Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles in speaking up for illegal Hispanic immigrants, arguing that the church would be enforcing a higher law — that is, a law presumably higher than mere U.S. civil law — in protecting illegal immigrants. I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon occurring in the United States that many churches, both Protestant and Catholic — many of which were dying, incidentally, over the last 20 or 30 years in this more secular kind of society — have been revived purely on the basis of Hispanic congregants who have joined their churches.
In my own area of Dalton, Georgia, which some of you may know is the carpet capital of the United States — in fact, it happens to be the only place in the United States were carpets are still produced. Did you know that there are only two carpet-producing factories left in the entire United States of America, and they’re both in Dalton, Georgia? And who do you think makes all of those carpets that are here and in your living room and in other rooms on which we tread? It’s all those Hispanics who have migrated to rural Georgia and are producing carpets in, not Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston or other big cities that receive attention, but this relatively small town, which is the carpet capital of the United States, if not the world. And it’s very interesting that in Dalton, Georgia, both the Protestant churches and the Catholic churches have been invigorated by the presence — in fact, otherwise they would be dying churches — of Hispanics within their midst.
Let me turn next to a few policy implications of these movements and bring in the discussion of Islamic groups as well. First of all, as some of our earlier speakers have suggested, there are some very nasty fights going on largely at the local levels in Latin America, but, in some cases, at national levels as well, between Protestant and Catholic elements. And if you want to dramatize some of this, you could say — and some of the journalists have done so — much exaggerating the issue, I would argue — that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century is being repeated once again in Latin America in terms of struggles between Protestants and Catholics, some of which have turned quite mean and violent. I don’t believe that for a moment. I don’t think we’re going to see another Protestant Reformation and then Catholic counter-Reformation anywhere within Latin America. I think we will continue to see quite a number of things, but nothing quite so dramatic as that. First of all, we will see divisions among the various Protestant groups who simply disagree over a whole host of not just religious, but also political and social values.
Second, there are going to be splits between Protestant and Catholic interests. Much of this has taken place so far at the local level rather than at the national level, although there are some instances — again, as an earlier speaker suggested — of conflict at the national level as well. And in a policy sense, my own suggestion would be that we ought to look for rival parties, some of whom have their bases in Protestant movements and some of whom have their bases in Catholic beliefs, rival political parties, rival social movements, some of which will take Protestant and some of which will take Catholic or maybe other directions. There will be political tension, particularly between Protestant evangelical churches down the road and the Catholic cathedral in the center of town, and sometimes marches and demonstrations on each other’s churches. And the national bishops’ association will clearly get into the battle. And my guess would be that some of the Protestant groups will also organize as interest groups at a national level as well, over a period of time, and that this will add one more element of division into a Latin American set of societies that is already deeply divided anyway along political, class, social and other kinds of lines, but will not produce civil war or civil conflict of a large scale.
And I think that my own conclusion largely echoes Professor Freston’s conclusions in this regard. We shouldn’t exaggerate the differences and the potential for violence, although you can probably guess that media and other interests have a vested interest in exaggerating the degree of tension that may exist. It helps sell newspapers or television programs, or maybe it gets the United States government interested in an issue that it wouldn’t otherwise be interested in, and so you dramatize the issue. But I don’t see this producing anything like16th- or 17th-century Europe. There will not be civil wars, I don’t think, and certainly not in our lifetimes — or at least not mine — at this stage in Latin America.
What about the Islamic groups, about which we’ve also heard quite a bit? I think I’m in agreement with Colonel Connell’s argument from this afternoon, if I heard it correctly. I think his argument was not all that far from Vitoria Peres’ argument, which is that there are emerging Islamic movements in Latin America, almost all of which are still very small in size, almost all of which have very limited political influence.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation a long time ago on transitions to democracy in an obscure little country, which suddenly became big and important, I remember interviewing — because I heard they were politically influential, and as a graduate student, you know, you can do all kinds of dumb, naïve things that you can’t do when you’re a grownup — so I remember going into the headquarters of the local Casa Lebanes in downtown Santo Domingo and interviewing the entire community of Lebanese businessmen, all of whom corresponded exactly to Professor Peres’ description of the same group in Brazil. These were men who had come in the early 20th century; they’d gone into business; they were refugees, in large part, from the earlier Ottoman Empire; they went into business and commerce; they largely monopolized the restaurant business and dry goods business in little Santo Domingo; and over a period of two or three generations, some of their sons — and by this time their daughters — became presidential candidates. In other words, they are so integrated and assimilated into the larger community, which is Hispanic, that there really is not much difference between them and the rest of the community.
And of course, some of them have converted to Catholicism and some of them have converted to Protestantism, interestingly enough. These are not exactly militants. These are successful businessmen. They’re upper-middle class. They’ve made it, over two or three generations, in the societies to which they’ve immigrated. They’ve been successful. Their children have gone to university. These are not the militants that we need to worry about.
I think, along with Colonel Connell, that the influence of Islamic groups in the Tri-border area, which I have also visited, has been greatly exaggerated. I also went there, not only looking for contraband — I mean, you’re used to seeing big Mercedes trucks full of cigarettes and other contraband goods lumbering across the border. Given all the propaganda in the American press about this, you would expect to see truckloads of Palestinian rebels and Islamic terrorists, and look as I might, I didn’t find any truckloads of terrorists coming across those borders. But I do think, along with Colonel Connell, that this has become an area for money laundering within some of the ethnic communities, including but not limited to the Muslim communities. It has become an area for drug-running. There are a lot of drugs in this area, and that’s relatively easy to spot. There is some evidence that money has been raised for such groups as Hamas or Hezbollah in that region, but my guess would be that could be exaggerated as well. And it may be that these have become, in some degree, safe havens for not-very-friendly people.
My sense is that, from an American security point of view, we should keep an eye on this area. Some of you may have noticed that the American mission in Asuncion, Paraguay, has recently increased enormously in size. Now, Paraguay is a little country of 5 million persons. It’s relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of American foreign policy, and yet virtually every single agency of the United States government is represented in poor little Paraguay, and all because of this emphasis on drugs, gun-running and terrorism. The Americans have taken over Asuncion and may be in rivalry with the Brazilians, who would also like to take over Paraguay at some future point, and have halfway done so already. I’m just kidding, of course. The Americans have moved heavily into Paraguay. Missions have been beefed up and all for the sake of keeping an eye on this Tri-border area. I think it’s good for America at least, because that’s within our interests and we are threatened in this regard, to keep an eye on all of those four or five different areas of activity that I just mentioned.
But I don’t see this as an area in which there is a threat to any of the states within the region. Certainly, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil do not feel threatened by anything that happens in the Tri-border area. The percentage of people who are Islamic and the percentage of people who may be militantly Islamic or have the potential for terrorist activity is so insignificant that it’s clear to me that this is not only not a threat to the state, but it’s not a threat to society either. I think we have to recognize that there may be pockets of concern within that particular region that we need to pay attention to. I think in political Washington, it’s very tempting to exaggerate the terrorist influence in that part of the world, because it forces the United States government to pay attention to an area of the world that it’s not paying very much attention to.
And if you’re committed to the study of or work in Latin America, you naturally want the U.S. government to pay more attention to your area, and there’s a certain tendency to exaggerate the threat and the possibilities that exist there. I think that’s as dangerous as underestimating the threat that exists. So it’s a little bit worrisome; we ought to keep an eye on it from a United States point of view. I don’t see it as a major threat. Certainly, in that part of the world, there is no clash of civilizations in the way that my friend Sam Huntington has postulated it. There is certainly far less clash of civilizations than there is in, let us say, Nigeria, the Sudan or Indonesia, where there is a real clash of civilizations occurring that we ought to pay attention to.
Now, let me come to the concluding part of this discussion. It seems to me that there’s a much more worrisome issue in Latin America than terrorism or the threat of terrorism, although that’s the one, of course, that has the mileage these days, and therefore the media attention. But what I think is particularly worrisome — and I will approach this subject from a vantage point a little differently, I think, than you probably hear it very often in this city — is Latin America’s present populist surge and the danger of the area being even more completely ignored than it is at present.
I spend more of my time in Europe, the Middle East and Asia these days than I do in Latin America. I haven’t abandoned my old area, but I’ve just diversified. And what I find among businessmen and governments in all of these other areas is a certain sense that Latin America is becoming marginalized, even a laughing stock. Hugo Chavez, from their point of view is really a reversion to a kind of 19th century man-on-horseback, caudillo form of government.
In a country such as Venezuela that is a very sophisticated country — I’ve known Venezuela for 30 or 40 years by this time. Venezuela is not some poor, unsophisticated Third-World country. It’s a very sophisticated country with a very large middle class. That middle class is very well educated. Venezuela has probably per capita historically more high-level managers, administrators and technical personnel than any other country in Latin America. Venezuela really knows how to run a country, except that it ran it badly for some 20 years or so, paving the way for Mr. Chavez. I don’t think you could run a big, complex country like Venezuela anymore on the basis of a one-man, authoritarian regime, although it elected one-man, authoritarian regime. Venezuela is too big, too complex, too sophisticated and too globalized for that to continue for very long. I think of our friend Hugo Chavez as a kind of throwback to Gomez in the early part of the 20th century — a sort of democratic Caesar, if you will, a man on horseback. But I don’t think of that as the future of Latin America.
The only reason that Hugo Chavez can do what he does is that his country floats on oil. So, of course, if your country floats on oil, you can do and get away with all kinds of things that, if your country doesn’t float on oil, which happens to be the case of most poor Third-World countries, you cannot normally get away with. Chavez can stake out an independent, autonomous position, defy the United States– defy globalizing forces, if that’s what he wishes to do — and isolate his country. And the only reason he can do that is because he has this enormous reserve of oil, second only to that of Saudi Arabia in the world, which enables you to do lots of things you wouldn’t be otherwise able to do. But politically, this is really a reversion to a much more simplified primitive, 19th century version of politics, which a lot of us thought had begun to disappear in Latin America.
Then if we move on to our friend Evo Morales in Bolivia and our friend Humala in Peru, who may be elected in the next couple of weeks, although there’s a runoff. What we’re looking at is leaders — I guess the comparison is loaded, but I’ll use it anyway — rather like Pol Pot in Cambodia, who would like to revert to a kind of 14th century version of society. In other words, he would like to go back to Indian civilization, elevate the Inca empire to a position of dominance and drive white,Western, Hispanic, globalized Peru and Bolivia back into the Pacific Ocean from which it came. I exaggerate, but only a little.
It seems to me that this is not useful. I’ve just come back from a lecture tour and, I must say, that in much of Europe, Morales, Chavez and Humala are lionized. First of all, they’re lionized because they’re tweaking the United States, and Europeans love that. And second, they’re lionized because it fits into and conforms to a kind of European, Rousseauian conception of what Latin America looks like, that it’s full of noble savages. And if you look at Evo Morales in his sweater and our friend Humala in Peru, with all due respect, he looks like “a noble savage.” And the Europeans think this is just wonderful, because this is now the final repudiation after 500 years of Hispanic colonialism on the one hand and American imperialism on the other. And isn’t that splendid?
I don’t think it’s splendid at all. I think it’s a reflection of hopelessness. Tom Friedman’s latest book, which is called, interestingly, The World Is Flat makes an interesting point. The book doesn’t suggest that Tom Friedman also wants to go back to the 14th century and really believes the world is flat. He means that countries can now compete equally in the world in ways that were not possible before, that a China, an India, a Taiwan or a South Korea now has the capacity to compete with the United States or Western Europe on virtually any level and in virtually any economic sector. And what I’m particularly worried about these days is that Latin America has given up on that battle, or at least good parts of Latin America — Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru — less so, Brazil and Mexico and others — and that the repudiation of globalization means that these countries will become more and more isolated from global currents. They will become more and more insular, looking inward rather than outward at a time when we all, I think, recognize, whatever its limits, that we are a more globalized, interconnected and interrelated set of societies.
Kirchner in Argentina, for example, has taken a very strong anti-globalization position and is reverting to the familiar Argentine practices of pretending that Argentina is a European and First-World country, when in fact it’s a Third-World country. And to support its First-World aspirations it is both borrowing abroad — a familiar story in Argentine history — and printing lots of worthless paper money, another familiar story in Argentine history. And my guess would be that probably five or 10 years from now, Argentina will go down the tubes once again as it periodically does about every 20 years. In other words, what I’m worried about is that much of Latin America is not about to be attacked by terrorist fundamentalists of whatever sort. But it is dropping off the “flat earth.” It is dropping out of the real world at a point when investment — Western, Asian, European and American — is poised to go there.
I think we all understand that much of the agenda of the last 15 years — democracy, free trade, open markets — from any Latin American point of view, has not worked very well. I don’t disagree with that position. But either isolation, on the one hand, or reversion to the 15th century, on the other hand, is not going to help. Probably the country in Latin America that has become most thoroughly globalized is Chile. In fact, I think I’d argue that Chile is the only globalized country in all of Latin America. Brazil is working hard at it, and so is Mexico, but they still have much further to go than do the very sophisticated Chileans.
My own sense is that while democracy, free trade and open markets have not often worked all that well in the Latin American context, there is no other option. The 19th century man-on-horseback option is not really a viable possibility a-la-Venezuela. And certainly, the 14th or 15th century option a la Evo Morales or Humala in Peru is not a realistic option. The only possibility, it seems to me, is for the Latin Americans and the United States to adjust, to bend, to adapt their strategies to Latin American conditions and realities. It’s very clear that Latin America is not the mirror image of the United States. What works in the United States or the Anglo-American or the Anglo Saxon economies, as they’re frequently called on the continent, does not necessarily work the same way in Latin America, or in Russia, for that matter. It may well take three or four generations to effect these kinds of changes. Look at Iraq, after all. It’ll take three or four generations to effect those changes, not three or four years, as most American administrations tend to expect.
So it seems to me that while democracy, free trade and open markets have not necessarily always worked very well, it also seems to me that there is no other option for Latin American societies, and that dropping out of the global race or becoming another Cambodia, North Korea or Cuba will probably not work.