Basismo

Anthony Pagden

  • The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. VII: 1930 to the Present edited by Leslie Bethell
    Cambridge, 775 pp, £70.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 521 24518 4
  • Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America by John King
    Verso, 266 pp, £29.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 86091 295 7
  • Democracy and Development in Latin America: Economics, Politics and Religion in the Post-war Period by David Lehmann
    Polity, 235 pp, £29.50, April 1990, ISBN 0 7456 0776 4

Mexico, Mexicans sometimes say, is too far from God and too close to the United States of America. The same could be said of the whole of Latin America. Ever since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, a piece of political effrontery which sought to deny a role in the affairs of the hemisphere to any extra-continental power, most North American administrations have looked on the entire Southern continent as their ‘backyard’. But, as Reagan’s near maniacal obsession with El Salvador and Nicaragua makes plain, their special interest has always been reserved for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, the areas discussed in this, the latest stage in Leslie Bethell’s collective attempt to capture ‘Latin America’s unique historical experience’.

God has not been kind to Latin America. Unlike their Northern neighbour, none of the Southern republics has ever enjoyed prolonged periods of peace, prosperity or internal security. Mexico, the largest and wealthiest of them, has come closest. Mexico, says Peter Smith, in his chapter in the Cambridge History, ‘stands out as a paragon of political stability within Latin America’. There have been no serious efforts to produce political destabilisation, either from without or from within, since the Revolution of 1910-20, and for more than half a century the political process has consisted of barely perceptible movements within the oxymoronic ‘Institutional Revolutionary Party’ – until, that is, the elections of 1988 introduced a new range of political alternatives, mostly from the right. But Mexican stability masks the same chilling spectacle of corruption, injustice and massive incompetence that characterises the other states in the region. Only Cuba, Nicaragua and Costa Rica can claim to have made any real progress in the direction of welfare, and in the Cuban case that has only been made possible by a combination of massive Soviet aid and authoritarian personal rule which, if neither as tyrannical nor as arbitrary as its critics suppose, hardly represents an enlightened democracy. Most of the other nations in the region, despite their formal adoption of the Arias peace plan of 1987, are, and have been since their creation, in a state of near-anarchy or civil war.

Why this huge discrepancy between Protestant North and Catholic South? It is a question which must confront even the most unreflective observer as she travels southwards from the United States. Those who have tried to answer it have generally done so in terms of some kind of dependency theory. Underdevelopment in the whole of Latin America, so the argument runs, as elsewhere in the Third World, is the inevitable consequence of dependence on a world economy organised in the interests of international capitalism and dominated by the economic behaviour of the United States. Ever since independence, Central America has been economically dependent, and has become more and more politically dependent, upon the United States, which, in the interests of acquiring cheap raw materials and a politically acquiescent ‘backyard’, has ensured that the nations of the Isthmus have remained economically underdeveloped and politically subject to compliant, Americanised ruling élites. The only price these élites have been asked to pay for the North’s connivance at extortion, death-squads, a corrupt judiciary, and extremes of crippling poverty and great wealth, is a willingness to act out the public rituals which the State Department describes as ‘democracy’.

Some of this is undoubtedly true. The United States exercised semi-colonial rule in Cuba from the Platt Amendment of 1902 – which denied the new republic control over its own foreign affairs, set a limit on the national debt, and sanctioned North American intervention ‘for the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty’ – until Castro’s seizure of power in 1959. It imposed military rule in the Dominican Republic between 1916 and 1924, and effectively created the state of Panama, which, after a brief interlude first under Omar Torrijos (friend of Graham Greene and Gabriel García Márquez) and then under Manuel Noriega (former friend of George Bush), is now firmly back in its control. (As John Major says in the Cambridge History, the Panama Canal has been the ‘outstanding symbol of Washington’s power to dominate the weaker states of the hemisphere’.) It still exercises direct colonial rule over Puerto Rico (an ‘unincorporated territory’ in the federal system), and an extended tutelage over Costa Rica. Only Castro’s Cuba, and Nicaragua between 1979 and 1990, has managed to fight off North American influence, and that only at enormous human cost. It is also the case that the economies of most Latin American republics, as Albert Hirschman long ago pointed out, are overly dependent upon a limited number of staples with weak, and sometimes non-existent, manufacturing sectors. Cuba was, and remains, almost wholly reliant upon sugar; Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua on fruit and coffee. In 1930, 94.3 per cent of Costa Rica’s income derived from three crops: coffee, bananas and cocoa. The pattern was repeated further south. Argentina’s prosperity in the Twenties and Thirties derived from the export of beef, while Chile stumbled from nitrates in the Twenties, to copper, and in recent times to fruit (9 per cent of all the fruit consumed in the United States is provided by Chilean growers) and salmon. It is also true that until the Sixties the production of these staples were, as many of them still are, in the hands of foreigners, usually North Americans. When I was a schoolboy in Chile in the early Sixties it was widely believed, not without reason, that the whole of Central America was jointly owned by the United Fruit Company and the Grace Line. As Louis Pérez notes in the Cambridge History, the only enterprise that was wholly Cuban before Castro’s seizure of power was government. The same could be said for many Latin American states. The financial élites – the burguesia compradora (‘purchasing’ bourgeoisie) – always very small and very tenacious, were content to live off the import of foreign-made goods and to play increasingly bizarre games of politics, while North Americans (and a diminishing number of Europeans) creamed off the profits which should have been re-invested in internal developments.

What is striking about this picture, however, is not that these countries have never been able to elude economic and political dependence, but that, with few exceptions, they seem to have benefited from it so little. For there is no necessary reason, as the cases of Japan and South Korea – both of which were also once dependent upon the United States – would seem to demonstrate, why underdevelopment should follow from dependency. Until at least the debt crisis of the Eighties, there would seem to have been no obvious economic reason why small, sparsely populated states with meagre natural resources should not have acquired, through co-operation with an over-powerful neighbour, the goods and welfare services which Castro, and to a lesser degree Ortega, have been dependent upon the Soviet Union to provide. The claim that the Kennedy and Reagan Administrations forced Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes into the economic and hence ideological arms of the Soviet Union, in an attempt to preserve their own hegemony over the hemisphere, will not stand close examination. Certainly the United States has never taken a benevolent or a sophisticated view of the political processes in Latin America (or, indeed, anywhere else in the world), and few American administrations would have tolerated in its ‘backyard’ a regime as liberal as its own. But the capacity of the United States to get its own way in Latin America is not as great as is generally supposed. The only attempt to bring about social democracy through ‘normal’ – that is, European and North American – democratic procedures, Allende’s Chile, ended in disaster, not because of Kissinger’s interference, which only hastened the disaster, but because of Allende’s inability to persuade the older political class to abide by the rules of the political game. Most North American administrations prefer to encourage local conservative political movements as an alternative to destabilisation, and the chaos of military rule to which that invariably leads. George Bush’s newly-launched ‘Enterprise for the Americas’, his plan for a Pan-American trading bloc – fatuously, but also significantly, described as ‘the first truly democratic adventure in the history of mankind’ – is clearly intended to shore up Latin America’s current drift into right-wing electoral politics, through the generation of co-operative economic development, and may prove to be a far more powerful agent for North American interests than the CIA can ever be. As developmental economists realised in the Sixties, and as the American banks were to learn in the Eighties, underdevelopment, once the underpinning of the European empires, is to no one’s advantage.

Much of the bitterness felt by Latin Americans towards the United States derives not so much from legitimate economic and political grievances, although these clearly do exist, as from a powerful, and equally legitimate, cultural resentment: the sense of inferiority imposed by an economically successful state upon others with ancient and autonomous cultural traditions. There is room for resentment when the élites of so many Latin American nations speak that hideous hybrid known as ‘Spanglish’, consume Coca-Cola and cornflakes, and import, as John King’s rather leaden account of the Latin American cinema indicates, so many of its films and so much of its own cinematic language from the United States. Only its literature remains triumphantly free from North American influence – a triumph, however, which appears to have had an unfortunate effect on the ways in which the South is currently perceived. It is drearily tendentious to claim, as King does, that ‘Western critics’ – who these are he does not say – have used the term ‘magical realism’ (first employed to describe an Austrian school of painters) to ‘bracket and explain away the cultural production of the region’. But it is certainly the case that ‘magical realism’ has all too often offered Europeans and North Americans a convenient literary register in which to cast the peculiarities of Latin American politics. Latin Americans have understandably resisted the ‘exoticisation’ which this view of their political culture has generated. It both limits understanding – by its very nature the ‘magical realist state’ is something which resists any degree of political intelligibility – and it masks the real human cost of the kinds of conflict to which the absence of a powerful and compelling civil society has led.

Few Latin American élites observe the rules of the political game, complex and promethean, which goes under the name of ‘democracy’, or few of them have even so much as a clear sense of what such rules might be. Few Latin American states possess established political parties, or sophisticated political classes, and where such parties do exist they tend to act less as agents of government than, in David Lehmann’s words, ‘as employment agencies for their followers’. In their place are clientelist, sometimes even semi-feudal, oligarchies whose capacity for survival is remarkable. Despite the revolution of 1910-20, many of the Mexican élites are descended from the old criollo families which have been in power on and off since the late 18th century. Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro, who defeated Daniel Ortega in last year’s elections, comes from a family which was already dominant in the early Thirties and has direct links with the old colonial élite. They had also, in 1950, thrown in their lot with the Somoza dynasty, something never mentioned in the euphoria over the triumph of a self-styled liberal over a hazy Marxist in a freely-contested election. From the Sandinista point of view, the return of the Chamorros to power could not have seemed so very different from the return of the Somozas.

When outsiders manage to seize power, their habits remain, even within socialist regimes, stubbornly clientelist. The Cuban state is still dominated by the Castro family, and the families which fought with him during the revolutionary war. The Arias family ruled Panama, in one guise or another from 1931 until Torrijos’s coup in 1968. El Salvador is the personal fief of a handful of planters, often referred to as ‘the 14 families’. As the fictional Bolívar in Márquez’s novel El General en su Laberinto tells Jefferson, eager, as the historical Jefferson never was, to offer advice on how to modernise, ‘we must be free to invent our own Middle Ages.’

What, to the visitor, seems to be so powerfully absent from so many modern Latin American states is the necessary condition of modern social democracy: a ‘civil society’, the recognition that the game is governed by a set of rules, and that those are determined by something other than short-term advantages to the individual players or to their immediate families. ‘Citizenship’, as Lehmann says, has never been a recognised part of Latin American political speech. And without some recognition of the claims of citizenship no modern society can hope to sustain its political cohesion – or even its identity as a human community – for very long.

The plight of street gangs composed of drug-addicted eight-year-olds, frequently battered to death by the Guatemalan or Brazilian police, has now become familiar to European and North American television audiences. So, too, have the victims of the much-publicised war against the Colombian drug barons. But few perhaps realise that since 1954, a hundred thousand people – according to James Dunkerley in the Cambridge History – have been killed in Guatemala for political reasons. During the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina between thirty and fifty thousand were ‘disappeared’. State and private terrorism has accounted for countless lives in every other state on the continent, including the relatively stable Mexico. Many Latin American nations exist in a condition of near-permanent civil war. Neither the retreat into exoticisation, nor the reliance (which characterises most of the contributions to the Cambridge History) on an analysis which sees conflict in terms of ‘normal’ power struggles between competing groups, but fails to explain why the conflict is there in the first place, can begin to provide an adequate explanation for what amounts to genocide. Nor, of course, can it make it humanly comprehensible. For the question still remains: why have so few Latin American states succeeded in creating a civil society capable of providing the social stability and even the minimal welfare most modern states can expect?

Neither David Lehmann – although the question lurks persistently offstage in his fine book – nor any of the contributors to the Cambridge History attempt to provide an answer. This is a weakness of all such survey volumes. Answering questions is not their brief, and in the absence of questions the contributors are reduced to the bare narrative of events, useful perhaps as a source of reference, but not consistently illuminating. It is also the case that whatever the story that will furnish an answer may turn out to be, it will certainly begin, not in 1930, but with the disintegration of the Spanish American empire.

As the historical Bolívar told the Royal Gazette of Kingston, Jamaica in 1815 – when he still had dreams for a South American federation, the (Liberal) Republic of Gran Colombia – ‘we South Americans have passed down the centuries like blind men between colours.’ Preserved in what he called ‘a sort of permanent infancy with regard to public transactions’, all he and his like had ever known was ‘three hundred years of Spanish despotism and monarchy’. This may sound like the familiar plea of disenfranchised colonists, but unlike the 13 colonies of British North America, the Spanish and Portuguese South had, indeed, been governed directly from the mother country throughout its history. The colonial élites of Latin America were wealthy and enjoyed a vigorous sense of their own distinctiveness: but they had, as Bolívar recognised, no understanding of government at all.

The exploitation of native labour which had begun with the conquest – Indians accounted for 70 per cent of the population of Guatemala as late as 1930 – created vast estates and concentrated wealth in the hands of a small number of closely related families. After independence it was these men, the caudillos, who, in defiance of Bolívar’s dream of a European liberal republic based on a wide suffrage, emerged as the political bosses of the new nations. Such men had no use for the concept of ‘citizenship’ which Bolívar had attempted to thrust upon them. Not all were conservative, but all clung to the absolutist habits of their colonial ancestors. They still viewed the political order, as the Spanish oligarchs had done, as a continuation of the semi-feudalism of the latifundia by other means. Unlike the United States, the new nations which emerged from the break-up of the Spanish Empire belonged resolutely to the Ancien Régime. They looked for their survival, not to co-operation and a sense of a shared political purpose, but to a strong centralised state ultimately reliant upon force. And most of them continue to do so.

In the modern world, however, such states have proved unable to guarantee economic prosperity, even for the few, or to give much pleasure to their citizens. In Latin America their legacy seems only to have been deeper levels of chaos and internal conflict. What then is the solution? One answer, which forms the substance of David Lehmann’s book, is markedly anti-statist. This is what he calls ‘modernisation from below’ or basismo. Basismo is the name given to a number of self-help movements among the urban poor in Latin America – ‘the management of public goods by their beneficiaries’, in Lehmann’s words. These projects include popular education, self-built housing, consumer or producer co-operatives, and community health care. Frustrated by an ineffectual and corrupt state, and on the ‘assumption of fiscal bankruptcy’, these communities have established in urban areas which have practically no official existence their own economic and quasi-political structures. These share the presumption of Liberation Theology that the poor constitute the true Christian community and that only the poor know how to resolve their own problems – in particular, the problem of how to cease being poor. By rooting itself in the culture and in the traditional ‘informal’ economic structures of the underprivileged, basismo seems to offer a populist alternative to Marxist and to neo-liberal solutions to the problems of underdevelopment. But it also makes claims of a political nature, claims, above all, to rights – rights to justice, civil liberties and non-interference – which are expressed precisely in terms of the concept of ‘citizenship’. This can be seen as a bid to create, at the micro level, the civil society so conspicuously absent from nearly all Latin American state systems. The problem with any informal sector, however, is that, if it is to work in the long run, it has to allow for growth. It has, one day, to take on, and to transform, the state itself. Lehmann suggests that this may come about through a gradual process of ‘scaling-up’. But ‘scaling-up’ does not explain what will take place once the process brings the informal self-help community into direct competition for resources with the formal sector. For if the basistas are to create citizenship, and with it a modern non-clientelist society based upon rights, they have at some point to become the state. Basismo, says Lehmann, ‘really expresses a desire to break out of established modes of thought’. I am sure he is right, but whether this desire can ever result in a wholly unprecedented social revolution remains to be seen. As Bolívar declared when confronted with the collapse of his own utopia, ‘America is ungovernable. Those who serve a revolution plough the ocean.’ It is, at best, uncertain whether Lehmann’s basistas may not also end up by ploughing their own stretch of ocean.