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’.

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