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Post Why Is Latin America Cursed with Bad Government? Part One
Created by John Eipper on 09/30/18 11:34 AM

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Why Is Latin America Cursed with Bad Government? Part One (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela, 09/30/18 11:34 am)

Richard Hancock (September 25th) posed a very old and intriguing question for me: Why is Latin America cursed with bad governments? I imagine the question should also be a conundrum for any of us interested in Latin America, its culture, and its present and future development. I have been keenly interested in this topic since I was very young, when I came to this continent for the first time, and later on when I got to know more countries in the region.

I remember having debates of all kinds about several arguments and theories to answer the question, which included many nonsensical racial or religious supremacy interpretations, climate conditioning, traditional historical views, and analyses from the perspective of Historical Materialism dialectics, which was very popular and fashionable in the 1960s and '70s. In the end I never saw a single convincing conclusion, but the certainty that the root causes for this Latin American (LA for brevity and not to be confused with Los Angeles, California!) "tragedy" must be multi-faceted and complex.  There is not a simple answer, and any attempt to simplify it from only one perspective, discipline or theoretical interpretation is not enough.

First I believe the question should not be about good or bad governments; that is not the real problem of LA. In general this region has had good and bad political leaders, presidents and administrations, as has the US or any other developed country. In order to reflect on the core of the problem, the question should be posed in other terms.  For instance, why has this rich region not been able to develop mature democracies? Or, why are there still countries with great parts of the population in extreme poverty? Or why do many nations still remain in underdeveloped stages? (Some might consider "developing country" a euphemism!) The clue to answer these questions is not just about having or not having efficient governments or leaders.  It should be deeper and beyond the obvious. I haven´t read Patrick Romanell's book, but I certainly agree that the root causes of the problem are historical, cultural and institutional, as well as other more recent economic-social factors.

I will try to present my opinion as the product of many years of reflections, occasionally with a comparative exercise between LA and North America, which might be poles apart in terms of development. The following are my own reflections on the subject and, honestly, I do not expect to convince anybody.  My goal is to share them. For the sake of the simplicity of ideas and concepts I will have to generalize many times, admitting that there might be abundant counterexamples or exceptions to them.

First the most simplistic theories. A theory often argued is geographical and climate conditioning; it is argued that the tropical weather is the first cause of LA's underdevelopment. The abundance of natural resources, hunting, food, and a mild weather reduce the need to produce manufactured products, instruments, technology or to build solid constructions, even the need for planning and anticipating future crises. The pleasant conditions do not incentivize a complex social organization and division of labor. I do not attach much value to this theory, but I admit that it has a sound common-sense foundation, especially concerning weak planning and improvisation, a strong character feature of LA´s people, particularly Cuba, Venezuela or Colombia.  It is likely that other tropical countries in the region and Africa are in similar situations.  In fact I understand this theory was promoted by African scholar and researcher Ali H. Mazrui to explain African underdevelopment.

Second, the idea that white people are gifted or exceptionally better than others, the "racial supremacy" theory, is absolute nonsense. The only idea behind this theory I ever could find reasonable in the context of LA history is that during the conquista and later the colonies, there was an intensive process of interbreeding, mixing races, Spaniards, Portuguese, Blacks and Indians, you could call it a "new race," which produced new social classes of people, many times marginal classes, with a confused identity, mixed cultures roots and values, with significant differential social characteristics.  Moreover, they lacked a sense of belonging and identity necessary to build a homogeneous society.  Unfortunately this situation prevails in many of the countries in the region with different intensity. Except for this aspect there is not much else to say for about the racial factor.

In Part II of this essay, I will follow a more detailed analysis on Colonial processes as other possible causes.

JE comments:  José Ignacio Soler has sent his complete essay in three parts.  Part II is slated for tomorrow.  And I wanted publicly to thank Nacho for visiting (via Skype) my Professional Spanish 215 class last Friday.  His crystal-clear explanations of Venezuela's current crisis kept my students glued to their seats.  The biggest compliment of all:  they all want Nacho to return for an encore!

Gracias, Nacho.  Fuiste un éxito total.

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  • Why Are Some Countries Poor? From Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 10/01/18 3:17 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    This is in reply to José Ignacio Soler (Sept. 30) responding to Richard Hancock (Sept. 25), regarding the Latin Riddle, or the Third World Riddle,
    or other phrasing of it, which asks: Why is Latin America not more developed, and more prone to democracy?

    As preamble,
    there was the NAFTA euphoria among technocrats in Mexico in the 1990s, when President Salinas stressed the message that
    Mexico was no longer an "underdeveloped nation" but a "developing nation," meaning it was rapidly progressing to join
    the top tier. But time showed this was a sham, worse than a sham, almost a bleak comedy, for Salinas turned out to be so
    corrupt that even his family was revealed as having bizarre connections ranging to murder, drug trafficking, money laundering
    in suitcases to Houston. As Mexico's economy fell, Salinas fled to Ireland for awhile, authoring a ponderous tome of
    protestations that he was an innocent visionary, All along, the real message had not been spoken by the man, but was
    the man, the man behind the imagery. Mexico was going not up but down, though Salinas's dazed opponents, once in power
    after 2000, would take a while to see the unforeseen shape of the emerging meltdown: not partisan evil but mere chaos
    in the 150,000-fatality cartel wars.

    Preamble finished, I'll proceed now to a flight I took in the 1980s to Central America for a newspaper, when impertinence
    got the better of me. Before landing, I conceived the idea of asking a wide range of surprised strangers an unaskable question:
    Why are some countries poor?

    Since touchdown was in Sandinista Nicaragua (under President Daniel Ortega's old guise, with the monumental street banners
    of Lenin and Marx), the first answers to the question were predictable: Some countries are poor because they are oppressed
    and persecuted. Other people's evil made them poor. Well, no one doubts there's a lot of evil and depredation in the world,
    so this was a valuable vote. Impertinence continuing, on the Sandinista press bus I would amuse the attractive female minders
    assigned to the press corps by molding a lump of Silly Putty into a Porky face, and laughing to them that it was a capitalist pig.
    This built rapport so I could slip away to the jungles, where the Contras, plagued by leishmaniasis ("jungle leporosy") and
    torsalos ("twister" parasites) in guerrilla stoicism, had a different idea. They more or less said some countries are poor because
    of the communists..

    But soon I was in next-door El Salvador, in conversation in the comfortable lobby of the Camino Real, where I found that my plush
    chair was positioned next to a US military adviser, evidently in a command position. "You journalists are always looking for quotes,":
    the guy snapped when I posed the magic question "You're just trying to trick me into saying something." "But no, really," insisted
    the impertinent voice, sans Silly Putty: "Why are some countries poor?" The colonel looked at me disgustedly. like looking at a bug
    on a pin. "Okay," he challenged. "If you really want to know. I'll tell you." He held up two fingers to tick off his two reasons. "Some
    countries are poor," he said, with a morbid glare, "because people in them don't think they can change their fate. And they don't think
    they should."

    Such a simple question, to tumble into such a bottomless pit.

    My favorite answer, though, was from a grizzled old gentleman from Scotland, who had lived in Central America for years,
    as one of those adventurous investors who had opened a plantation. He didn't look much like the interloping European
    colonialists my bus minders might have envisioned, and the question caught him, too, by surprise. Squinting for a moment
    as he pondered it, he then burst out: "It's the heat, mon. I've seen what it does. It's too damned hot to get any work done."

    To say that political correctness, not to mention massive segments of mere popular opinion, would blast this last verdict
    as being climatic determinism makes little difference to the geography. In the early twentieth century there was another
    impertinent voice, more serious than mine, that tried to convince the geographical establishment that continents could
    actually drift. That voice, Alfred Wegener, was hooted down as a crackpot. Wegener had other proofs, but basically he
    was saying what any eight-year-old might when contemplating the self-evident simplicity of a globe, with all those highly
    coincidental-looking coastlines. And I've got only an eight-year-old's puzzled defense of the simple honesty of the Scot:
    Just look at the map.

    JE comments:  Well done, mon!  As a corollary, most polls place the happiest nations in the cold climes:  Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada.  Ditto with US states:  of the top-ten for "well-being," Hawaii is the only decidedly non-frigid one.  How is that, when most people equate happiness with the warm and sunny?


    Climatic determinism is never a "polite" theory, but it just won't go away.

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  • Why Is Latin America Cursed with Bad Government? Part Two (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 10/01/18 3:43 AM)
    Continuing my discussion of Latin America's underdevelopment, I have serious doubts about the "religion theory"--namely, the supremacy of the Protestant over the Catholic doctrine, as a more effective driver of progress (Max Weber and later E. Fromm). The argument is that Protestantism promotes productivity in material life, the virtuosity of enrichment, as opposed to the Catholic merit of being poor and humble. This idea is not supported by the fact that elsewhere there are very prosperous and developed Catholic nations.

    Perhaps the only thing I could agree with, regarding the differential advantages of religions, are the ethical values. Contrast the discipline and austerity imposed by Protestantism, or Puritanism, on the American pilgrims (unfortunately along with a false sense of racial supremacy) to the dissipated, often sociopathic, undisciplined, cruel, promiscuous and abusive behavior of the first Catholic Europeans to arrive, Spanish and Portuguese adventurers. These discoverers and conquerors of hostile territories sought mostly fame, enrichment by conquest and submission and, occasionally, they were interested in spreading their Catholic faith as justification for their abuses.

    It must be concluded that in the case of the first Spanish conquerors, later the Portuguese, a different kind of people were required, with a very different attitude, state of mind and a strong motivation for adventure to confront the uncertainty of the unknown. Call it a nomadic spirit, a thirst for travel and discovery, to conquer a new hostile world rather than, in the case of the first American settlers, to emigrate to an already discovered place, to settle with family for a new life and colony, with home, trades, and a sedentary lifestyle, less promiscuous and less inclined to mix races. These two different approaches, with their respective psycho-cultural characters, one perhaps less educated, a warrior personality rather than an industrious and disciplined one--this may explain the two different roots of social-cultural behavior, values and paths of development.

    There are some interesting theories that explain these distinct social processes from a psychiatric-sociopathic point of view (the Venezuelan Dr. Herrera Luque). However, after the initial brutal years of the conquest of America, during the years of Spanish-Portuguese colonial rule, the region reached great prosperity, with functional colonial institutions, successful commercial routes and great economic and cultural development that precisely raised the ambitions of other imperial European countries, such as France and the non-Catholic Anglo-Saxons.

    Some argument says that Spanish-Portuguese colonization was focused on exploitation under a somehow tyrannical and feudal system--what colonization process is not?--rather than an enlightening and educational one. But the fact is that during the LA Colonial period there were more educational and cultural institutions, universities, literary and artistic developments, hospitals, architectural achievements, roads, ports and other infrastructures, transferred agricultural and craftsmanship techniques and political institutions from Spain and Portugal than in any other place at the time; many of them are still preserved as samples of an advanced civilization of the colonial period.

    In Part III of this essay, I will analyze the independence process.

    JE comments:  These theories all warrant a "yes, but..."  Every example cited above has a counter-example, such as the deep soul-searching in Spanish America about the justice of conquest and colonization.  Bartolomé de Las Casas is just one of the many in this group.  The Anglo-Saxons (and to my knowledge, the French) had no such misgivings about their imperial projects.

    How about the curse of abundant natural resources?  When you have mountains of gold and silver, where is the incentive to work hard and invest in human capital?

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    • Why Does Latin America Suffer from Underdevelopment? (Timothy Brown, USA 10/01/18 2:17 PM)
      History formed today's Latin America.

      In 1492 when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," Spain was in the process of becoming a unified country but had not yet become one.  Literacy was essentially a monopoly of the Catholic clergy and the royals and upper nobles of what were then separate principalities and dukedoms competing for power. Columbus sailed with a crew that included lesser nobles seeking sufficient wealth to return to Spain for them to compete with those who were already involved in the consolidation process. His crews were fortune hunters seeking riches that would let them go back home and join in the kingdom-building process, not migrants looking for new homes. When the gold and other riches ran out, they turned to other sources of wealth, one of them being the exploitation of local laborers.

      Much of the native population of what is today's Latin America succumbed to one scourge or another, diseases new to the Americas (although they did retaliate by sending venereal diseases to Europe). After Cuba annihilated its native population it began to import African slaves. Nicaragua turned to selling "Indians" into slavery. Other colonies decimated their native populations in different ways. And over the years, the populations of the Americas were transformed for the better or for worse.

      Fast forward several centuries to how today's Latin Americas became a collection of very different different sovereign states.

      Spain had divided their colonies into separate communities, each with its own "expat community," each formally governed by officials appointed by the Crown that decade by decade became more and more different from other colonies. While each was formally ruled by the Crown, in real terms each became economically and socially different from both Spain dominated by a socio-economic system of its own.

      By the time they gained their independence from Spain, they each had become an independent socio-economic society, its own economy, social structure and ethos that, in its self-interest each ruling class had to protect itself both against outsiders and its lower classes. And every one of them was, and still is, different. But that, too, is changing.

      JE comments:  That's it in a nutshell--and of course, there is much more.  Geography alone partially explains why Latin America fragmented into so many different countries, in contrast to the thirteen British colonies.  The latter are easily accessible to each other by coastal shipping, or even inland rivers.  The former--well, just try to get from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, or even Veracruz to Mexico City.  The passing of time also played a role.  The Spanish colonies had three centuries under their belts before independence, the British colonies barely a century and a half.

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    • Why Is Latin America Cursed with Bad Government? (Istvan Simon, USA 10/02/18 1:07 PM)
      Contrary to José Ignacio Soler (September 30th and October 1st), I think that the explanation of this phenomenon is much simpler.

      Why is Latin America cursed with bad government?  I think that the explanation has basically two causes. One is a deep cause. It relates to law. Contrary to the United States and English-speaking countries, that adopted England's basic model of law, Latin America adopted laws based on Roman law. This is a deep cause for Latin America's bad governance. It leads to a judiciary that does not work, and to excessive and inefficient bureaucracies.

      The best way to explain my thinking on this is by an example. If you urinate on the street you are likely to be arrested both in the the United States and in, say, Rio de Janeiro. Such behavior is against the law in both the United States and Brazil. But the question is how that law is written.

      In Brazil the law will be typically written this way: "It is forbidden to urinate on the street, under the penalty of etc.... "

      This law is a bad law, because it requires a lot of words for little payoff. Suppose that you defecated instead of urinating on the street. You cannot be arrested for it under the law that forbids urination. Thus the specificity with which the law must be written leads to enormous number of laws, which is incredibly inefficient and basically stupid.

      In the United States the law would be much more general, and analogous situations would be argued in law suits in the courts. The decisions in these lawsuits would become precedents which also become part of the law. It is a much more efficient system, which allows for considerable evolution of the law without writing new laws, when changes in life-styles and technologies naturally happen. The law does not need to be changed at all; the precedents will do the evolution.

      The implications of this difference in legal philosophy are deep and enormous and are responsible for a good part of why Latin America has bad governments. Let's go through some of the consequences. First, it makes it impossible to write good laws, even if the legislature were honest and had good will and intentions, which often is not the case. Legislatures need to be all-knowing, an impossibility, so therefore it is impossible to write good laws. But if it is impossible to write good laws, it means that society in order to be able to function at all must disregard many laws. In Brazil this is expressed as "esta lei não pegou" (which means this law did not stick). This is an absolute necessity of having to live with bad laws, yet it leads to lawlessness.

      Getulio Vargas, largely responsible for bad governments in Brazil for decades after his death, expressed it so: "Para os amigos tudo, para os inimigos todo o rigor da lei." (To my friends everything, to my enemies all the severity of the law.) Lawlessness leads to corruption, and in particular, corrupt lawmakers and government officials. The judiciary is so inefficient because of the bad legal system, that lawlessness leads to impunity, which in turn leads to even more corruption and further lawlessness.

      A second curse which also contributes to bad governance is the curse of Marxism. Many people in Latin America resented an interventionist United States for decades. This created a culture which falsely extolled the non-existent virtues of Marxism, and Communism, its extreme form of stupidity in the long history of human beings on this earth. One extreme form of stupidity can be defined as the idea that you can expect optimistic results by repeating what has been shown by experience as leading to terrible results. There never was a single example of a successful communist country, which nonetheless did not dissuade Latin American countries from trying to prove that it is a system that will alleviate misery and poverty. Hence Fidel Castro's Cuba, Salvador Allende's Chile, Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, Evo Morales' Bolivia, Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, and so on...

      JE comments:  Istvan Simon raises another valuable question:  is there an inherent advantage to the precedent-based English legal system?  Perhaps, but as always, the counterexamples abound:  what about prosperous, functional Japan, Germany, and France, the latter of which pioneered the notion of lots of laws that pick nits?

      "Para os inimigos todo o rigor da lei"--is that the Portuguese equivalent of "lock her up"?

      Stay tuned mañana for Part III of José Ignacio Soler's essay.

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    • Why Is Latin America Cursed with Bad Government? Part Three: Independence (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 10/03/18 4:03 AM)

      Latin America's colonial experience is important for understanding its present situation, but it is not enough to explain it in its entirety.

      The colonial process started with European contact, and reached its peak during the 19th century and extinction in the early 20th century with the so-called neo-colonialism. Presently, neo-colonialism has reached new sophisticated and complex forms, less obvious and more difficult to identify. The next phase to better understand the root causes of problem can be viewed through America's independence processes. They were rather different in the north and the south.

      I do not know much of the history of the colonial British administrative structure in America, though I understand there were 13 colonies on present-day US soil. They were homogeneous in their political organization, and in spite of being under different governments, they agreed on a simultaneous and integrally unified independence from the colonial metropolis at the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. It should be obvious to see the strength of such a practical unified political structure with a common language, culture, administrative structure, and religion, together with a set of ethical values, the self-realization of economic progress and a more or less shared strict Protestant morality. This ideal of an integrated and pretty much homogeneous state only was put in danger during the US Civil War, in which the southern Confederacy of slaveholding landlords was defeated in 1865. Needless to say America's people should be proud of their earlier achievements.

      The colonial administrative structure in Latin America was different, atomized in independent and decentralized Virreinatos, Capitanías and territories of less economic significance. There were different interests, levels of political importance, and social prosperity. To undertake a unified independence from Spanish rule was difficult, if not impossible, so secession was achieved in a disconnected and not simultaneous fashion, which resulted in separate non-homogeneous communities and societies, nations that often became rivals politically and economically. Despite their common language and culture, this fractioning was a great obstacle to a unified government, rules, laws, and economically competitive economies (Simón Bolívar's goal). Each one became an easy target, a prize for other more powerful political, economic colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Eventually they became victims of their own weaknesses and the baseness of their leaders. But this chapter is next in our discussion.

      As Richard Hancock put it, "The Spanish conquest was an authoritarian endeavor and Spanish power, when broken by the wars for independence, left a vacuum which has never been filled. People have looked for an equivalent authority but have not found it in modern institutions. The Spanish colonial government has been harshly evaluated, but it was a system that functioned with some effectiveness for the first 200 years after the conquest."

      With independence, the functional colonial institutions were replaced by politically unarticulated or dysfunctional new institutions, non racially homogeneous populations, different inorganic sets of laws and dominant social classes of landlords, large estate owners, unscrupulous politicians, local caciques (warlords) with selfish local interests, privileges to protect and, perhaps, low ethical standards with a lingering semi-feudal or colonial mentality.


      So far I have tried to illustrate some of the comparative differences that are more or less evident between North America and Latin America during the Colonial and Independence periods. I suppose the differences should be clear and offer explanations for the trends in societies' development. They would not only explain LA weakness and North America strength in political and social structures, but also the set of ethical values and principles, both individual and collective. Despite a common language and culture in a general sense, Latin America is a complex and heterogeneous spectrum of vulnerable nations, fractured by conflicts of social and political classes, social inequalities and injustices, a rather weak or lack of civic-mindedness, confusing national identities and with a strong tendency towards power and affiliation, instead of individual self-realization.  All this is the root of rampant corruption, one of the most difficult factors to resolve.

      But do not get me wrong, I might have been harsh with my reflections, but among all those weaknesses and failures mentioned, LA has great virtues, merits and the potential to overcome what seems to be a chronic underdeveloped stage. In particular, we should recognize the people's great human values of generosity, cordiality, warmth in character and sympathy. Furthermore, there have been many examples in the region's short history as independent entities, that with "good" leaders and governments, many nations in the region have reached a great level of economic prosperity, and exceptional cultural and educational developments. Consider Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia and even Venezuela. Regrettably these remarkable processes were unstable and unsustainable due to internal chronic causes and other external obstacles.

      The "Neo Colonialism" of Great Britain in the 19th century, sustained by the Industrial Revolution's technical and economic advantages, and in the USA in the 20th century, might have been main external obstacles. The dependence on commercial manufactured goods and technology in exchange for raw agricultural or mineral products, were almost always done in disadvantageous conditions for LA nations. Further, the situation was perpetuated by political (and frequently military) interference and interventions. There is a very interesting book on the subject that impressed me much when I was young, Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Latin America's Open Veins), by Eduardo Galeano, which in spite of having many inaccuracies and some historical distortions, reflects many of the realities of this neo-colonialist phase.

      Finally, of course there are more recent, or contemporary, internal and external social-economic factors which contribute to perpetuating the LA nations' underdevelopment and their weak democracies. For instance, the economic problem of mono-production systems instead of a diversified source of production. Also there is technological dependence, inequality in commercial trade, external debts and globalization. Socially, there are weak and unconsolidated democratic institutions, deficiencies in the education and health systems, demographic explosion, deficiencies or lack of basic freedom, insecurity, wars between countries, domestic armed conflicts and the rise of populism and other radical doctrines. All these factors with some particular exceptions are more or less present today and in the recent LA history to explain its level of poverty, underdevelopment, a general instability in the current state of affairs, but they are too complex and extensive to be covered in this already lengthy essay.

      JE comments:  Thank you for this masterful "triptych" of an essay, Nacho!  Let's further explore the notion of "civic-mindedness."  I've heard and read that (North) Americans rank above most other nations in charitable donations and volunteerism.  Europeans in contrast tend to expect their social services to come from the state.  Latin America strikes me as being closer to the European model.  (Of course I don't have the data to back this up...can someone step in?)

      One theory to explain this phenomenon is the institution of a state religion.  When a society is divided up among countless congregations, as was/is the United States, the people look out for their own.  When there is one officially recognized church, the people link Church and State in their minds and are less inclined to take personal initiative.  A massive oversimplification?  Most likely, but there's something there, there.

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