To so many in the Anglosphere, Latin America is a mystery. The barriers of language, religion, and colonial history lead to endless confusion and leave untapped the potential for fruitful relationships. That was the case for me, as I grew up in rural New Zealand — a far cry from the bilingual hub of Miami, where I base myself these days.
New Zealand may have geographic isolation as a defense for indifference towards Latin America, but the United States does not. The lack of coverage given to Venezuela this year, for example, appears to have been almost as widely observed as the crisis itself.
As Carlos Rangel writes in The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States, “In moments of depression (or insight) we suspect that the rest of the world would hardly be affected if the ocean were to swallow up [Latin America] overnight.”
So little has changed since Rangel published those words in 1987.
Who Are the Latin Americans?
When I took up the PanAm Post project, I had already traveled throughout and grown an affection for Spanish-speaking America, with extended stays in Colombia and Ecuador. However, a friend recommended Rangel’s work — first published in Spanish as From the Good Savage to the Good Revolutionary (1976) — for a deeper understanding of both the history and the predominant psyche.
Although drawn out in comparison to contemporary works, from an age before 140-character attention spans, the revised edition does not disappoint. The English translation, done by Ivan Kats, is also surprisingly elegant.
Rangel (1929-1988) was a Venezuelan journalist and TV commentator, educated in the United States and a liberal in the classical tradition. In his book, which he admits is polemical, he seeks to address “the web of lies in which Latin America has found itself.” The most pernicious of these lies, he writes, is “the smug and paralyzing myth that the backwardness of Latin America is due mainly to U.S. imperialism.”
To provide a rich and compelling account of Latin America’s divergent development, relative to the good fortunes of the United States and Canada, Rangel covers a lot in 297 pages. He examines the history of the 18 Spanish-speaking nations of the continent, along with the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Rangel does not include Brazil, since “any Spanish American knows perfectly well that Brazilians are different … we and they look at the world from different and potentially incompatible perspectives.” In contrast, “Spanish America can be seen as a whole because its parts share the stamp of the same conquerors, colonizers, and evangelists.”
It is not a rosy history, however, and not for the faint of heart: “We Latin Americans are not happy with ourselves … One all-encompassing fact stands out: the history of Latin America, to the present day, is a story of failure.… It is a truth that hurts and that we seldom mention.”
Even Latin America’s hero, Simón Bolívar, in his later years, became dejected and described the region as ungovernable. Bolívar foresaw “a mob gone wild … under the domination of obscure, small tyrants” and encouraged sensible individuals to emigrate. Many have taken his advice, most recently Venezuelans, who are forging communities here in Weston and Doral, Florida, as Cubans did before them in the Miami area.
This pervasive failure, Rangel explains, gives rise to all manner of popular “myths that encompass and apologize for a tendency to racism, guilt, inferiority complexes, and other self-deceptive reactions.” In an unabashedly contrarian manner, Rangel unravels these myths and leaves many in his wake: the Catholic Church, academic elites, naïve and guilt-ridden foreigners, feudalists, and of course, strongman rulers, the caudillos. On occasion too, the US federal government receives a rebuke, for protecting allied “consular” caudillos.
The opportunistic tailoring of ideology to suit various contexts is perhaps the most fascinating element of this story. Rangel details tragicomic coalitions, including Marxist-Leninists and the Catholic Church — enemies and then symbiotic allies for a time in nations such as Argentina, Chile, and Cuba. He also details the split and competition between hardline Communist International loyalists and the Apristas, who sought a regional version of socialism and remain influential, particularly in Peru.
The actual influence of Catholicism in Latin America, he recounts, has wavered, as the Church has had to adapt. In 1597, for example, a papal bull confirmed that the indigenous were men, endowed with a soul, and the colonizers were to “protect them and bring them to the faith of Christ.… as workers, and never as slaves.” However, “It goes without saying that these fine principles were nowhere applied.”
This deplorable legacy of the Spanish slave society is a persistent theme with severe ramifications to this day, “hardly compatible with freedom and progress.” As many Latin Americans welcome collectivist authoritarians, Rangel’s words are prophetic: “The peasant still has the attitude of a slave; he still expects others to make his decisions for him, and prays only that these new masters will be less demanding and better-intentioned toward him.”
The parasitism of slavery, he explains, undermines the master, the slave, and the entire society. In particular, it breeds a contempt for work: “In such a society, power and respectability are in no way equated with punctuality and productivity.… [The] master considers work an activity suitable only for slaves.… Even today in Latin America, we speak of ‘working like a negro’ or ‘like an Indian’ to refer to strenuous effort.”
The Phony Revolutionaries
The revolutionary claim hardly began with Hugo Chávez and is so common — among politicos, guerrilla, and academics — that it has become a running joke. Its prevalence is also symptomatic of popular discontent with the status quo, as demonstrated by Latin America’s obsession with new constitutions, known as wiki-constitutionalism.
The genuineness of these revolutionary claims, however, is less compelling. Rangel rightly mocks the cries to resist foreign influences and return to the ways of the romanticized “noble savage.” Latin-American society, after all, owes its economic modernization and culture primarily to the so-called invaders, and few of these revolutionaries see fit to join the indigenous people who still live a primitive lifestyle in the Amazon.
In particular, the revolutionary cry is hollow among Marxist academics, who live off the taxpayer and whose universities are “among the most backward of Latin-American institutions.” They have been largely bought off by alliances with political clans, where to be a “revolutionary” is about “as daring and heretical … as it is for a student in an Irish seminary to be a fervent Catholic.”
The Rise of the Caudillo
Throughout The Latin Americans, Rangel intersperses stories of various strong-man rulers, but he reserves the final subsection for Fidel Castro. Castro is emblematic, “a tyrant on the basic pattern inherited from our continent’s history.… a man whose single purpose is to conquer and hold absolute rule.”
Castro was also a consular caudillo: one who courts a foreign power for protection — in his case, the Soviet Union. This strategy may have been successful, in that he ruled Cuba as “an absolute monarch,” but it has been devastating for the island’s residents: “[Marxist-Leninist regimes] are the only political systems in recorded history that have forcibly had to block the flight of citizens.”
Beyond the individual, though, Castro’s reign tells a sad story that Rangel seeks to convey. It is the story of a violent history, a milieu prone to vicious demagogues and “primitive feudalism,” a civil society where “all is forbidden that is not expressly permitted.”
The Latin-American masses … may not be able to express their feelings, but they expect their leaders to speak for them; they are ready to follow a leader who knows how to fit words to the dreams that lie deep in their collective psyche. Demagogues can thus make their way on the stepping stones of this basic, pervasive psychological need.
What of the Future?
Even as Rangel tears to pieces the gratifying myths of his homeland, he holds out hope for a more promising future. He wrote his views when I was a mere infant, though, so any anticipated “fall from grace of the state” is a long time coming.
Instead, a virulent strain of populism has risen; so too has Keynesian economics. The liberal ideal embodied in the founding documents of the United States is also fading by the day. The role model to the north has entered its own period of long-term malaise and populist dysfunction.
Yet I too feel compelled to share Rangel’s optimism, albeit almost three decades later. As he rightly points out, “To lift off populations the shackles that inhibit their initiative, ambition, and entrepreneurial ingenuity seems to be an idea whose time has come, difficult to stop, even in the so-called socialist world.”
Perhaps the time is right for disruptive innovation to change the rules of the game, and Rangel spells out the ideological barriers to be rejected. For that reason alone, his book is as relevant today as ever.
This article first appeared in the PanAm Post.