Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner, and Alvaro Vargas Llosa, translated by Michaela Lajda Ames, New York Madison Books, 218 pages, $24.95
My Costa Rican friend Celeste, ordinarily mild-mannered to a fault, was turning purple. The TV newscast said her country was about to get its first maquila, a factory where cloth would be imported duty free from the United States, cut and sewn into garments, and shipped back to the United States. An enterprising reporter discovered that the Costa Rican seamstresses--though well paid by local standards--would be making about $4 an hour less than similar workers in the States.
"That's racist!" Celeste shouted, conveniently overlooking the fact that Costa Rica, where all the local Indians were slaughtered before anybody got a chance to interbreed, is an overwhelmingly white country. "The government has to put a stop to this. You can't pay us less to do the same job as an American!"
"Celeste, you don't pay the same rent or the same grocery bills as an American, either," I pointed out. "Besides, if the company has to pay Costa Ricans the same wages it would pay in New York, what's the point of opening a factory here? They can just keep sewing the shirts in the States and save the shipping expense. And Costa Rica will lose 300 jobs."
"Then we lose the jobs; I don't care!" she barked. "We'd rather lose the jobs than get paid less. We're as good as you! It just isn't fair!"
Celeste was far too sweet a person--most of the time, anyway--for me ever to call her an idiot. But Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Carlos Alberto Montaner, and Alvaro Vargas Llosa, whose instinct for the jugular has evolved far beyond mine, would.
Those three titled their book, newly translated into English, Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, and Celeste's attitude is exactly that which the book mocks: that wages are a matter of justice rather than economics; that governments, not the market, create and distribute wealth; that trade is rape; and, especially, that Latin America is poor because the United States is rich. And vice versa, of course.
Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot created a sensation when it was first published in Spanish in 1996. In a region where the left lords over the intellectual realm, any book defending markets, free trade, and el gran Satàn up north would have triggered widespread spells of fainting and speaking in tongues. But the blood lust with which this book mutilated its targets--pretty much everybody from Simon Bolivar to Fidel Castro--was something special. The reactions varied from exuberance (in Panama, President Ernesto Perez Balladares went on television to announce he'd ordered his cabinet members to read the book) to outrage (in Peru, a bookstore owner recognized one of the authors and had to be dragged away by his own staff as he shrieked insults).
No wonder. Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot does not dissect the region's populist-nationalist thinkers--it goes at them the way slash-and-burn peasant farmers go after an overgrown field. Consider a few examples:
* Liberation theology, which portrays Jesus as a Marxist revolutionary and sucked a whole generation of Latin American priests and nuns into active support for communist guerrilla movements, is not about liberation at all, the authors write. Rather, it is "a Christian reflection of Moslem fundamentalism....The logical consequence of this thesis would be theocracy, a political dictatorship based on the divine word interpreted exclusively by a platonic elite of the all-knowing, `chosen' priests."
* Argentina's Juan Peron was not a humanitarian liberal who eventually succumbed to the temptations of power after achieving great things for the nation's poor but a paternalistic fascist who utterly destroyed one of the world's most modern and prosperous economies in order to create a cult of personality. "If every Argentine has a Peron in the depths of his soul, it must be excised," the authors write, "with a benign cross if possible, and if not, then with a sharp scalpel."
* The nationalism Latin American politicians flaunt so proudly, say the authors, is a mutant import from Europe that has produced leaders who are "grotesque and solitary figures, and dangerous mental midgets." Academics and journalists who elevate bandits like Pancho Villa into anti-imperialist heroes are engaging in nothing less than gangster worship: "To attribute to Pancho Villa the sublime principles of politics and economy is like saying that Attila the Hun was a manicurist....If Pancho Villa is Mexico's dignity incarnate, the country's apotheosis, the Mexicans should start fleeing toward Tierra del Fuego."
Thus does Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot trample through nearly every political garden in the region. The authors--three journalists, former leftists all--wrote the book after sharing a cab back to the hotel at the end of a conference in Bogota during which they lampooned the speakers as, well, idiots, prattling the same stupid and discredited theories that have been disfiguring Latin America's politics and economies ever since it won independence from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century. The cab ride ended with a decision to write an intellectual history of the region's politics.
The authors argue that the seeds the Spaniards planted in Latin America--of mercantilism, church-state dictatorialism, and general opposition to the Enlightenment--bloomed almost immediately after independence, plunging the region into chaos and poverty. By the end of the 19th century, most Latin American political thought was devoted to figuring out why Spain's former South American colonies were so poor and backward compared to England's former North American colonies, even though both regions had been liberated at roughly the same time and South America had a huge head start in development.
The answer the Latin Americans came up with was: because the gringos robbed us. Economics is a zero-sum game; wealth is not created but distributed. If we have less, and they have more, obviously it was stolen from us.