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.
The beauty of this argument is that it's outcome-based, so you needn't be bothered with explaining exactly how the battle of the Alamo is responsible for the fact that the average Paraguayan makes less than $3,000 a year. Latin American sociologists and political scientists write huge, soul-numbing tomes that consist of nothing but several hundred pages of comparative economic statistics, followed by, "See?"
The most infamous expression of this approach is so-called dependency theory (though I must admit I prefer the name Apuleyo Mendoza, Montaner, and Vargas Llosa give it: "We're Poor; It's Their Fault"). In dependency theory, Latin American countries have been forced—first by Europe, later by the United States—to build their economies around the export of one or two major crops or minerals. This not only supplies the gringos with cheap commodities and industrial inputs but leaves Latin America dependent upon the whim of an international marketplace controlled by the Illuminati—the industrialized nations. And it keeps Latin Americans from planting crops that could be used in local diets. Like vampires, the gringos grow fat and happy as the Latin Americans waste away. Hence the title of one of the most famous expositions of dependency theory, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America.
The problem with dependency theory is that, in point of fact, Washington doesn't give a rat's ass about Latin America from an economic standpoint. Trade with Latin America represents about 3 percent of the United States' gross national product. Everything south of Laredo, Texas, could be sucked up by a passing UFO one night and nobody in Washington would notice, although Justice Department lawyers would probably scurry to and fro trying to find a way to make it one more count in the antitrust suit against Microsoft.
To put it more concretely, it may be very important to Costa Rica to sell coffee to the United States, but it is not at all important to the United States to buy it. And that's why the U.S. Marines did not land in Costa Rica when that country, seeking to protect its economy from the vagaries of the commodities market, forged into other industries during the past decade. (Manufacturing microchips for Intel is now the country's top moneymaker. Tourism is number two.)
Dependency theorists make much of Washington's military interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean during the past half-century, but the fact is that, except for Bill Clinton's bizarre nation-building experiment in Haiti, they were all aimed at protecting what were perceived—rightly or wrongly—as U.S. security interests, not economic ones. Had Salvador Allende's government in Chile stuck to nationalizing the property of American companies, the Nixon administration never would have sent the CIA mucking about. In fact, Allende's Christian Democratic predecessor, Eduardo Frei, had seized U.S. copper companies without getting into trouble. The United States took note primarily because Allende permitted Cuban intelligence to establish a major theater of operations in his country.
Not surprisingly, dependency theory is the target of some of the most pulverizing blows in Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot. The theory, the authors note, could just as easily be turned around to indict Latin Americans for making their gringo wage slaves stay up around the clock making luxury items that Latins consume but don't produce. If trade is theft, they say, why not launch "passionate accusations against Latin Americans for stealing computers and planes from the gringos, televisions and automobiles from the Japanese….Since Latin America imports more than it exports, it's the rest of the world's circulatory system that is at the mercy of the bloody Latin American sting."
And damn those handmaidens of imperialism, the rapacious multinational corporations, and their incomprehensibly devious ways: "It's a mystery why these thieves in search of others' fortunes spend so much money performing studies, building factories, transporting machinery, technology, and managers, promoting products, distributing goods, and employing workers, not to mention paying the customary bribes….Why don't they just avoid all these costly charades and send in their military forces and carry off our cornucopia once and for all?"
Of course, as the authors acknowledge, these days there's an equal clamor for more trade between Latin America and the United States. Even Fidel Castro, who once claimed that U.S. economic exploitation was the source of all of Cuba's problems, has reversed fields, whining constantly that the American embargo is what keeps his country poor.
If anything, Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot may seem faintly anachronistic to some readers. With Latin America governed almost exclusively by democratic governments that publicly pledge allegiance to the market, why bother beating a dead horse? Since the book was published in Spanish almost four years ago, many of the idiots in Idiot have recanted and are trying to do penance. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the sociologist who in 1969 coauthored Dependency and Development in Latin America—a seminal dependency text that the authors of Idiot recommend to anyone "who wants to join the clan of mental retardation"—is now president of Brazil and architect of an ambitious plan to liberalize one of the most protectionist economies in the world. Ariel Dorfman, co-author of 1972's How to Read Donald Duck, which purported to find coded imperialist messages in the incomprehensible ravings of an animated, speech-impaired waterfowl ("God! How can one be so stupid and not die in the process?" wonder the authors of Idiot), recently apologized in his autobiography for his role as chief propagandist in the Allende government.
Unfortunately, though, there are signs—plenty of them—that Latin America's love affair with the market may be going sour. However much reforms have improved macroeconomic indicators, the worm's-eye view has often remained the same. Most privatizations simply pass state monopolies into private hands, thrilling the World Bank by getting them off the government books but doing little or nothing to improve service and rates for the individual consumer.
Peru, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and Argentina, for example, all sold off their state phone companies, but customers still pay staggering prices to the new private owners, who got an array of legal protections from competition as part of the purchase price. Public transport was privatized in Argentina and Nicaragua, but each route is owned by a single company. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the proceeds of privatizations frequently wind up in the pockets of government officials and their pals, who often make little attempt to conceal what's going on. One Argentine official flew 150 guests to Alaska for a wedding, where the party favors were gold nuggets.
This crony capitalism has nothing to do with the free market, of course, but try explaining that to some poor Argentine retiree who can no longer afford the medicine at a newly privatized health service, or a Guatemalan street vender whose bus fare downtown has just doubled. Because so many of Latin America's economic reforms have been limited or distorted, they've offered new ammunition to political forces that hate markets. A bus fare increase in Guatemala and an attempt to sell part of the state phone company in Costa Rica both ended in widespread rioting last spring. Even the faintest whisper of privatizing the oil industries in Mexico or Venezuela—although government ownership has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue over the past two decades without doing anything to reduce the painful levels of poverty in either country—provokes total hysteria.
None of this has done much to enhance the reputation of democracy around Latin America, either. A recent survey by the Chilean research firm MORI showed that only in two Latin countries, Costa Rica and Uruguay, do the populations give democracy an approval rating of more than 50 percent. The old hunger for populist strongmen is reasserting itself, most obviously in Venezuela, where former military coup meister Hugo Chavez won an overwhelming presidential victory and promptly closed Congress and threw out the constitution. Guatemalans stampeded to elect Alfonso Portillo after he began running TV ads boasting that he killed two Mexican law school professors in the 1980s. December's tight presidential race in Chile was between right-wing populist Joaquin Lavin and socialist Ricardo Lagos Escobar, while the only candidate who defended market economies finished a distant third. And in Mexico, Subcomandante Marcos, head of the Zapatista rebels in the Chiapas region, continues to receive worshipful pilgrims from the alleged intelligentsia.
All this has provided Apuleyo Mendoza, Montaner, and Vargas Llosa with plenty of material for a new book that's on the Latin American best-seller lists, Fabricantes de Miseria (Manufacturers of Misery). Unless Latin American governments begin embracing the substance of economic modernization instead of just the form, I fear there will be room for many more volumes in the series. For that matter, there's plenty of work to be done north of the Rio Grande. The funniest section of Idiot is a selection of priceless quotes titled "Index Expurgatorius Latinoamericanus," including this one from Abbie Hoffman:
"Fidel sits on the side of a tank rumbling into Havana on New Year's Day…. Girls throw flowers at the tank and rush to tug playfully at his black beard. He laughs joyously and pinches a few rumps….The tank stops in the city square. Fidel lets the gun drop to the ground, slaps his thighs and stands erect. He is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight, the crowd immediately is transformed."
There are millions of Cubans today who also compare Fidel to a penis, albeit in a somewhat different context. Surely we owe them a Guide to the Perfect North American Idiot.
Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Central America for the Miami Herald.