Latin America is the forgotten part of the world. For all its potential wealth and present predicaments, it attracts neither the world's attention nor its imagination. The world sees a subcontinent with two unattractive poles, Cuba and Chile. It sees a mounting record of repression, of political incompetence and military assertiveness. Unlike Asia, the Middle East or Africa, it is for the moment an area of insulated trouble; the great powers are not actively seeking to upset the present balance. The world is content to have it remain in relative oblivion.

For a very long time, the world's ignorance was mine, too. My professional interests were focused on Europe and the North Atlantic - until my present interest in Europe's lingering or reviving influence abroad gave me a chance to break out of an unfortunate parochialism. In the summer of 1977, for the first time, I visited Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. I set out with the hope that this voyage to new lands, which would once again encompass interviews with wielders and victims of authority, with men and women in public life, business, academe, and the arts, would teach me something about these countries and their relations to the outside world.1 Reality exceeded expectation; I found the three countries not only intrinsically absorbing, but their distress and their prospects suggested general questions about the nature of contemporary politics. Latin America, for so long the object of intellectual condescension rather than of comprehension, could perhaps be seen as a challenge to our prejudices and habitual categories. It is itself full of talent in the realms of political analysis and cultural criticism; perhaps there is some inverse relationship between practical political competence and theoretical acumen. In Weimar Germany, social and political theory flourished even as the polity disintegrated.

I would contend that the present condition of Latin America has much to teach us about the contemporary world, that our political vocabulary, largely European in origin, may not be adequate to present reality, despite the fact that Europe, where the noblest dreams and the vilest deeds have marked political reality, has great relevance to Latin America today. The crosscurrents of influence remain striking: no one can understand the Italian Communists today without grasping their Chilean "trauma," their reluctance, based on the Allende experience, to come to power supported by a mere numerical plurality, with important elements of society arrayed against them; nor can one understand the present hopes of Brazilians and even Argentinians for a transition to a less authoritarian regime without keeping in mind that the recent Spanish and Portuguese transitions to democracy have a special appeal to Latin Americans. In the last decade and a half, democracy in Latin America has all but disappeared; if the trend toward authoritarianism were to be reversed, this would have a considerable effect on other authoritarian, developing countries.

I came to Argentina and Brazil, then, with ignorance and foreboding. I had heard the stories of repression, guerrilla warfare, torture - and expected a somber atmosphere. Reality was different, at once more frightening and more inspiriting. What follows are impressions, echoes of many conversations, a preliminary record of themes that I would like to pursue further.


Buenos Aires is a European city, elegant, depressed, melancholy, somehow reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Like so many European cities of that decade, Buenos Aires has a deceptive air of normality. The Argentinians are proud of their Europeanness; many boasted that they are the most European (by descent and adaptation) of all the Americans; some even thought they were more European than the Europeans. Their political life rivals in disaster what some of the European countries have suffered: the joys and ravages of Peronism (itself embodying, with a special flair, the European blend of authoritarianism cum politics as pageantry), civil war, runaway inflation, military repression.

But the European connection has another and disquieting ring as well. Argentinians often refer to their experience with urban terrorism and its suppression as the form that the Third World War has taken. For some Argentinians it is perhaps a tempting, self-serving appellation: it underscores the intensity of the conflict, it enhances its significance, excuses its violence - and warns others that it could happen anywhere. Indeed, many Argentinians have said to me that disaster first strikes in their country, but that the "Argentinization" of the world follows. The memory of that struggle remains vivid; the guerrillas, at first recruited from the extreme Right and Left, unleashed an ever more violent attack on society: holdups, abductions for ransom, murders of prominent leaders. The terrorists, I was told, tended to be the privileged children of privileged parents; they become the prototypes of the idealistic murderers of our time: intelligent, resourceful, utterly ruthless. Are other countries destined to suffer similar disaster?

The military regime that came to power in 1976 resolved to crush these guerrillas, and in this struggle resorted to every known stratagem of repression, most notably torture. As always, outrage bred outrage, and fear corroded self-restraint; the government's terror campaign was hideous - and effective. Most Argentinians and foreign observers believe that the war is over, that the government has annihilated its internal foes - and in the process intimidated the innocent as well.

But the government, I was told, is afraid of admitting victory for fear that it might have to dismantle its system of repression; worse, some of the military are worried that if they relax repression, the most zealous anti-terrorists among them might themselves be brought to trial, as the Greek colonels were at the end of their rule. Within the military, there was a radical right-wing element that had no patience with moderates in the government and that sought to find ever new enemies; having liquidated the terrorists, they would now want to strike against those who taught the terrorists. They were prepared to wage war against academics who, they argued, had turned universities into "breeding grounds" of terrorism.

This militant Right - within the army and with sympathizers outside - poses a considerable threat to the present regime. It embodies, as many Argentinians said to me, a kind of "secret army" OAS mentality; like the French army officers (and the fanatics who followed them) who opposed de Gaulle's Algerian policy, the Argentinian radical Right consists of desperate men, sniffing weakness, treason, "Reds" everywhere, and certain that only their toughness - which is another word for brutality - can secure survival. They see themselves as patriots, who can easily become killers with a sense of destiny, and this OAS ferocity may be far more characteristic of our time than Fascist survivals. They even have a French ideologue to inspire them: the ideas of Charles Maurras - whose Action Française combined royalism, authoritarianism and anti-Semitism - enjoy a certain vogue in Argentina today; the notorious right-wing, anti-liberal weekly Cabildo advertises works by and about Maurras. I doubt that Maurras has a similar posthumous following anywhere else.

Fear still stalks Buenos Aires, people still disappear, whether at the hands of the state or of right-wing extremists is not always clear. As I crossed the Plaza de Mayo on my way to the economics ministry, I saw a group of women being dispersed by heavily armed militiamen; the women regularly assemble on this square in front of the President's palace in order to press their demands for information about the whereabouts of relatives who have disappeared.

Some groups, of course, feel particularly endangered. An Argentine economist, trained abroad, mentioned that he was afraid of taking home in his briefcase a paper by a distinguished sociologist for fear of being stopped at random by the police who might then find this Argentine samizdat (which has subsequently been published abroad). He also talked of still waking up at night when cars stop in front of his house; the dreaded knock at the door still haunts him. The state of latent repression remains; people do not know whether or where another blow will strike.

The government virtually wiped out one professional group: psychoanalysts, some of whom were alleged to have had close ties to the guerrillas, many of whom were Jews, many of whom were resented by specialists in related but nonanalytic fields. (Some analysts may have had a certain sympathy for the guerrillas, they may have sensed or known about the psychic suffering that may have influenced some of the guerrillas, and they certainly would have been bound by prudence and at times by the professional ethic of protecting privileged information to withhold information from the authorities.) Many fled into exile, and others wondered whether they should do likewise so long as the frontiers were open.

The dilemma of the defenseless: how to choose between the risk of staying at what had once been home and the uncertainty of exile. This has been the universal experience of our century, new and poignant to each victim, and almost unimaginable to those shielded by basic freedoms. In Argentina, it would seem, most people have yielded to the natural inclination to hope that the worst is over and that their decision not to uproot themselves, not to leave their families and livelihoods, would prove justified. A Jewish businessman-economist seemed shaken when I read him a sentence from Bertolt Brecht's "Refugee Conversations": "Working out whether to get out today or whether you have still got until tomorrow requires the sort of intelligence with which you could have created an immortal masterpiece a few decades ago."

On the northern approaches to Buenos Aires is the magnificent structure of the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences. An imposing, classical facade, with all the signs of normality: students coming and going, classes held, professors lecturing. But the normality is deceptive. The universities and the social science faculties, in particular, have been purged of their best members, and the rest survive on sufferance. As a consequence, the life of the universities has been reduced to mindless mediocrity; the open university is spiritually empty and intellectually closed.

As I passed this building day after day and heard the undisputed reports of the true state of academic life, I came to wonder how many universities in the world shared a similar fate. By being open and quiet, without the violent disruptions of the 1960s, the universities are not in the news any more. Governments can train the political and cultural illiterates of the future without attracting much notice. Even in Western Europe and North America, in the countries where universities traditionally flourished, they are now regarded with benign neglect; after years of affluence and esteem, they are now allowed to flounder in distress. In developing countries, universities are considered important training grounds for future technicians, but in many countries, perhaps in most, they are also feared as incubators of subversive ideas. How many of the millions of university students in the world today - and their number everywhere, including in Latin America, has increased dramatically in the last two decades - are receiving what we would call a genuine education, which presumably would include access to presently unpopular ideas? How many are trained in the elementary skills of a critical interpretation? In the hard sciences, the answer may be heartening; in the other realms, we are probably talking of a tiny minority, and one that is quite oblivious to the privilege and responsibility that are inherent in its minority or elite status.

But Argentina also bears witness to the fact that the human spirit is hard to stifle altogether, at least in non-totalitarian societies. The talent that has been banished from the universities has found refuge in private institutes, often housed in dilapidated apartments, where academics carry on their work in musty cubicles. It is scholarship on a shoestring, often supported by small but indispensable subventions from various foundations in the United States and Europe. These are the unsung heroes of scholarship. The charter of the Argentina-based umbrella group for the social sciences in Latin America, CLACSO, defines its aim as finding "an intellectual space, autonomous and free" despite the prevailing conditions under which "centers were closed down, colleagues imprisoned, tortured and killed because of their political ideas."2

These research institutes, often attacked in the press and always suspected by the Right, remain relatively unharassed; their work is allowed to be published in Mexico or Venezuela. It is a precarious but not an unproductive existence, and the garrets may prove as creative a scholarly abode as the well-appointed offices of grant-ridden professors. One is reminded of Albert Camus' remark:

But if the writers did not do a great deal for the Resistance. . . . The Resistance did a great deal for them: it taught them the price of words. . . . To risk one's life, however little that might be, in order to print an article, that is to learn the true weight of words. . . . The writer, suddenly discovering that words are charged, will be led to use them with discretion: Danger turns us to the classical virtues.3

I left Argentina feeling that there could not be many countries in the world where natural beauty and human failing were so closely matched. Argentine politics must be a test case of cumulative disaster, and even the harassed leaders of the once-free parties seem to have learned little. Many Argentinians assured me that if it had not been for the political extravagances of the last 40 years, their country would have fulfilled its destiny of becoming a country as stable as Australia and richer. But amidst all the bleakness, there seemed some hope for a transition to a milder regime.

Argentina today remains a dictatorship - though not a Fascist one. Some of the chief characteristics of Fascism are absent, notably the one party or movement that embodies and administers a universally binding doctrine. Argentina's dictatorship is essentially negative; it does not seek to dominate every sphere of life and society. It does not aim at mass mobilization. It is run by the military, who are divided among themselves and some of whom would want to retire from the divisive task of governing. The costs of their rule have been heavy, but they have achievements to their credit as well. With the help of civilian technocrats, the present regime has transformed economic conditions; few men in Argentina are held in as high esteem as Jose Martinez de Hoz, Minister of the Economy, who, within months of accession to office, reduced Argentine inflation from the awesome annual figure of some 700 percent to a mere 120 percent. Foreign reserves have been built up again, foreign capital has been attracted and while the lower classes have, on the whole, been excluded from their share of this new prosperity, the economic prospects for the country at large appear more promising than they have for some time. The economic feats of military-technocratic regimes in Latin America may, in fact, constitute a new and important element in this type of rule.

Argentinians today watch Europe and especially Iberia with considerable interest, even fascination. The pervasive influence of the United States, which came to be established in the aftermath of the Second World War, appears to be weakening; the earlier European connection is reasserting itself. Meanwhile the anti-Yanqui sentiment seems varied and widespread. There has always been a cultural snobbery against the money-grubbing giant in the north. Now a general antipathy exists as a kind of substratum; on the Left there is the added sense that the CIA masterminded Argentine counterinsurgency, that the official terror had been learned at the hands of North Americans. Most people assume as a matter of course that there was some U.S. involvement; the exact nature or degree remains obscure.

Among conservatives and right-wingers, there is a strong suspicion of American concern with human rights; I heard prominent Argentinians argue that the American Establishment (as exemplified, they said, by the Council on Foreign Relations!) is far more sympathetic to the terrorists and guerrillas than to the forces of the state. We are charged with hypocrisy as well: we vilify Chile and pass in relative silence over mass murder in Cambodia. Conservative Argentinians tend to think us naïve, soft on communists, indulgent of guerrillas; there is resentment of our position on human rights. Some people see it as moral posturing - and still it rankles. The effectiveness of our oft-proclaimed concern is hard to measure; it is a complicated and controversial question. In Argentina and Brazil, dictators and their supporters may sneer at our solicitude, but they have to reckon with it and with its resonance in their own countries. My impression is that it has occasional, perhaps marginal, effect, and that by addressing certain fundamental issues, as I suggest below, it could become even stronger.

The Argentine dictatorship faces pockets of opposition from within. The Church, it would appear, is far from indifferent to the violations of human rights. It serves as an occasional shield for those outside as well: prominent lay Catholics told me - and individual Jews confirmed it - that the Jewish community of some 400,000 people, which feels a collective sense of beleaguerment, turns first of all to the hierarchy when a specific threat to Jewish rights appears. If this tacit relationship does in fact exist, it suggests a very different outlook from the one that prevailed in Europe a generation ago. There is an anti-Semitic current in Argentina today, strengthened or justified by the widespread belief that Jews had been disproportionately represented among the guerrillas. (Some Argentinian patriots regret this mood, for the quaint reason that they think that Jews control the press and politics in Europe and the United States and that any stirring of anti-Semitism leads to anti-Argentinian recriminations in the world's press.)

Many Argentinians I spoke to expressed some measure of hope; they thought that the nightmarish spiral of escalating violence may be close to its end, that the present regime was genuine in looking for successors that would guard public order in a less repressive atmosphere. Or are these hopes illusions - which so often have distorted Argentine reality?


To go from Buenos Aires to São Paulo is to go from faded splendor to dynamic ugliness. São Paulo is modernity run amok, a city without easily discernible beauty or amenities. Its citizens, however, are proud of the bustle and energy; they see their city as the economic and intellectual center of one of the great countries of the world. It contains the contrasts of contemporary Brazil: privilege and poverty, radicalism, reformism and repression.

Rio de Janeiro, by contrast, has new wealth and old culture; it has conservative chic and a slower pace than the metropolis to the south. Within the first few hours of my arrival, I was invited to the Brazilian Academy - founded 80 years ago as a faithful replica of the Académie Française, the same number of "immortals," the same uniforms, the same mystique, if not quite the same eminence. The bookstores are full of present-day European works, the Concorde is one visible link between Europe and Rio, the mounting economic presence of Europe is another, as is the special nuclear agreement between Germany and Brazil. The estrangement between the United States and Brazil may push the latter into cultivating still closer ties with Europe.

I found a kind of buoyancy and expectancy in Brazil, related to but not entirely explicable by Brazil's economic "miracle" of 1968-73 or by its prospective leap to economic greatness. There was an immediate expectancy as well: the political system was thought to be in a process of change, and politics was the dominant topic. Brazilians are proud that their country had a less searing political experience than their southern neighbors; but the political shifts have been dramatic enough. In the early 1960s, reformist or populist regimes turned radical, and observers began to ponder a communist danger.4 Upper-class Brazilians remember those days; several businessmen, some of them veterans of earlier disasters in Europe, told me that they had sent their families abroad and that their own bags were packed - all in anticipation of a communist coup. (The foreign head of the largest multinational plant in Brazil told me that if the Left had seized power, a commissar would now sit in his office and he himself would have been shot.) Instead, the military seized power in 1964. Brazilians now recollect their past panic in the tranquillity of the present; they remember their narrow escape, they may even exaggerate it; their attitudes are shaped by it.

To the upper classes, the military appeared as saviors. They restored order - by initially subverting it. Basic rights were suspended, as was political life itself. Years of turmoil and repression followed; here, too, guerrillas waged a desperate struggle, involving bank robberies, abductions, killings, and the regime unleashed the full instrumentality of counterinsurgency, including torture, against the left-wing guerrillas. In the end the state prevailed. The military, aided by civilian technocrats, reversed an earlier and bankrupt economic policy, and ushered in a new period of extraordinary economic expansion, of increased foreign investment, of far greater scope for state enterprises. Benefits of economic growth were once again unevenly distributed. The minimum wage lagged behind inflation, labor unions have been deprived of the right to strike; still, the new regime hoped that public works now would benefit the populace at large later. Whatever the social cost and the unequal postponement of gratification, Brazil's economy has performed well - before 1973, even spectacularly well - under the present regime.

In the political realm in the last two years or so there have been significant modifications. Most of the people I talked with anticipated accelerated change and - barring left-wing radicals and ultra-reactionaries - welcomed the prospect. The talk was of "transition," and many people hoped that it would somehow resemble the course that liberated Spain and Portugal from their authoritarian regimes. There are tangible signs of relaxation or liberalization: the present regime - which remains a dictatorship, more or less veiled - has lifted press censorship for most papers. What has persisted is lingering self-censorship. (Television is still strictly censored, giving us some idea of the relative importance that the government attaches to the two media.) More important, perhaps, is the general belief that since April of last year torture is no longer practiced, and it would seem as if that particular horror, the cruelest form of intimidation, has been lifted from the country. The most prominent defender of the rights of prisoners, a lawyer in Rio, confirmed this abolition - or is it merely the suspension? - of torture. There are signs, in short, that the regime is seeking to abandon or modify some of its most repressive aspects.

But there is an anticipated change beyond that: the widespread sense that the military themselves are thinking of retiring from the irksome task of governing the country. The motives for this prospective withdrawal to the barracks are practical; they hardly bespeak some kind of conversion to the superiority of civilian or constitutional rule. But the military, or so I was repeatedly told, realize that 14 years of rule has brought with it the threat of division within the army itself, division over policy and preferment. More, the military are afraid that they are being used up, that their cherished role as the ultimate protector of the state and nation might be compromised by this long rule, which necessarily arouses dissatisfactions and resentment. Or, as a retired American general, now in Rio and a close associate of the military leaders of Brazil, explained to me: during the Vietnam War, he chose to travel in mufti on a bus from his home in Virginia to the Pentagon and would put his uniform on when he arrived at the Pentagon in order to avoid any slurs on the uniform that might have provoked public incidents. In Brazil, he explained, the army uniform was still held in considerable awe, at least in public, and the military wanted to preserve its prestige by yielding its formal powers.

The military seem to be divided on various issues: between hardliners and moderates; between those who see a universal communist conspiracy and those who recognize that the seeds of revolt are in Brazilian society itself: between those who are prepared for a more venturesome opening to social classes now banished from participation and those who would fear any such initiative as a leap into chaos. On two issues the army is probably united: as in Argentina, the torturers do not want to be held responsible for past deeds, for "excesses," as institutionalized inhumanity is sometimes called. More important, the army does not want to withdraw to the barracks and face the necessity of returning to power because of some renewed threat of populist extremism or social disorder.

The very fact that the military are weighing withdrawal and a return to civilian rule is of great significance. Presumably the army is conducting a debate on the political organization of the country - in secret; nothing like The Federalist will emerge from these deliberations, but outsiders could well duplicate these discussions and conceivably have some impact on them.

In the immediate postwar period, there was a hope in the United States and elsewhere that the countries of the world, upon having reached a certain level of maturity, both political and economic, would choose a democratic polity. That was the presumption, and seen from that perspective, President Carter's insistence not on democracy, but on the universality of human rights may be regarded as a kind of realistic retreat from an earlier hope.

This is not the place for a discussion of the social or economic prerequisites for a democratic polity, nor of the more specific problem of the putative relationship between the particular stage of Brazilian economic development and the recent turn to authoritarianism.5 One point perhaps deserves to be made: it is, I think, self-evident that human rights, particularly those pertaining to dissent, are best protected in liberal democracies. But is there a way in which those rights can be assured in a polity that is not a full-fledged democracy, in which, for example, legislative powers may remain restricted?

Perhaps we need to recall that in pre-democratic societies citizens successfully sought protection against the tyrannical abuse of state power and against the violation of their rights. In England in the seventeenth century, in much of Western Europe in the eighteenth, and in Germany in the nineteenth, certain minimum safeguards for individual rights were anchored in law and custom; in the nineteenth century the Germans called this government of laws a Rechtsstaat, and it is perhaps worth remembering that the rights of citizens were more firmly protected in imperial Germany - hardly a democratic country - than in contemporary Latin America.

Can we, then, envision a society that would preserve these essential rights without at the same time demanding of authoritarian rulers and their clients that they simultaneously adopt what they regard as the dangerously unstable practices of democracy? Is there a halfway house to democracy, a stage perhaps not dissimilar to the liberal-constitutional phase in Western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century? If governments that in the past practiced repression would bind themselves to the rule of law, would accept the independence of the judiciary, would respect the rights of citizens freely to express their views and to assemble - and if these rights were enshrined in an enforceable constitution, buttressed, as I have said, by independent courts - would the lot of men not already be appreciably better? There would still be inequality, intimidation and, in some countries, desperate economic injustice. Such a system would be what the French call a pis aller, the least bad that a bad situation would allow. In certain types of society, the insistence on instantaneous democracy as against the demands for institutional safeguards of human and political rights may be an instance of Voltaire's saying: "The best is the enemy of the good." And a country without torture, without the threat of disappearance at the pleasure of the rulers, is a country with some hope. Ask any prisoner whether the abolition of torture or of arbitrary arrest is a negligible improvement, a mere "formal right."

The rule of law should be the necessary but not sufficient condition for reform; a far greater participation of all strata of society would have to be the necessary accompaniment. But the military rulers and their supporters would have to be persuaded that these two elements are not incompatible with their desire for stability and that they are demands that constitute the price of legitimization. Parenthetically one might add that U.S. concern for human rights should focus on these institutional safeguards and not only deal explicitly with individual cases of persecution or implicitly with the desirability of democracy.

The prospects for such a mixed regime are not good. How strong is the demand for it? The leading defender of human rights in Brazil told me that improvement had taken place, but he lamented that the battle was a lonely one; teachers and students supported it, as did journalists and the Church; for the rest there was indifference.

My conversations confirmed this indifference, and, given my predilections, I found it the most disheartening aspect I encountered in the Brazilian scene. I was repeatedly told, and I came to believe, that among the military there may be a greater awareness of the need for reform and a greater willingness for experimentation than among the prosperous civilians. The latter are not only conservative in the economic realm; in many ways, the present regime has favored them at the expense of the lower classes. They feel safe under the present regime, which they are willing to condone by endless appeals to anti-communism, but they are probably also relieved that the repression that marked the regime did not stain their fine hands, that others do the dirty work for them. Excuses for the status quo are plentiful: you must fight fire with fire, lower the dam in any way and the great popular wave will sweep us up, the alternative to the present regime is chaos or communism. Some businessmen are impatient with any criticism of the existing regime: Brazil, they argue, is not ready for anything else.

This indifference to what once were considered bourgeois ideals of freedom is accompanied by social attitudes that it would be hard to find duplicated in postwar Europe or the United States. Obviously the gap between the rich, cosmopolitan, often highly cultured upper crust and the mass of the population is immense; the imagination of the rich does not reach to the poor. Their paternalism leavened by a vague apprehension is something that we know pervaded Europe before 1914, perhaps before 1945; since then, a different atmosphere has taken hold of Europe, and these sentiments, and certainly their articulation, have become rare, discreet, or extinct. One no longer thinks of the lower classes as having few, primitive needs, of the poor as enjoying their poverty, of the social order as a divine given. But in Brazil I found these attitudes still prevalent, still untroubled - in the raw, so to speak. If anyone wants to know what callous capitalism can sound like, a visit to the elegant boardrooms of rich Brazilians would prove revealing. What a job there is to be done of educating these happy anachronisms, if not to the moral ambiguities of their position then to the shortsightedness of their aloofness!

Brazilian radicals are - not unexpectedly - equally indifferent to political reforms or human rights. Callous capitalism on the Right is matched by a certain uncompromising doctrinairism on the Left. (The lessons of contemporary politics in Latin America, especially the lessons of Chile, have been assimilated by European radicals much more than by Latin American radicals, whose absolutist views have been strengthened by repression.) To radicals - many of whom have suffered greatly under the present regime - the world appears in Manichaean or Marxist simplicity: there is their cause, which is progressive or revolutionary, and then there are the enemies, the CIA, the multinationals, the Church, the army - in short, the Fascists. Extreme radicals want a politique du pire; the more naked the dictatorship, the better. Would-be reformers, including, according to some, even the Eurocommunists, are regarded as dangerous variations on ineffectual German Social Democrats. Brazilian politics seem more ideological than U.S. politics, hence the analogies almost always seem to come from the richer chamber of horrors that was European politics.6

The parallels between Left and Right go further: both sides value political freedom less because they value economic gains more. On the Right there is the old assumption that economic growth requires stunted rights; one hears distant echoes of earlier excuses for Mussolini who made the trains run on time. The present Brazilian regime has done far more than that. On the Left, this indifference is a pernicious variation of a now quite prevalent cliché to the effect that liberty and equality are not complementary, but somehow contradictory elements. Put differently, the claims of equality are accorded a higher importance than the political claims and there is a certain tolerance of political repression provided the aims of the regime are "progressive," egalitarian, dedicated to meeting human needs.

Here, too, the assumption lurks behind certain arguments that repression furthers economic achievement - and here, too, one hears shades of earlier aberrations: after all, the horrors of Stalinism could be condoned because "you can't make omelets without breaking eggs." Consider as but one example, Rev. William Sloane Coffin's confused view:

Unless social justice is established in a country, civil liberties, which always concern intellectuals more than does social justice, look like luxuries. The point is that the three ideals of the French revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity, cannot be separated. We have to deal with equality first.7

The indivisibility of the French trinity is an important reminder, but seems to be negated by the programmatic assertion that equality comes first. To think that liberties can be looked upon as luxuries is a revealing error. What are the connections between economic growth, social equality and political liberty? Are the lower classes really indifferent to freedom? Does it help a starving peasant to know that neither he nor his champion - whoever that might be - can agitate for improvement or progress without risk of punishment? Was that the meaning of the Indian election of 1977? To assume a dissociation between equality and liberty, welfare and human rights, may be preemptive surrender and even an act of unwitting arrogance. The poor have desperate needs, but are we so certain that these needs can be met better by a repressive rather than a tolerant regime? Is servility or subservience the road to modernity?

The desire to have one's dignity or rights respected does not require a high level of literacy or economic standing: it is immediate and untutored. For vastly different reasons, the Left and the Right might condone the prospect of economic progress brought about by a mute labor force. The former may see it as a sacrifice to eventual equality, the latter as a means to instant profit; the immediate effects are not significantly different.

The military rulers of Brazil and their technocratic-bureaucratic allies are pondering a possible transition to civilian rule; an admirable group of liberal-radical reformers and intellectuals have similar concerns and hope to devise a system in which economic progress, social redistribution and political rights would coexist in a relatively stable mix. Both sides must contend with Brazilian incivisme, with obstacles and deficiencies that daunt the imagination. The civilian groups, including the former political elite of Brazil, are far from blameless; the military are far from the mindless monolith that they are sometimes depicted as. In fact, they have shown a competence and a degree of political realism that have impressed some of their civilian critics. Perhaps transition will remain a chimera; perhaps the military will discover that it was easier to seize than to relinquish power. General Geisel has made it clear that the government is not about to surrender its extra-constitutional powers. Progress remains partial and uncertain, but a presumption for change exists, and this in itself provides encouragement to those Brazilians - lawyers, teachers, students, part of the clergy - who want change.

Official relations between Brazil and the United States are strained, and it is unlikely that swift presidential stopovers can cure fundamental disagreements. Our pronouncements on human rights are unwelcome in many quarters, with the conservatives thinking us naive and the Left assuming we are hypocritical. Brazilians also resent our opposition to their unprecedented agreement with Germany on nuclear supplies. Indeed, Brazil may come to rely more and more on West Germany and other European countries to supply it with advanced technology - and thus diminish U.S. domination. To some extent, the Europeans are already replacing us in investments, trade and arms delivery.

The role of our private agencies and foundations, however, impressed me as being of major importance. With minimal resources, we can help Brazilians take advantage of whatever opening in society exists; we can help to defray the expenses of studies and inquiries concerning human needs and rights that without such aid would probably not get done.


My final stop was Colombia, but it was too short a stop to afford more than cursory impressions. I had chosen Colombia as one of the last remaining democracies in Latin America, hence a likely contrast to Argentina and Brazil. I found welcome differences between Colombia and the other states, but I was also struck by certain similarities in social milieu and attitudes.

Most Colombians I talked with alluded to the fact that their country remains a democracy - with a free press, with a free if ill-functioning parliament, elected by less than 50 percent of the electorate. The universities, I was told, were in a lamentable state: often closed, either by government or student action, they were not attractive abodes for scholars even when open. Some complained that primary and secondary education was, to a large extent, in Marxist hands, but I had no way of confirming this.

Put perhaps too starkly, one could say that Argentina and Brazil are dictatorships in hopes of reform, while Colombia is a democracy in danger of deterioration. Democratic institutions survive, but social conditions, apparent even to the stranger, seem hardly hospitable to a liberal democracy.

It may be a slight exaggeration to say that Bogotá resembles an armed camp, but that vision kept intruding. The fashionable suburbs, where the highly cultivated elite lives, were full of carefully barricaded windows, while guards with dogs patrolled the streets. At the limits of the swollen city are huddled together the hovels of the desperately poor, recently arrived migrants from the countryside: mostly jobless, mostly frantic, partly exploited and largely feared by the prosperous in the city. It is a grim scene of the poor beleaguering the rich; no doubt, the same reality exists elsewhere, but in Bogotá it seemed particularly vivid, hence hard to banish from the mind's eye.

I found extraordinary refinement in Colombia-and a certain rawness. As in the other two countries, the class conflict seemed raw, the fears were raw, capitalism was raw, and many Colombians were troubled that it should be so. Refinement often reflected involvement with Europe and North America, but however much the Latin Americans I saw were oriented toward those regions by economic ties, by cultural bonds, by history, by inclination and by animosity, they were by no means certain that they would want to evolve according to a European or a North American model. The desire for autonomy is great. Among many intellectuals and professionals I found a resentment against the developed and, according to many, exploitative countries, an unease about the underprivileged at home, some troubled kinship with the Third World - all of this makes for a complicated sense of identity and for an undercurrent of radicalism. But what forms will that radicalism take?

Perhaps no institution in Latin America combines inherent conservatism with radical stirrings as clearly or as uneasily as does the Roman Catholic Church, itself so important a component of whatever unity exists. In Bogotá I spoke to Bishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Secretary General of the Latin American Bishops' Conference, to whom I had been recommended by a liberal Catholic in Argentina. He regretted and belittled the deep divisions within the Church between progressive and conservative clergy; one could also speak of radical and reactionary wings. He was unwilling to acknowledge the influence of Pope John XXIII or of aggiornamento in the evolution of the radical elements of the Church, but is it likely that there is no connection between today's divided Church and the momentous efforts to modernize the Church, to make it more responsive to social needs? My conversation with the conservative and cautious Bishop was interrupted by the arrival from Santiago of a young and remarkably outspoken priest; the Bishop left, and the priest, with a sense of excitement, as if he had just come from the front lines, told me of the kind of maneuvers, at once prudent and defiant, by which the Church is waging its battle for human rights in Chile. In any reckoning of the future direction of Latin America, the Church is of great significance - and, incidentally, one more important connection between Europe and Latin America.


It is fashionable to be gloomy about Latin America. The past record of unhappy alternation between populist utopianism and authoritarian repression seems to justify it, and the most recent experience with guerrilla warfare seems to confirm it. The justified worry over perpetually postponed reform feeds on the notion that reform delayed must be paid for by revolution accelerated, and all of these disappointments, charged with understandable passion, can lead to such apocalyptic visions as that advanced by a leading Brazilian intellectual a few years ago:

The deadlock of Latin American stagnation, marginality, and denationalization, temporarily containable by colonial-fascist and colonial-praetorian regimes, will lead to an inescapable and uncontrollable explosion whenever the critical level of marginalization and disaffection of sufficiently large sectors of the subelite and groups of the elite is surpassed. In that case, as foreseen by the multiple Vietnams scheme, simultaneous guerrilla movements in several strategic Latin American countries, very probably centered in Brazil, are likely to unleash terrible social forces, including relevant sectors of the Latin American armies, creating a massive generalized insurrection that no organized power in the world will be able to contain.8

To a novice in the area, this sense of likely doom (or of heady revolution, depending on one's perspective) does not altogether ring true. Argentina, Brazil, and even Colombia are full of obstacles to desired change; I have tried to suggest some of the interests and traditions that militate against change. I have referred to elitist indifference to freedom, in part because I hold to the old view that freedom is the precondition for much of what we call progress. But in the countries visited, among some of the men and women I talked with, I sensed that there were possibilities that could yet confound the prophets of doom. No two cases of social change are alike, but the Iberian example may still be instructive: who would have predicted a decade ago that Spain or Portugal would be able to manage a peaceful transition from authoritarianism to liberal democracy; who, two years ago, would have confidently asserted that Portugal would escape communist domination? (Who, indeed, would have predicted a bloodless coup against ruthless Greek colonels?) Granted that the proximity of democratic Europe played a major role in these developments - still, freedom has not done badly in the last two years, and it too has a contagious quality to it.

Chile has become a byword of horror, the reputation may linger even after the reality changes. Could Brazil - with its immense potential - find a different path? If the grim drabness of military-led regimes in Latin America should yield to civilian rule, if Latin Americans can manage a transition to an economically viable, politically tolerant system, this would have considerable bearing on other developing countries as well. It is a curious fact of contemporary politics that 61 years after the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to herald the world revolution, nearly 100 years after Marx's death, the conservative elements in the world seem to have one more chance of conducting liberal change, of initiating reform, of working toward a free and just society, whether in France, Brazil or Portugal. Seen in that perspective, Brazil is a country that can feed our collective imagination of disaster or bolster our hope that even repressors will discover Napoleon's truth that you can do everything with bayonets but sit on them.


2 Carta de CLACSO, no. 3, Buenos Aires: Consejo Latino-americano de Ciencias Sociales, December 1976.

3 Albert Camus, "Preface," to Konrad F. Bieber, L'Allemagne vue par les écrivains de la Résistance française, Geneva: Droz, 1954, p. 5.

5 On this, see Albert O. Hirschman's wise comments in a forthcoming article, "The Turn to Authoritarianism in Latin America and the Search for its Economic Determinants," in David Collier, ed., The New Authoritarianism in Latin America, an essay he was kind enough to show me; see also his A Bias for Hope, Essays on Development and Latin America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971, esp. Introduction and Part III.

6 It was a Brazilian journalist-historian who first suggested one particular analogy to me: in interviewing me about my recent book on Bismarck, he said Brazilians were very interested in him, and certain parallels occurred to me: Bismarck's revolution from above, his authoritarianism, corrupted a weak bourgeoisie's liberalism by providing it with great economic opportunities, with gloire, with the repression of socialism. On the other hand, Bismarck introduced welfare reforms for the workers, and his regime was far more respectful of political and human rights than is the present regime in Brazil. Finally, it should be said that the Bismarck regime was far from stable and that its contribution to German history remains a highly controversial subject.

7 Quoted in Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, Yale University, January 8, 1975, p. 39.

8 Helio Jaguaribe, Political Development: A General Theory and a Latin American Case Study, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 495. A similar view was expressed in a major summary in the Journal de Genève, January 6, 1978.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Fritz Stern is Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire, and other works.
  • More By Fritz Stern