Latin America embraces a number of different realities within a common course. At least four of them can be easily identified, even though their lines of demarcation are not clearly defined. Thus, the four major units appear to be (1) Brazil, a world in itself; (2) Mexico and Central America, which to a man from the deep South seem, at times, more remote than Europe; (3) the Andean world; and (4) Argentina. Moreover, within this broad division there are subtle questions, such as whether Venezuela does not in fact have closer ties to the Caribbean than to the Andean world. Chile's Pacific location must be measured against its visceral union with Argentina at the southern tip of the continent. The remnants of ancient civilizations and the existence of large Indian populations profoundly alter the personalities of Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. Yet, despite these differences, Latin America shares common phenomena that go beyond its origins, geography and self-expression, and reach its innermost structure.

As part of the New World, it is "notoriously young." Older civilizations have solid values to uphold and a well-entrenched status quo that makes them shun adventure and change; age has made them cautious, and they protect accumulated treasures. By contrast, young nations are visionary, unstable and passionate, and-free from ties with the past and without solid roots-they seek to find in actuality what they have read in books and thus are not always rational in their reactions.

To this innate instability must be added the fact that this is a continent of paradoxes. Modern cities a stone's throw away from feudal estates, advanced universities in a sea of illiteracy, lack of opportunity for large segments of the young, extremes of wealth and poverty, refined habits coexisting with primitive forms of life, automation in the midst of unemployment or underemployment, democratic forms of government side-by- side with others lacking true organization, social mobility and representation.

Common as the above features are to less developed nations, it would be a serious mistake to classify Latin America summarily among the underdeveloped nations without paying attention to specific features which simply cannot be ignored. After all, there are several nations that are taxi-ing, ready for takeoff, with national incomes of such viable proportions that, if well distributed, they could give rise to consumer societies.

Possibilities for rapid economic growth are real, since all the requisite conditions are present, including defense-mechanisms against latent ills. Thus, the high population growth rate is counteracted by the area's virtually unlimited land resources while its sustenance is guaranteed by its enormous natural resources, many as yet undiscovered or undeveloped. In other words, in the absurdity of this situation, Latin America can no longer avoid confronting its paradoxes.


The historical youth of the area is complemented by its biological youth, since almost two-thirds of the population is under 25 years of age. This youthful mass is in a deeply critical mood, like their peers in the rest of the world and certainly in the United States which at this moment in time is experiencing the most radical and novel forms of dissent and protest.

By sheer weight of its existence and numbers, this youth demands to be heard and, for the first time, feels that it is a direct participant in a movement with worldwide repercussions; this is, perhaps, the most characteristic phenomenon in the continent. Headquarters, both for ideas and for actual change, are no longer the labor unions or even the traditional left-wing parties, but the universities and student groups. They are the new vanguard and, for their struggle, the communist world has supplied a useful instrument in the form of Marxist theory-both technical and dialectic-of particular appeal to less developed societies. To them, the communist world appears like a model of discipline, where there is no dissension or criticism of the system.

By contrast, the non-communist world offers no such blueprint for development, since it is visibly engaged in dealing with the rebellion of its own youth, who are committed to the destruction of established institutions. But whereas in the rest of the world this onslaught is contained and somewhat abated by the underlying strength of the social structure, in Latin America, meeting no such strength, the movement takes on truly explosive proportions. This is particularly apparent in the sweeping changes that have taken place in traditional values and institutions which until now were considered to be impervious to change.

The first hit has been the family, which in Latin America has always had a different connotation than in the North, through a stronger paternal dominance, rural roots and the customs and mores set and preserved by a sense of clannishness. All this is changing rapidly as the city draws its population from the farm, while increased employment of women-the traditional custodians of the children in these societies-contributes to the weakening of the structure. Modern educational plans give the new generation knowledge that their semi-educated or plainly illiterate parents never had, and this too, has helped do away with the family's authority and control.

Migration to the cities has dislocated the very foundations of these until now rural societies, with the consequent human, social and economic effects. Uppermost among these is the uncontrollable proliferation of shantytowns, ringing every city in a belt of decay, while population grows at an explosive rate, accentuating the already critical problems of housing, education, health and employment.

The older, more experienced societies, having a higher degree of development, stronger cultural moorings and a deep-rooted sense of institutionality, are less receptive to propaganda; they are the benchmark for standards of living, and their affluence, visually and audibly proclaimed by the news media, stirs suppressed ambitions in underdeveloped peoples, making them only more keenly aware of their needs.

Marginally developed or newly emerging nations resist the impact better-the former through ingrained hopelessness, the latter through the euphoria of their new status. But the nations at the half-way mark are too sensitive to their own deficiencies and too aware of the possibilities for change to ignore the message. After all, they have been exposed to the new "consciousness," promoted not only by the traditional political proponents of social change but by all social groups under the conviction that present structures are no longer operative.

The deep changes made in the very bosom of the Roman Catholic Church must also be viewed as an element of considerable influence, since the Church has always been part of the very core of the Latin American identity. During the nineteenth century and as recently as the early 1950s, it was not only a conservative power but also the pillar and underpinning of the established order in so far as intellectual values, social concepts, beliefs and customs were concerned. It was a solid, immovable bearing point not only to the faithful but also to unbelievers who, even while opposing it, were somewhat dependent on its staunchness and stability.

Today, the Church not only supports the tide of change, but actually gives birth to radical propositions in an apparent effort to erase an image perpetuated by the centuries; and this process has so shaken some segments of the clergy that it has taken on the nature of a personal test of their conscience and their calling. Thus, many of them have taken up political or social work, armed with not much more than a deep sense of justice and a moral inspiration, and sadly lacking in any sense of practicalities or awareness of the formal techniques required of these societies in the war against poverty. Many of them could aptly fit into Lenin's condemnation of leftism as "a childhood disease of communism." Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the fundamental revisions operating within the Church will be of positive benefit to Latin America in as much as, instead of being a retaining wall for change, it has now become a moving force. In the short term, though, the masses of people who depended for support on this pillar of strength have been somewhat cast adrift.


The fact of the matter is that the present juncture is a second revolution, a long-delayed sequel to the first and great one-the Wars of Independence of 1810-1830-an attempt to shed the frustrations that accompanied its gains. After all, Latin America gained only political independence and national sovereignty, and was thwarted in its desire to create a way of life for its peoples that they could truly call their own.

By contrast, the American Revolution did not only succeed in severing its umbilical cord with Britain, but gave birth to a nation fully conscious of a new way of life. Unity became strength, and the inner conquest of the continent by the westward trek enabled the fledgling nation to emerge in the twentieth century as a world power. But its neighbors to the South found no such unity-only dissension, rivalries and wars. No message to the world, no conquest of the hinterland, just a coastal civilization. Independence was merely a form of separation, which retained the same old agrarian and economic structures; even though government changed in form, the same social and political structures survived and, if anything, became more rigid on withdrawal of European rule.

On that basis, the almost permanent political crisis endured by Latin America had to reach a breaking point some day. Everything seems to indicate that the day has now arrived. Ten years ago, when the Alliance for Progress was conceived, it was stated that unless a peaceful revolution was implemented, a violent revolution would take place. If we are not actually witnessing one now, its imminence should be obvious even to the blind. And that is why there is no time for the injection of classical solutions; they simply can no longer work.

The large agrarian majorities, the crisis of industrial organizations, the emergence of an ever-broadening middle class, the new industrial proletariat and its unions, youth groups and the new technocracies-in sum, everything is changed. Even the military dictatorships which traditionally in certain countries were the protectors of the ruling classes, have now become either left-wing nationalists or stern taskmasters of development.

The worst that could happen in this second revolution would be that this deep and widespread unrest should result, as in the past, in only anarchy and uncertainty. In a way, Latin America is "like a character in search of an author." It would seem that the area was denied the gift of political creativity. A giant has awakened and his convulsions have unleashed a tidal wave that is overpowering the traditional ruling classes. Old structures cannot contain this flood, they were meant for other times, other techniques and other peoples. It is no longer a case of routine change or of the periodic local revolutions reported by news services, but of the second great revolution that will determine the future character of the continent. It would be difficult, if not pretentious, to make a prognosis, but still it is possible to identify some courses of action and confrontations that appear unavoidable.

For one, there will be a definitive transformation in the established form of agrarian ownership. To a greater or lesser degree, agrarian reform is being essayed in the majority of countries, but it is easy to see that these experiments, mostly on a limited scale, will not suffice. The method used will vary from country to country, but there is no doubt that the type of owner-labor relationship that has characterized agriculture will disappear very soon simply because it is technically wrong, economically unsound and a social and human impossibility.

Likewise, it seems evident that planned reforms of the educational system already underway will have to be broadened in scope, in order to provide not only increased but also a better quality of education. And the same applies to health services and housing.

These are common objectives that no government can evade, and accordingly they figure prominently in the platform of every political party. Thus they are no longer bones of contention and will play a minor role having little to do with the course of the new revolution.


The decisions in store involve deeper issues, the first and foremost of which should be admission of all the people into the mainstream of the nation. By and large, Latin American societies were organized on the basis of oligarchies, conservative during the first half of the twentieth century and liberal-rationalist in the second half. Those oligarchies, small in numbers, have become intellectually sterile through loss of contact with the common man; in fact they are an anachronism, without strength and, worse, without prestige in the minds of the new classes which represent not only the majorities but the new intelligentsia. Their platforms or programs cannot work, regardless of their soundness. What they claimed to do "for the people" must now necessarily be done "by the people."

Already, the increase in the numbers of voters prevents the existence of minorities capable of controlling the sources of power and of manipulating large blocs, particularly agrarian, in even democracies of limited expression; and the sudden emergence of such massive forces has caught many of these societies completely unaware. The emerging social masses, eager and immature, are emotionally ripe for plucking. But as there is no time for an orderly channeling of their numbers into the mainstreams, the floodgates are sometimes forcibly raised. Incorporating these formerly disenfranchised majorities into the political, economic, social and cultural stream is not easy since they are no longer a means to an end but duly licensed participants in the processes of change.

Recognition of this is a prime condition for understanding Latin America today. Those of our countries that choose to retain a narrow base for the selection and utilization of human resources, with economic participation restricted to a small portion of the population, and subject to economic and even political conditioning by the great powers are doomed either to perennial underdevelopment or to seeing their takeoff hampered by structural flaws. Their collapse is not likely to be bemoaned.

We are witnessing the crisis of formal democracies and striving for construction of true democracies. Better still-if it is possible to bypass the distorted political connotation of the term-for the construction of popular democracies.

Transition from restricted democracy to one of participation by all social strata is unavoidable. This greater participation must also bring about efforts in countries to redistribute their gross national product in order to provide a larger share for labor. Coupled with this must go increased government spending in the fields of education as a basic instrument for providing equal opportunity, public health, housing and general community improvements.

However, the keynote must be organizing the people, from the bottom up, into channels that will ensure effective representation. This must embrace an enlargement and improvement of the unions, and the reorganization of neighborhood, municipal and regional bodies into a true national community.

In the economic field must come changes-just as inevitably as agrarian reform and modified owner-labor relations-in the classical forms of capitalist private industrial enterprise. And the day will soon come when enterprise itself will be reorganized, not on the basis of a capital-labor subordination but on the basis of a new form of enterprise where labor will have participation not only in the profits but in management.

Last but not least, another aspect of this Latin American phase is that by one means or another all our countries are committed to regaining control over basic natural resources. The degree of awareness and development reached by these nations has led them to feel that it is against their interests and their very identity to allow natural resources, which are essential to them either as raw materials for their industry or as prime export items in their economies, to remain in foreign hands. Thus, the nationalization of these resources will be unavoidable; and it either has just begun or is in full swing in many of these nations,


Everyone is more than willing to participate in a redistribution of income and to welcome nationalization as a vindication of national pride. But little thought is given to the effort entailed in building a modern state and an open society capable of fulfilling its promises. There are obstacles to be surmounted, and the first one is the time element. The developed nations had a phase of accumulation of capital during the industrial age, when they literally "squeezed the blood" out of labor with impunity, milked colonies or obtained the lion's share from investments in underdeveloped countries. But Latin America has reached the modern age without the accumulated capital required for its development.

Also, within the same time limitations, it is hard to believe, in political terms, that these societies will be willing to postpone their aspirations for any given length of time in favor of the continuity, discipline, effort, systematic savings and accumulation of capital required for development. Deferment will not be rationally accepted.

One of the main features of democratic cycles is a "something for nothing" attitude, where everyone demands concessions but not at the expense of hard, sustained effort; and this is perhaps the gravest danger that faces Latin American societies in search of full equality after generations of constraint. Development requires detailed, organized planning and a high level of efficiency in the collective effort, hinging mainly on science and technology and the quick multiplication of teams of the highest professional caliber. Unfortunately, those teams do not seem to be forthcoming, as the universities, instead of being centers of higher learning and research, have become largely headquarters in the struggle for political power and foci of revolutionary activity, thus thwarting the formation of leaders who should by rights be the architects of the new society.


One of Latin America's most serious shortcomings is the tendency to transform programs into myths and processes of change into mere political man?uvres designed to please the public eye. Change does not necessarily mean progress: and Latin Americans have traditionally been myopic in discerning change, gravitating toward extreme forms where violence has been a prime ingredient.

"Violence," said Georges Bernanos, "is the last resort of a world that refuses to judge itself." In Latin America, it has been but one of the many symptoms pointing to the lack of a proper channel for the building of a new society. There is nothing new in the appeal of violence. Characteristic of the anarchist movements so well described by Barbara Tuchman in "The Proud Tower," it resurfaced again, between the two World Wars, wearing the uniforms of Fascism and Nazism. Today, it wears a different ideological badge but still its tools continue to be force, the underground, adventuresome youth, strict sectarianism and hatred.

Despite their evolution, Latin American peoples continue to yield to the temptation of turning ideas and men into myths, perhaps as a form of escapism or evasion of the portion of personal responsibility that demands individual effort in any process of change. Thus, they run the risk of repeating the dramatic political inadequacies that marked the nineteenth century and part of this one.

In the majority of these countries, the pendulum swung from tyranny to freedom and back to tyranny with monotonous regularity. Under tyranny, freedom became an idealized dream. The magic formula was to overthrow the government and to replace it in the name of democratic principles by the savior who, by mere accession, would end outrage and right all wrongs. In a rich mythology such as ours, the savior was always near at hand.

After the "revolution" and overthrow of "the strong man" a brief period of euphoria ensued but, needless to say, the miracle never materialized and soon all the old injustices and distortions reared their ugly heads. Political immaturity could not be overcome and pipe dreams could not be fulfilled under the torrent of grievances, demands and clamors for vengeance against the old régime. The poor miracle man, the answer to everyone's prayers, could not please everyone and ended up pleasing no one. Behind all the axes to be ground, there was not enough organized collective consciousness of the fact that solutions demand more action than words, and soon again disillusionment set in.

Once again, the myth was shattered by reality, and gradually the longed-for freedom became numbness if not a threat of anarchy; and so the same people who, not long before, clamored for freedom began to fashion new dreams of "law and order" and of the "strong man" who could restore authority. The pendulum swung again, and the countries never found their true center.

The latest instance in this ingrained pattern is supplied by Cuba, where a movement of heroic proportions was turned by sleight of hand into a personal dictatorship, thus perverting the revolution and in the process selling the people out to a foreign power. Since this treachery cannot be concealed from the world, it is to be hoped that Latin America will soon accept the fact that there are no magic formulas. Neither myths nor ideologies can substitute for rational planning and concerted effort.

Within this context of expectations and risks, Latin America is groping its way, wooed on all sides by the Marxist-Leninist world, by Christian humanitarianism and by new forms of authoritarian nationalism. The only certain conclusion seems to be that the new Latin America will have a totally different social and economic identity.

This identity will depend largely on the area's ability to find formulas consonant with its own historical, social, geographic and human realities. The line of least resistance would be the importation of time-tested foreign solutions. There are many who feel that the only way to channel economic and social development in these countries, establish discipline, and overcome tensions that cause inaction, is to use the tools of totalitarian societies based on Marxist-Leninist ideology and technology, whose blueprints and dialectic power have great appeal, both in terms of action and thought.

These patterns, however, go against the grain of Latin Americans' irrepressible love for freedom, their respect for the human being and their profound aversion to police states and thought-control. These values are in the very marrow of Latin Americans, regardless of ideology, and since the conviction is widespread that the patterns have not worked for the socioeconomic development of the countries where they have been applied, there is no justification for their totalitarian implantation here. Unquestionably then, Latin America must find self-expression in the creation of a formula that will reflect its own identity, and reject foreign transplants or run the risk of falling under "thought-colonialism" which, in the long run, can lead only to political dependence.

Whether or not Latin America will measure up to the challenge of creating a new society will depend largely on the answers to the following questions:

Will it again be carried away by myths so that once again, words will displace the stern demands of reality?

Is it possible that the Latin America which today speaks of socialism with the same voice that once proclaimed freedom uses the term as a cover for a multitude of confused and contradictory illusions?

Will Latin America be capable of laying the foundations for a society based on solidarity, community organizations, general well-being and individual creativity? Or will it waste its efforts on a collectivism or statism that will absorb and subjugate man?

Will Latin America leap out of a primitive form of capitalism into a totalitarian statism totally incapable of leading it toward an effective form of human development?

These are the questions hovering above a deeply convulsed Latin America. And they are repeated in each national unit.


Not one of the Latin American nations can by itself resolve these questions, since all of them, with the possible exception of Brazil, have limited possibilities of development. Not one of them is in a position to finance and support a valid program of science and technology, the sine qua non for development, to set up capital-goods industries at rational levels of cost and capacity utilization.

These facts, unanimously accepted in theory, have not been translated into a workable policy. In spite of the Latin American Free Trade Association and the Andean Pact, we are as distant from integration as in the days of Bolívar and even more so in terms of minimal political coördination. The problem is further dramatized if viewed in the light of the new conditions in international life, the magnitude of the great powers and their relationships within the global balance of power. Latin America is in danger of being relegated to the sidelines of history with no weight on the scale of global decisions.

This state is not a consequence of outside actions but of an inner vacuum, brought about by lack of unity and duly implemented political decisions. In a harsh world, the weak go unheeded and the countries that lack direction and Balkanize themselves have little to expect from outside, except what is in the interest of those who would manipulate them.

A promising sign that these facts are beginning to be understood is the constitution of the Special Commission for Latin-American Coördination, the strengthening of which could be an answer to the need for coördination in dealing not only with the United States but also with the European Community and other areas of the world.

Outside intervention that in any way curtails internal decisions cannot be accepted. Intervention might be considered at a given moment if justified as a check against outrageous disregard for basic human rights or against forms of genocide, but what is patently clear in the Latin American mind is that no form of intervention can be justified if its aim is to prevent or in any way curtail the principle of self-determination in choosing whatever political system is desired. Likewise, Latin America today is convinced of the advisability of having normal relations throughout the world regardless of differences in political systems or geographic distances.

Another determinant in the Latin-American mind is that in the relationships between developing nations and the superpowers, ideological differences are progressively less important than the interests at stake. In this respect the interests of Russia and the United States-particularly in the field of world trade-are thought to be just as apt to dovetail as to be diametrically opposed to the interests of developing nations.

Last but not least, outside obstacles to Latin American economic growth have not been removed but rather have tended to increase. For this reason, a new form of nationalism has emerged which is not only concerned with recapturing control over natural resources but with achieving independence in industrial, agricultural and commercial development.


This is the Latin America that the United States must deal with today. It appears that with the demise of the Alliance for Progress the policy is, essentially, that there is no policy. Latin America is at a loss to define what it expects of the United States and its feelings are evidently contradictory as, knowing full well that it needs the friend, it pretends to reject him. If the United States has investments it is criticized, and if it does not, it is reproached. On the other hand, it would appear, from this end, that the United States has not really defined relations with the South in the new circumstances. The general impression is that the prevailing policy is to let things work themselves out, avoiding involvement as one would avoid a hornet's nest.

Obviously, to us, the United States is preoccupied with resolving areas of conflict in other parts of the world. Understandings with Europe, Russia and China are its prime concerns. This truth cannot be concealed behind formulas or organizations which can be considered empty shells, like store- fronts in a ghost town. They may outwardly represent necessary structures, but they are unable to nurture, much less create, a policy that will respond to the new identity of Latin America.

The United States has always looked upon us as its back yard. The Monroe Doctrine, the Big Stick, the Good Neighbor policies and the Alliance for Progress have succeeded each other as political expedients. In actual fact, however, the United States took for granted that Latin America was its sphere of influence, where it did business and laid down the law; and in international bodies that it could count on a bundle of votes to support its positions.

International circumstances have compelled Washington to change its views, as private capital has progressively been withdrawn from the field of investment in public utilities and transportation, and the process of nationalization has come to be accepted as inevitable. The era of applying pressure to protect investment is past, and today discussion is conducted on a juridical and contractual plane, with full regard for the new policies even in those obvious cases when governments provoke conflict as a means of internal political consolidation. Without a doubt, this attitude is a big step in the right direction.

For their part, the Latin Americans have abandoned any recourse to the rich uncle who was appealed to in case of need. They understand that the answer to development needs cannot be found in "aid," in investments or in royalty agreements. They are now turning their attention to the transmission of technology, to assistance with development programs, to negotiating new conditions in the field of international trade, etc. They are beginning to understand that their future depends much more on their own internal decisiveness than on external support.

For this reason, the Declaration of the Special Commission for Latin- American Coördination is encouraging in stating that the Latin American nations, "... having decided to overcome the condition of underdevelopment, reiterate their conviction that economic growth and social progress are the responsibility of their own peoples and that the attainment of their national and regional objectives depends basically on the efforts of each country, supported at the same time by an increasingly closer coöperation, coördination and determination of policies and outlooks on the part of the Latin-American nations."

Neither side can delude itself. If the United States thinks that it can concentrate its attention on other continents and dismiss Latin America as a mere security problem, it would be making a serious mistake. The United States cannot erase geography, history or the fact that we are all bound by common ties affecting our destiny. If, for its part, Latin America believes that it can build its economic development in an atmosphere of strategically nurtured antagonism to the United States, it will only succeed in imposing on its peoples extreme and unnecessary hardships and compromising its future in a senseless policy,

It is not merely a question of specific formulas, which can always be worked out when we know what we want, for what purpose and by what means. The major problem has often been that the parties did not know exactly what their aims were, and this was dramatically illustrated when Kennedy outlined the Alliance for Progress. The ally he was seeking did not respond; at best, the ally felt it was a new formula for indebtedness, and the dialogue died out

To quote the French sociologist Alain Touraine: "There are moments, privileged epochs to the historian: those in which the human condition is transformed and traditional rules either change or decompose; when the actors are no longer players reasoning before a chessboard but revolutionary crowds or individuals who build temples or tumble Bastilles, who alter knowledge and actuate new machines; new eras in which history overflows circumstances and seems, at each instant, unpredictable and yet, lending itself more often than ever to understanding."

Nobody could deny that in our America, history is overflowing circumstances and seems, at each instant, unpredictable. Nevertheless, the first requirement for formulation of a policy is an effort at understanding. Just as a body cannot acquire life without a soul, no policy can live without a guiding spirit.

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