IN ITS early stages the Spanish civil war awakened loud repercussions in the Latin American countries. Both the masses and the élite, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, took an intense sentimental interest in the progress of the military revolt. This was last summer and autumn, when many feared lest the overwhelming success of either General Franco or the Spanish Government might provoke analogous upheavals in Latin American countries.

But as the struggle settled down into a war of attrition, in which several of the major European Powers, more or less openly participated, Latin America's interest became less avid. Not that the daughter republics were unconcerned with the fate of the motherland, only that gradually they came to see the conflict being waged there primarily through the reflecting glass of their own domestic problems. What was going on in Spain served to clarify and sharpen the political and social issues facing the Latin American peoples in their own countries. We began to ask ourselves the questions: Has democracy failed? Has fascism or communism any chance of being accepted here as a system of government to replace democracy? But though the Spanish struggle caused us to feel the importance of these questions, the success of one side or the other in that conflict will probably have little direct effect on the answers we give. To us Latin Americans, Spain has today become largely an example of what to avoid, an example of the dangers of partisanship and the absence of a sense of fair play, social discipline and order. This is not to say, of course, that Latin Americans will not continue to follow the conflict in Spain with close attention or that certain groups will not seek to exploit that conflict for their own purposes.

During the opening weeks of the war, most of us in Latin America adopted, in our minds at least, the rôle of either loyalists or rebels. The streets in front of newspaper bulletin boards constituted miniature battlefields and the patience of the police was severely taxed to preserve order. Today the crowds have disappeared, and the newspapers actually are having some difficulty in keeping their readers interested in the daily news from Spain. This does not indicate that Latin Americans have become indifferent to the Spanish tragedy. But the periodical repetition and exploitation of its horrors by the press, the sport of making news out of ruins, festering wounds and massacred children, have benumbed public sensibility. As the adjectives are repeated, day after day, they end by falling like dead shells. The public's capacity for emotional reaction is exhausted.

At the very start of the revolt, the support which the rebels accepted from the Moors was a difficult phenomenon for us to reconcile with the Spanish people's historical and psychological background. Spaniards have always had a proud abhorrence of outside interference. Our surprise increased as gradually it became apparent that Spanish territory was being used as a battlefield by Nazi, Fascist and Communist Powers, and that the Spanish people were in large degree mere innocent bystanders -- guinea pigs for the experiments of the two socio-political forces now struggling for supremacy in Europe. As the war increased in intensity we began asking ourselves: Does it lie within the capacities of the Spanish people to stop of its own will this useless struggle? Many Latin Americans believe that the answer is in the negative. A general conviction prevails that the Spaniards will cease killing each other only when the outsiders have become exhausted. For us who love Spain so deeply this thought makes the plight of the motherland doubly painful.

II

When Franco, supported by the regular army, the deposed clergy and the land-owner class, revolted against the legally constituted Government, his example became a danger for the incipient democracies of Latin America. In these countries -- except perhaps in Argentina -- we have generals of the old school, who, though often well meaning, are unfortunately susceptible to the flattery of politicians avid for office, personally or by proxy. It is always possible to justify the forcible abrogation or suspension of the Constitution by alleging deficiencies in the democratic system, and by declaring that the moral and economic salvation of the country depends on some general's sacrificing himself to the imperative demands of patriotism and establishing a more or less veiled dictatorship. An article in the London Times of November 4, 1936, entitled "Mexican Eyes on Spain -- Temptations to Generals," was on the whole far-fetched and based on a fallacious parallel between Spain and Mexico. Nevertheless it undeniably contained an element of truth, equally applicable to several other of our countries in that it refers to the almost universally accepted system of establishing governments by military uprisings.

Yet it must not be concluded that Franco's example was the only one which could affect the domestic situation in the Latin American republics. More than one government might have been jeopardized if the Spanish Government had succeeded in quenching the rebellion through the instrumentality of the extreme Left. The equilibrium on which some of our republican institutions depend is occasionally so precarious that any radical movement, either from Right or Left, may upset them. In the event that the Spanish Government had promptly defeated the rebels mainly through the aid of the extreme Left the masses in many parts of our continent might have become unruly.

I do not wish, however, to take too pessimistic a view regarding the possible outcome of violent reactions either to the Left or Right. The political health of our young communities seems to me robust enough to make them largely immune against serious infection by any foreign virus. Of the two possible reactions, I admit that at present the one from the Right represents, particularly in Argentina, the greater potential danger.

This consideration leads directly into the second part of my subject, namely, a survey of local problems which, though not determined by present Spanish events, have points of contact with them.

III

The world as a whole seems to be passing through a period in which the individual feels tempted or obliged to suffocate all generous emotions in the effort to ward off the potential dangers lurking around him on every hand. This constitutes almost a reversion to the dark ages, when freedom of thought and speech were crimes and pillage a virtue. Only a few years ago, reason, kindness and respect for the ideas of other people were proclaimed as the qualities that would lead mankind to a happier destiny. But so great has been the moral upheaval that today unreason, selfishness and arbitrary force have taken their place in public esteem. We were taught in our youth to believe that the conduct of the state and of its external manifestation, the government, should be guided by certain almost immutable moral principles drawn from Natural Law and shared in common by all civilized people regardless of race and religion. The state was supposed to set the standard for the individual's sense of right or wrong; and acts which were considered crimes for an individual were likewise held to be crimes if committed by the state. There thus existed a parallel code of morals for the individual and for the state; in fact, it was this identity in ethical standards which gave the state its authority.

In other words, the Christian spirit seemed to be taking an increasingly stronger hold over the minds and hearts of men, and fine phrases and thoughts were often actually carried into practice. Few dared openly to vaunt their contempt for freedom of thought and press or for the personal liberty of the individual; nor were we obliged to stand by and watch the unblushing worship of violence and hear about the merits and positive benefits of war. Acts of violence were done. But to hear the open promulgation of the theory that a nation had the moral right arbitrarily to deprive another nation of its territory by force would have been as shocking as to see some one appear naked at a séance of the French Academy. The writer recalls how when he was young the Buenos Aires newspapers sang the praises of our civilization, so advanced that policemen carried only the traditional English stick. In the world of today many a man of forty or forty-five, who certainly does not think of himself as old, feels quite out of place. Perhaps I simply have not advanced with my times.

IV

We in Argentina are not, of course, totally free from the virus of Fascism. Only recently in the upper chamber of our Congress, after Senators Palacios and Bravo had attacked a bill to repress Communism, Senator Villafañe made a vitriolic speech against democracy and universal suffrage. Such onslaughts against the fundamental principles of our political institutions, even if sincere, cause alarm. But they do not mean we are headed for Fascism.

At the unveiling of the monument to President Saenz Peña, author of the law establishing the secret ballot and compulsory vote, Buenos Aires witnessed one of the most impressive demonstrations ever staged in that city. For the occasion there had been formed a Popular Front composed of the Radical, Socialist, Progressive Democrat and Communist Parties, representing in all over eighty-five percent of the electorate of the Republic. But this was the Popular Front's only public act; it was followed by the withdrawal of the Radical Party, controlling seventy percent of the voters; while the Socialists, for their part, were unwilling further to accept on any terms the support offered them by the Communists.

We may conclude, then, that Argentine democratic organizations are impervious to both Fascism and Communism. The average Argentine thought it absurd when some of the participants in the Saenz Peña demonstration paraded with clenched fists aloft, just as they consider the Nazi and Fascist salutes ridiculous on the rare occasions when they are exhibited. The fact is that neither Communists nor Fascists constitute more than a small minority in Argentina. There are no reasons for the existence of either of them as a political force, and it would be an error to attribute too much significance to the stir one or the other at times creates. The Argentines as a people have a penchant for new fads, be it clothes, amusements or political doctrines. Communism and Fascism, particularly the latter, will disappear from Argentina as did mah-jong, minature golf and the "art nouveau" of the architects of 1900 -- although, I admit, the latter left some pretty ugly reminders of its transitory existence.

Just at present, it is true, there is a tendency in certain Argentine quarters to exaggerate the Communist bogey. It might amuse some of my American readers, especially those acquainted with Argentina, to know that there are persons in Buenos Aires who openly accuse La Nación of strong Communist tendencies. I say this might be amusing, because when I visited the United States on the eve of the presidential election last autumn I found that all those opposed to Mr. Landon were indiscriminately lumped together and branded as "Communists." There exist people in Buenos Aires to whom you are a Communist if you favor the secret ballot and universal suffrage; if you talk about social justice and economic reforms; if you argue that the less privileged classes should be properly protected and that workmen should receive wages sufficient at least to cover the bare needs of their families; if you point out that the Spanish Government is that country's legally-elected, constitutional and legitimate one.

If the pending bill for the repression of Communism were finally enacted by our Congress, anyone daring publicly to make the speech President Roosevelt delivered at Madison Square Garden before the November election might find himself in jail. Indeed, some of the conservative leaders finally noticed the evident incongruity between the official honors bestowed upon President Roosevelt, whom our people received with genuine enthusiasm, and some of their own party policies in social, economic or political matters. It became particularly imperative to explain away this incongruity after President Roosevelt's remarks in his recent inaugural address concerning a government's duty to insure a decent standard of living to all of its citizens. The difficulty was solved by the simple process of asserting that President Roosevelt is not a statesman but merely a spiritual pastor!

V

Whatever the subject under discussion, it always is hard to draw sufficiently general conclusions to cover all of the Latin American countries. The rule holds good in the present case.

The Government of El Salvador was, for instance, the first to recognize the "Junta de Burgos." Its action even preceded that of Berlin and Rome. Since then no other American government has followed Salvador's lead. From Brazil I am informed that the struggle in Spain is not regarded as between two "sovereignities" but between two opposing ideologies supported by foreign nations. While the part of Brazil's population with Left tendencies favors the Valencia Government, the majority of the country leans toward Burgos, not because of sympathy with the military dictatorship but out of dislike for anarchy and Communism. But in Brazil the Spanish war has not really been an important issue.

In Chile, on the other hand, the events in Spain seem to have had a marked influence. This was noticeable in elections held in the provinces of Atacama and Coquimbo during August 1936, when a well-known candidate of the misleadingly named Radical Party, which had long enjoyed a majority in those provinces, was defeated because he was supported by the Chilean Frente Popular and thus lost the votes of many of his own conservative friends, particularly co-religionists and large land-owners. At present, the Frente Popular is openly espousing the cause of constitutional government in Spain, while its opponents with equal fervor desire the victory of Franco.

If the war in Spain had produced really serious repercussions in Latin America we might logically have expected to hear echoes of them at the Buenos Aires Conference. Actually the Conference observed almost complete silence concerning the Spanish conflict. The principal topics discussed at Pan American meetings have always pertained primarily, if not exclusively, to the Western Hemisphere. Particular efforts to observe this self-imposed limitation were made at the Buenos Aires Conference in view of the very unsettled conditions prevailing in the rest of the world. Faced with the danger of a new general conflagration, the peace-loving American countries resolved to unite their efforts for the protection of mutual interests adversely affected by the European turmoil. Adhesion to the democratic principles so brilliantly expounded by President Roosevelt, and reiterated by the delegates of other republics, hardly offered sufficient reason for the Conference to express an opinion with regard to Spain. Any such expression might have been construed as a violation of neutrality or as a breach of the consecrated American principle of non-intervention.

It should be mentioned, perhaps, that at the plenary session of December 20 the Mexican delegate, Señor Beteta, delivered a courageous speech justifying, juridically and morally, the aid his country had given to the legitimate Spanish Government. But the Conference as a whole refrained from entering into any debate on the merits of the Mexican position. In like fashion, the joint resolution on behalf of peace in Spain, which was presented the following day by the Central American delegates, was not given consideration by the Conference. Adoption of this resolution by the Conference would have amounted to a tender of good offices to the parties in conflict, and this was hardly a practical proposal since by that time the Spanish civil war had evidently developed ramifications extending far beyond the confines of the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps, too, the delegates deemed it more seemly not to pass resolutions on a strictly European problem in view of the fact that the Conference had failed to settle the Chaco question.

The only formal act of the Conference relating to Spain was the tribute rendered her at the plenary session of December 23. After the assembly had listened to stirring speeches by the delegates from Honduras and the Dominican Republic, the President of the Conference, Dr. Saavedra Lamas, moved that the delegates stand for a minute in homage to Spain. The deep silence in which this tribute was carried out by all the American representatives showed how profoundly men of peace and good will are moved when confronted by passions beyond their power to control.

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  • ENRIQUE GIL, Argentine lawyer, Professor of Political Economy in the University of La Plata; delegate to many legal and scientific conferences and author of several works
  • More By Enrique Gil