Latin American Liberalism: A Mirage?

By Llosa, Alvaro Vargas | Independent Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Latin American Liberalism: A Mirage?


Llosa, Alvaro Vargas, Independent Review


It is said that Latin America's misfortune is instability. I believe the opposite. "Next to instability," German Arciniegas wrote in 1958, "there at times occurs something worse: stability" (all translations from Spanish-language material are mine). A word with a double meaning, stability signifies continuity yet also denotes a static or immutable quality. In the two centuries of Latin America's existence as independent republics, a permanent institutional and political order has followed a path of continuity under the constant swings of the present and the mirages of turbulent change. At the same time, we Latin Americans have not known how to be unstable where we should be. For this reason, Latin America's standard of living is one-tenth that of the United States and Canada; one-half of our population is poor, and one-quarter lives in misery (Sol M. Linowitz Forum 1997). A decade after the poorly named "liberal" reforms south of the Rio Grande, dismay is spreading from one end of Latin America to another. The developed countries are stable in essential matters and unstable in the rest--perfectly inverse to our own realities. In the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, railroad stocks, the symbol of heavy industry, were the only stocks that a conservative investor took into account in the so-called blue chips. At the close of the century, with a recorded increase of 26,130 percent in the Dow Jones index, the stars of the American stock market were companies with no profits, examples being such dissimilar endeavors as Amazon and the Internet Capital Group (Norris 2000). Can there be any greater instability? Yet, thanks to fundamental stability, this transition, a revolution that has changed the symbols of the modern economy, has taken place, transferring the locus of universal progress from industrial goods to the world of the mind and the imagination. In Latin America, however, our sense of what must be changeable and what must be constant in a society has determined that the only progress recorded during the past century was that forced by the progress of the developed countries. Whereas some countries of the world rode on the back of the universal technological Pegasus, we clutched its hooves and were dragged along. Ours was a passive progress.

Auth is the word I would use to describe the basic characteristic of our institutional organization and, by extension, of our societies. Caudillismo, the overwhelming influence of the strongman in government that emerged from our battles for independence, is still the mark of our political life, even in democracy. Together with the strong positivist influence inherited from the nineteenth century, caudillismo has placed the will over legislation and legislation over law to the point that we have been governed by a teleocracy (a government of objectives) instead of by a nomocracy (a government of laws)--to apply the formula used by Bertrand de Jouvenel. Heliocentric like the Inca society, which revolved around a Sun god incarnated by the emperor, our societies have circled the orbit of political and military power. For us, order has not been that "balance generated from inside" a society, but rather the "pressure exerted from outside it," according to Ortega y Gasset's conception ([1927] 1974). Therefore, the distinguishing Latin American figures at the end of the twentieth century were authoritarian caudillos--from Fidel Castro to Augusto Pinochet and from Alberto Fujimori to Hugo Chavez--a strange cocktail of populism, nationalism, theatricality, and antiliberalism arising in the homeland of Francisco Miranda and Andres Bello (also the homeland, to be sure, of the military caudillos Simon Bolivar and Antonio Jose de Sucre).

In our countries' collectivism--or disdain for the individual--has been another constant, the offspring of an ancient tradition. The Greeks gave personal, individual characteristics to abstractions of the mind. At some point, human intelligence began to do the opposite: to give an abstract, later collective, meaning to the individual and to the human. …

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