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12:00 AM, Jun 17, 1996 • By MARK FALCOFF
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Aspecter is haunting Latin America these days -- a book that frontally attacks all of the sociological and economic foolishness that, until recently, kept the region at a developmental dead-end.

The book is a long pamphlet entitled Manual del perfecto idiota latinoamericano (Manual for the Perfect Latin American Idiot). Written by three ex-leftists, it is witty, incisive, fact-packed, and fun. What's more, although released only in April, it has already sold 100,000 copies in more than a dozen countries, an astounding success for any non-fiction work in Spanish. (The book is not yet available in English.)

The authors know whereof they speak. Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Cuban who played an active role in Castro's revolution and now lives in exile in Spain. Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza is a Colombian, a former guerrilla and one of the founders of the Cuban press agency Prensa Latina. Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian, the son of the novelist and a distinguished journalist in his own right, who as a student at Princeton led the charge against Ronald Reagan when the president visited in 1984. As the authors say in their prologue, the problem isn't so much being an idiot -- lots of Latins have been that at one time or another (including the authors); the problem is persisting, against all evidence, in remaining one.

The subject of the Manual is Latin America's intellectual underdevelopment -- its tendency to continue in error, its preference for taking comfort in victimhood rather than examining reality. Since the Second World War, the region's political leaders have drunk deeply from the fount of "dependency theory," a mishmash of nationalism and Marxism-lite. Ideas, as we know, often have consequences, and in this case they explain how potentially rich countries have become poor.

On one hand, there is the Latin American state, which operates for the exclusive benefit of politicians and their clients, at the expense of rich and poor alike. On the other, there is a hostile attitude toward foreign investment that -- far from encouraging the growth of national industry -- tends to discourage productive economic activity of any kind. In order to finance bloated bureaucracies, oversized military establishments, and moneylosing state enterprises, the Latins have neglected functions that no government should delegate. This, write our authors, is what explains why Latin American schools often have no windows, blackboards, or desks, and hospitals no sheets, medicines, or surgical equipment.

Rather than face up to these facts, the Latin American idiot prefers to blame others -- the United States, the multinationals, debts owed to foreign banks. "We love being incompetent and free of all responsibility," say the authors. "We derive morbid pleasure from believing that we were robbed. We practice an imaginary masochism; we luxuriate in the fantasy of suffering." The authors have chosen the term "idiot" to describe a particular kind of Latin mentality in recognition that these notions are not confined to serious Marxists. Indeed, such notions have long been the stock in trade of conventional democratic politicians throughout the region (some of whom are quoted, to devastating effect, in an appendix). They also form the staple of " liberation theology," brought to Central America by Spanish priests bored with democracy in their homeland; of flag-waving xenophobia, favored by military men blissfully ignorant of economics; and of anti-Americanism, practiced by intellectuals of all tendencies.

Particularly piquant is the chapter on the "popular church," a chimera that received much attention in the United States during the last decade and that even now, in the guise of liberation theology, leads a twilight existence in some mainstream seminaries. As the authors point out, the poverty favored by liberation theology is spiritual, not material; the "popular church" reverses the traditional relationship between Christianity and worldly goods. As for its economics, the authors remind us that "you cannot redistribute what does not exist, and . . . simply to divide up what does into equal portions amounts to nothing more than socializing poverty."