The Magazine

WHY ARE LATINS 'BACKWARD'?

Feb 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 20 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Lawrence E. Harrison

The Pan-American Dream

Do Latin America's Cultural Values Discourage True Partnership With the United States and Canada?

Basic Books, 310 pp., $ 25


As Lawrence Harrison reminds us in The Pan-American Dream, Latin America has been getting bad press for a long time. Thomas Jefferson worried that the "priest-ridden" Spanish colonies, if liberated, would "become the murderous tools of their respective Bonapartes." Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, predicted the region would "ineluctably fall under the domination of obscure small tyrants of every color and race," and concluded that the wisest course for a Latin American was to emigrate. Until recently, they've been right.


Harrison, a former USAID mission director in Haiti and Nicaragua, has spent the last decade asking why some cultures prosper and others flounder. For the different paths taken by North American and Latin American countries since independence, he offers a very simple cause: "the strikingly different values, attitudes, and institutions that have flowed from the Anglo-Protestant and Ibero-Catholic traditions."


Harrison is as big a booster of Protestantism as Jerry Falwell. " Protestants," he says, "generally attach higher importance to work, education, sobriety, honesty, and community responsibility." If he is optimistic about Brazil and Chile, it is in part because of the rise of Protestantism there, while the weakness of Protestantism in Mexico helps explain its very slow transformation. He thinks Protestantism is a sure-fire way to convert Latins to better behavior.


So is immigration. Harrison notes that Latin America's entrepreneurial classes consist disproportionately of foreigners: Basques in Chile; Swiss, Italians, and Japanese in Brazil; and Jews, Arabs, and (recently) Koreans all over the place.


While Ibero-Catholic culture helps explain Latin America's comparative backwardness, meddlesome intellectuals peddled "costly nonsense" that has wrought immense harm. Today their theories have been junked and their greatest works are laughable, but on they go, pontificating, getting grants, being interviewed by CNN and the New York Times for their expertise on Latin American life. Since almost none of them have had the good manners to admit they were wrong, Harrison identifies the very worst of them:


* Raul Prebisch, the Argentine economist. Prebisch headed the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, where he taught "dependency theory" to thousands of disciples. Under this theory, the United States profited from Latin backwardness, and kept the Third World in penury as a matter of deliberate policy. (One of his disciples, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is now president of Brazil -- and doing a decent job of it, too -- but not too many years ago sought to cure Latin underdevelopment by constructing " paths to socialism.")


* Jorge Castaneda, the occasional Newsweek columnist and former Carnegie fellow. Most Mexican intellectuals, Harrison writes, "have spent the last four decades contriving specious theories that blamed Mexico's ills on the United States." But Castaneda, who once wrote that "democracy is in absolute contradiction with capitalism," has consistently been among the most strident.


* Richard Fagen of Stanford, who wrote that "muckraking and informational activity" that was admittedly "less than scholarly by conventional definitions" was necessary to check "the worst excesses of American power, whether perpetrated by the Marines or by the multinationals."


* John Womack, the Harvard Mexico expert, who taught that the best way for Americans to help Mexico "is to dedicate themselves to a profound democratic reform" -- of the United States -- "with the goal of installing some kind of socialism."


And that is not to forget the Ford Foundation, which paid for most of this destructive theorizing and self-promotion.


Harrison emerges reasonably optimistic about Latin America. Immigrants carry a culture of resourcefulness with them, and those Latins who convert to Protestantism can be expected to take on Protestant ways. But Harrison has only a vague idea of how the great mass of Latins is to become "modern." He is right to focus on building schools and courthouses, and equally correct to note the importance of policies that reward saving and protect property rights. His suggestions, such as improving Latin judiciaries and universities and building up the non-governmental sector, are solid.