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."

Equally perceptive is the chapter on anti-Americanism, one of the region's most important exports for decades. U.S. visitors are often told, "It isn't the American people we hate, it's their government." To which the authors respond, "Wrong! Governments change, but the hate remains." For gringo- baiters, it doesn't matter whether the United States is led by Kennedy or Nixon, Carter or Reagan. What is different is the nature of anti- Americanism in Latin America. The authors describe it as a kind of racism-in- reverse. Whereas the Nazis hated the Jews because they considered them inferior, here "the object is hated . . . because it is assumed . . . to be superior. What we are dealing with . . . is not an ideological question but a significant social pathology: difficult to diagnose and harder still to treat. "

The Manual also contains a brisk review of Latin American history from a sharply revisionist perspective. We are reminded that the liberator Simon Bolivar, far from being an incipient social revolutionary, was "obsessed by the racial problem" and determined at all costs to avoid conflict between classes and colors. Pancho Villa, legendary on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, was an illiterate cattle thief who gloried not only in shooting prisoners but in forcing them to execute one another. Similar shafts are directed at Nicaragua's General Augusto Sandino, Argentina's General Juan Per6n, and Peru's General Juan Velasco Alvarado ("You can get an idea of the patriotic fervor of his regime by the fact that he officially abolished Christmas and expelled from Peru the most fearsome of its enemies -- Donald Duck").

Of course, the supreme revolutionary icon is Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. For the idiot, the Cuban revolution is "an old romance that never really dies. " This is one area where one might suspect the idiot would have learned something, because after nearly four decades of actual practice, Cuba is demonstrably poorer today than it was when Castro took power, both in absolute and relative terms. Our idiot is sometimes willing to admit this, but then tries to crawl out of his tight spot by assuring us that everything would be all right in Cuba if it weren't for the American trade embargo.

This overlooks the fact that since 1959 the island has received Soviet aid amounting to four Marshall Plans or three times the amount of U.S. aid given to all of Latin America under the Alliance for Progress.

Cuban Communists like to boast that they have a doctor for every 220 persons, which when compared with countries like Guatemala, Honduras, or Panama is superficially impressive. But, as the authors point out, Denmark has a doctor for every 450 persons. Does anyone really believe that Cuba has better health services than Denmark? "It would have been better if Cuba had spent less money on medical education and more on hospital services." The authors further point out that Chile, which has taken precisely the opposite economic road from Cuba, is the only country in Latin America where extreme poverty has actually declined over the past ten years.

That a book of this kind could be published at all, much less become a runaway bestseller, is a sure sign that new winds are blowing in Latin America. But Latin American idiots are not taking the matter lying down. Accustomed to a virtual monopoly of information and opinion and total control of publicly funded educational and cultural institutions -- and armed with powerful sanctions against dissenters -- they have leapt to the attack. La Republica, an influential daily in Lima, published its review alongside a photograph of naked starving children.

One Colombian critic deemed the book "one of the greatest examples of stupidity ever written," though he admitted he hadn't actually gotten around to reading it. Another accused Apuleyo, Montaner, and Vargas Llosa of "trying to turn themselves into gendarmes of the intellect." Still another seems not to have read the book either, since she claimed that, in it, the authors defend U.S. military interventions in Latin America, which is precisely the opposite of the truth.

Thus, Manual for the Perfect Latin American Idiot is a bombshell, detonated at a propitious moment. Long before the United States contracted the disease of political correctness, it had reached epidemic proportions in Latin America. The reception of this book suggests that the Latins are finally bidding farewell to idiocy. Is it too much to hope that Americans will soon do the same?

By Mark Falcoff

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