The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.

Socialism(s) – Part One

Sanders and Me and not so Democratic Socialism

Sen. Sanders got a huge pass this primary season. Captivated by the deep dishonesty of one probable nominee and the crude ignorance of the other (not to mention his plain crudeness), the media, and informal commentators like myself, have not given the Democratic candidate and his program the attention they deserve. Also, in the current primary contest, it’s difficult not to like the guy. I have said several times that he inspires in me a kind of twisted affection. Plus, he has real pluck. But, let’s face it: He is probably done, or done for.

Sen. Sanders has gone very far into the primary while maintaining perfect dignity in his demeanor. He has seldom stooped to personal insults even when he was being severely tried by a Ms Clinton who seems to consider the man’s very candidacy a grave offense, an offense against the natural order of things, a crime of lèse-majesté, even a form of woman abuse. In the meantime Mr Sanders will have single-handedly rehabilitated the word “socialism.” This matters for the future of this nation. Time to look at it critically.

I, personally, especially like Sanders the man. I have reasons to. We are the same age; we went to college at about the same time, both in good universities. He took a fairly active part in the desegregation movement. I did not because it was too early in my American sojourn. (I wish I had taken part.) Nevertheless at age 25, Sanders and I were both leftists. The main difference between us is this: Fifty years later, he has remained impeccably faithful to the ideals of our youth while I walked away, faster and faster, really. I learned to understand the invisible hand of the market. I did some good readings. I was lucky enough to observe my leftists academic colleagues in action at close range early on. Cannily, I observed that the victorious Vietnamese Communist Party did not establish a workers’ paradise in its part of the world. I loathed authoritarianism in any guise. The Senator, meanwhile, spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.

When that latter country fell apart and its archives were open, the Senator had nothing to say about the eighty years of mass atrocities they revealed. I am guessing he did not think he had to because he believed in the democratic brand of socialism. It’s hard to tell how much history he knows. (I think that liberals in general are ignorant, including academic liberals. I could tell you stories about them that would raise the hair on the back of your neck.) It does not take much knowledge though to guess that Lenin and the 1916 Bolsheviks did not originally set out deliberately to create a tyranny. Too bad they had to come to power by overthrowing by force of arms a democratically elected government. (See “Kerensky.”) Still, they named the new country “The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,” and the word “soviet” means “council,” and “republic” means what it means. But, building socialism wasn’t working out; too many people with bad attitudes. So Lenin had to nudge History a little bit with bayonets, with barbed wire, with organized famines and soon, with a bullet to the back of the head of those who stood in the way. The Bolsheviks were forced to choose between socialism and democracy. They chose the former and they got neither. There is no record of Sen. Sanders making any relevant comment. (As always, I am eager to correct my errors.)

It’s less clear whether the Communist Party of China ever had a democratic plan. The unauthorized biography of Mao by his personal doctor reads like a tissue of horrors right from the start. (Dr. Li Zhisui. The Private Life of Chairman Mao, 1994) The Communist Parties of Eastern Europe simply came to power in the wagon train of the Red Army occupying their countries. None of them ever got close to getting there through free elections. The most interesting is the case of East Germany, ruled by a fusion of a native communist party and of preexisting democratic socialist parties. Together, they achieved a fair degree of material success for the East German people yet, they never managed to make do without a police state. Today, Sanders’ backers may not remember or they may not know that the German Democratic Republic, as it was called with a straight face, disappeared overnight. Someone had left a back door open to this paragon of socialist success and the people immediately started voting with their feet by the tens of thousands.

This is all irrelevant, Senator Sanders’ supporters would claim. You are describing a grave perversion of socialism; again, we only want democratic socialism.

During much of my adult life, the ill-defined words “socialism” and “socialist” were used with all kinds of modifiers: “African socialism,” “Arab socialism.” In all cases, the regimes so named led their countries straight to poverty, usually accompanied by official kleptocracy. In India, a really democratic country, the mild Ghandian-Nehruan form of socialism produced deep poverty for two generations including in the large, educated Indian middle class . (Just compare and contrast with un-socialist South Korea which started in 1953, after a devastating war, much poorer than India had been in 1949 when it became independent.) Socialism – whatever that is – is normally the road sign that points toward generalized poverty. Perhaps, this is only the result of a fateful case of reverse magic naming: Call something good, reasonable “socialist” and it begins degrading and sinking! Go figure!

OK, this is all about ancient times, they say. So, let’s look at current examples.

In Venezuela, socialism started under unusually favorable conditions because the country had considerable oil income that minimized the need for high taxation, a major reason for discontent in most socialist experiments. Yet, the socialists in power there made such a mess of it that today, only a few years later, the country suffers about 400% inflation (in 2016). If you had a dollar’s worth of local money there 12 months ago, it now only buys about a quarter’s worth of milk or bread. The skilled middle-class is leaving or trying to. They may return later; or, they may not. If they don’t, it will take a couple of generations at best to rebuild the country’s human capital after the socialist experiment ends.

Note that the sharp drop in world oil prices has affected many countries. It’s only in “Bolivarian” socialist Venezuela that you will see mass exodus and severe shortages of necessities.

In Brazil, The Workers’ Party is in power. The sitting president is a woman whose bona fide, whose socialist credentials are not in question. When she was young, she was imprisoned and even tortured for her belief in socialism, or because she was a guerrilla. (That’s the name for a left-wing terrorist.) She would now be impeached for making up optimistic economic figures for her country, except for the fact that the man constitutionally designated to replace her is also under indictment for corruption. It was bound to happen. The federal government in Brazil eats up 40% of GDP. The huge national oil company, Petrobras is nationalized; it belongs to the government, a favorite socialist arrangement. So oil revenues belong to everyone which means they belong to no one. Why not help myself a little, generations of Brazilian politicians have figured? There are no shareholders to keep tabs and to complain, after all. Socialism and kleptocracy are like father and son.

But, but, you say, those are Third World countries that have not yet recovered from the corrupting influence of colonialism (200 years later). Point well taken. Here is another case I know well, of a socialist country that has not been colonized since about 50 (BC.) France has been under the guiding hand of the French Socialist Party for nearly five years this time around. By the way, France is a democratic country with fair elections and a free press. The Socialists won fair and square. They were in power for 23 of the 35 years since 1981. They largely implemented their program and there were few rollbacks – except by themselves, a few times when they understood the disastrous effects of the reforms they had implemented. I am thinking of a broad de-nationalization of banks in 1981-82. (This is directly relevant to Sen. Sanders’ thinking.)

The French Socialist Party in power never tried to restrict freedom of the press and it did not fill the prisons with its opponents. (Instead, it emptied them hastily of violent criminals, according to its security critics.) By and large, its rule has been quite civilized. There is just that pesky problem of chronic unemployment which never dips much below 10% (25% for the young; sky is the limit if you are young and your name is “Mohamed”). There is also the fact that economic stagnation is now seen as normal by the young. Has been for a couple of generations, now. And then, there is the unbelievable cultural sterility of French society (another story, obviously that I partially tell elsewhere on this blog. Ask me.)

True story: a few months ago, members of the socialist government celebrated loudly. That was because the government office of economic analysis had revised upward its estimate of annual economic growth from GDP: + 0.4% to +0.6% ! (Yes, that’s 6 tenth of one per cent. It’s true that today, in the spring of 2016, it’s at a respectable annual 2% plus.)

“No, no,” cries Sen. Sanders ( and I can almost hear him from here) “I don’t mean ‘socialist’ as in ‘Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,’ and I don’t mean Red China, and I don’t mean North Korea, certainly, and I don’t mean Cuba (although…), and I don’t mean Venezuela today, or Brazil. And, I don’t even mean France although I could not explain why exactly. (Bad call here, Senator. The French single-payer health care system works well; it’s cheaper than US health care, and French men live two years longer than American men.) I mean socialism as in Denmark and Sweden. Now, here we are at last. In part Two, we will look at what passes for Swedish “socialism.” (Denmark is too small to be an example, perhaps.)

Assessing Elections in Poland and Argentina in the Context of Populism and Liberalism in Europe and South America II (liberalism in the classical sense of course).

The Argentine election was for the state president, who is head of government as well as head of state. An expected first round victory for the Peronist party (formally known as the Justicialist Party) candidate Daniel Scoli disappeared as he failed to clear 45%. He is clearly ahead of Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires, running on behalf of a three party centre-right alliance which contains the less statist, and populist elements of Argentine politics, but at least the hope exists of a second round triumph over the Peronists.

The third candidate is also a Peronist, showing the difficulty of overcoming that legacy and why even just turning the Presidential election into a competition between a Peronist and a non-Peronist is a victory of some kind. The sitting President Christine Kirchner pushed at the limits of the Argentine constitution, which prohibits more than two terms for any President, by alternating in power with her late husband Nestór Kirchner. If he had not died in 2010, we might now be looking forward to a fourth consecutive term in power for team Kirchner.

Peronists or the army have run Argentina almost constantly since the 1940s. The periods of army rule give a good indication of how successful Juan Perón and his widow Isabel (the third wife) were in stabilising Argentine society and political institutions. Nevertheless the Peronists have been the only party with a record of electoral success in Argentina and have improved from the chaos that Juan and Isabel instigated in more recent appearances in government.

As such a dominant party they have relatively centrist technocratic elements (most notably ex-president Carlos Menem) as well as the hard core statist populist nationalists. The Kirchner years have tended increasingly towards the more populist end, stoking nationalist sentiment over the islands in the south Atlantic known in Argentina as the Malvinas and in the UK, which has sovereignty over the islands, as the Falklands.

There has been economic growth under the Kirchners, but it has now very much slowed as policy has tended towards high inflation, currency controls, confrontation on debt owed to foreign creditors and increasing budget deficits. There has been social liberalism, most obviously, on attitudes to the LGBT communities, but in a context of nationalist sovereigntist politics. At least we can hope that if Scoli wins, he will feel obliged to shift towards genuine economic sustainability and a less populist politics.

In general, this adds to a feeling that South America has passed the peak of leftist populism which has influenced most countries outside Colombia in the last two decades. The more respectable end of that spectrum in Brazil’s Workers’ Party, which had been fairly successful economically, appears to be declining under the weight of corruption scandals, economic recession and incapacity in delivering on the more populist side. On the less respectable side, Venezuela has lost its status as model for the world’s radical left as corruption, economic decay, state brutality, election rigging and persecution of the opposition has become too extreme to ignore, particularly since the state socialist hegemony no longer has Hugo Chavez as a charismatic frontman.

Brazil and Venezuela were the models of the left, reformist and revolutionary respectively, and no longer have that status. If there is a model now it is the Evo Morales Presidency in Bolivia, which in some respects is radical left, but not consistently enough to get the kind of model status previously accorded to ‘Lula’ (now caught up in corruption scandals as his successor Dilma Rousseff) in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela (whose successor Nicolás Maduro is a blatant and charmless neo-Stalinist thug-apparatchik). The Morales regime has received some cautious support from those inclined towards liberty on the grounds that he has pursued an overdue reduction of the power of traditional rent seeking elites in Bolivia and engaged in an economic pragmatism certainly distasteful to former Chavez admirers, and not even entirely comfortable for former admirers of Lula.

The leftist populist tide in south America has not entirely receded, but is now discussed with increasing nostalgia and an increasingly elegiac tone by left socialist observers, and as it has receded has tended to leave only embarrassments for the socialist left or reformist pragmatist examples of at least some interest to the liberty community. We are not looking at a strong shift towards liberty in all its forms in that region, but at least we see some shifts opening the possibilities of new movements towards liberty in markets, rule of law, individual rights, and social openness.

“What every 21st century American should ‘know'”

Over at Policy of Truth, Dr Khawaja has an interesting post up on cultural literacy:

The journal Democracy is running an article revisiting E.D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, and looking for readers to help generate an updated list like the one at the end of Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

Here’s the list I came up with, completely off the top of my head (i.e., involving less than a minute of thought, since that’s all the time for thought I currently have).

  1. Wounded Knee 1890
  2. Wounded Knee 1973
  3. The Fort Laramie Treaty (1868)
  4. Russell Means and/or Dennis Banks
  5. AIM (American Indian Movement)
  6. Ayn Rand
  7. Atlas Shrugged
  8. The Fountainhead
  9. libertarianism
  10. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)

I added my own list in the ‘comments’ thread, but still haven’t had time to address critiques. My list:

My quick list:
1) black conservatism
2) the whole Pahlavi-Mossadegh affair
3) libertarianism (people still have trouble conceptualizing it’s right-left crossover appeal)
4) Latin America’s Western culture
5) Dutch history
6) South Asian-East African literature (lots of historical links between the two regions that could help conceptualize current US role in the world)

Lists are fun. They are an easy way to start a conversation and they are time friendly. Add your own and don’t forget to justify your positions! Here is how I justify #1: it’s a storied, intellectually-robust tradition that has suffered greatly in the public sphere due to vulgar demagogic practices associated with the black Left. #2: C’mon, why shouldn’t every American know that their government overthrew an elected government in Iran and paved the way for the current anti-American regime?#3: see what’s between the parenthesis. #4: knowing that Latin Americans are by and large Western (save for the Natives still living in the Andean highlands) would do wonders for better relations between North and South. #5: Dutch (and Swiss) history can teach us far more about our own institutions than anything the UK has to offer. #6: see parenthesis.

Lots of foreign policy implications on my list, as well as stuff that can help to better understand why the US works the way it works. (This is a charitable assumption on my part, of course.)

From the Comments: Types of Federalisms, Good and Bad

Adrián‘s response to responses by me and Michelangelo on his initial response to a comment by Michelangelo that I highlighted in a post of mine (whew!) deserves a closer look:

Guys, thanks for your comments, and apologies for the delay in responding!

1. I share your love for idle speculation. I’d say my fundamental difference with you lies elsewhere: you grew up/are very familiar with a country where federalism has worked pretty well (with notable exceptions, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws), while I came from another where federal institutions are full of perverse incentives. So, whenever somebody proposes a federal arrangement, I immediately perceive the costs, while you’re more open to the potential benefits.

2. That said, I think an useful way for thinking about federal structures is to analyze the incentives faced by subnational governments. (a) Some subnational governments are accountable to domestic audiences, and thus they seek a federal structure where subnational governments retain considerable autonomy, including autonomy over taxation. This is the kind of federation that fosters tax competition and experimentation, with the US and the EU as good examples. (b) In other contexts, subnational governments are not fully accountable to domestic audiences (even with elections) and thus they devise federal institutions as mechanisms for extracting and distributing rents among themselves, and they use these rents to perpetuate themselves in power. Rather than keeping authority over taxation, they purposefully delegate their tax authority in the federal government to collect taxes for themselves. In other words, the federal government acts as a enforcer of a cartel: it establishes the same tax rate everywhere, collects the money, and distributes it between the states according to some highly politicized formula. This is the kind of federalism that predominates in Latin America: Argentina, Mexico, and to a lesser extent Brazil.

In sum, my point is that creating a federation among governments that are not responsive to voters will lead to the second type of federation. I don’t see the Middle East creating a fully functional federal system unless governments in the region become fully responsive to voters, which will require much more than competitive elections.

3. Michelangelo: I agree with 95% of what you say about Turkey and Israel, especially the EU part, and I obviously believe that it is a good thing these countries trade more and develop better relationship with each other. That said, the main reason why I don’t see these countries forming a federation is a more fundamental one: (a) that neither Turkish nor Israeli politicians have anything to win by creating a federal arrangement, and (b) given Turkey’s enormous size with respect to Israel, this problem is especially important from the Israeli point of view.

There is more on federalism at NOL here. Check out Adrián’s posts here, and Michelangelo’s are here.