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Fun but flawed analysis of Latin America
on July 2, 2002
"Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot" is an interesting and witty book, but it is flawed in many parts.
The book's primary thesis is that Latin America is responsible for its own problems -- that outsiders have never really played a major role in the region's underdevelopment and corruption -- and until Latin Americans admit this to themselves, the continent will continue to be a hotbed of poverty and violence. It is an interesting thesis and, for the most part, a good one. Too bad the authors haven't argued it better. Certainly their attacks on Castro, Peron, and other notorious strongmen are well founded. As well, their criticism of Eduardo Galeano's leftwing rant, "Open Veins of Latin America," is right on target. This is a silly book that deserves debunking. However, these targets are all pretty easy to hit. Where the book falls short is on Latin America's often-turbulent relationship with the United States.
For one thing, the book argues that the United States has never really exploited or manipulated the region. This is just not true. The United States has always considered Central America part of its sphere of influence and, since the time of William Walker in the 1850s, Americans have been directly involved in the political and economic developments of that region. Worse yet, the "Guide" defends America's interventions by using wildly inaccurate historical details. For instance, the book claims that the Monroe Doctrine was not imperialist ideology, but rather a justified defense policy against Europe. According to the "Guide," the Atlantic Ocean did not provide a large enough barrier between America and those ever-belligerent European nations. So for the sake of its national security, the U.S. needed to seize additional surrounding territory. To back this up, the book cites the British burning of the White House during the War of 1812.
This, of course, is utter nonsense. Yes, the British burned the White House, but only after America attacked first. Throughout the first decade of the nineteenth century, the British government was furious that the United States was openly trading with Napoleon. To limit this trade -- one attempt of many to weaken the French Empire -- Britain seized American supply ships bound for the European continent. America had wanted to remain neutral during the ongoing conflict between France and Britain, so that it could sell commodities to both nations. But when it became clear that neutrality was impossible, the U.S. Congress declared war on Britain and invaded Canada at points between Detroit and Montreal. British forces in Canada retaliated by attacking the American capital.
America was never on the defensive here, nor was Canada ever the aggressor. It was a trade dispute that got totally out of hand. Therefore, to use this dispute as a justification for American expansionism is, at best, specious. And it is even more farfetched to call this expansionism a defensive measure against European threats. These threats simply did not exist. Were the Europeans threatening the United States in Manila or Panama City? Of course not. Yet the United States was heavily involved in both regions. America had imperial aspirations in the nineteenth century, plain and simple. But the "Guide" desperately tries to whitewash this part of American history. Not only is this annoying, but it's downright wrong.
Instead of defending American exploitation, the book should have applauded the U.S.'s longstanding and ongoing investment in Latin America. Maquiladoras, one could argue, have not only brought prosperity to northern Mexico, but have also encouraged Latinas to enter the work force and become financially independent of men. This exemplifies how America, and especially American business, can bring significant benefits to Latin countries. Unfortunately, these very real benefits go unexplored in this book.
What's even more annoying, however, is the "Guide"'s cheerleading of the International Monetary Fund. Just about every major public intellectual -- including Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Joseph Stiglitz, Milton Friedman, men who come from all sides of the globalization debate -- find the IMF a disastrous organization, one that should be radically reformed if not shut down completely. Many critics of the IMF accuse the organization of "root canal economics" -- especially with its advocacy of high interest rates and tax increases during harsh downturns. Critics also point out that the IMF is obsessed with balanced budgets at all costs which, time and time again, have deepened and prolonged economic recovery in many Third World nations. Yet, the "Guide" blindly praises IMF policy, never once mentioning its failures or shortcomings, and this diminishes the book's central argument -- that all of Latin America's problems are self-inflicted.
Also, and perhaps more significant, the book totally skips over covert CIA operations in Central and South America. There is barely any mention of the 1972 coup against President Allende of Chile, nor is there any reference to the Iran-Contra scandal. And the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala is barely mentioned in passing, as if undermining a country's democracy and leading it into a 36-year civil war is some sort of minor event. As well, the "Guide" says nothing about America's endless war on drugs -- certainly a relevant and controversial issue.
These gaps, combined with the erroneous historical facts, deflate the book as a whole. The authors, it seems, have consciously avoided certain topics -- tough topics -- just so their thesis remains perfectly in tact. As a result, the book lacks fairness, balance and objectivity. However, the book's tone is very clever, and there are more one-liners here than in an Oscar Wilde play. For this reason alone the "Guide" is worth looking at.