Today's date:
Spring 1986

Central America's Problem: Philip II, Not Mikhail Gorbachev

Carlos Fuentes, a member of the Institute's advisory board, is Mexico's leading novelist and was that country's Ambassador to France. His most recent book is THE OLD GRINGO.

The US tradition is that of self-government, the rights of assembly and free speech, civil disobedience, the rule of law and the espousal of the values of the modem world as seen through the eyes of Protestantism and capitalism - the world of the Magna Carta, the English Parliamentary system, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson - but also the consecration of private property and individual interests above communal values, the world of John Locke, Adam Smith, the slave plantation, the urban ghetto and the industrial sweatshop.

The US has known revolution and civil wars when its values have been denied or menaced, but most of the time it has shown itself capable of negotiating and winning for the civil society the capacity to negotiate from the bottom up.

The tradition of Latin America is that of theocratic Indian empires, Iberian royal absolutism, the Inquisition and the Counter Reformation - the world of Montezuma and Cortez, Philip II and Torquemada.

We have lived under a mixture of Scholasticism and Utopia. Abeyance to hierarchy and the expectation of grace through the intercession of the Roman Catholic Church is tempered by loyalty to collective ends with national values which outweigh the ends and values of the individual.

One thing has remained constant - the means to these ends are granted from above, through authoritarian concession; and when this does not happen, they are wrested from below through violent revolution. The problems of Central America come from this tradition. They are, therefore, more the legacy of Philip II of 16th Century Spain than the meddlings of Mikhail Gorbachev from the 20th Century Kremlin.

So, there are no Jeffersons in Central America because nothing in the culture authorizes such a figure. But there are many new Bolivars who defend their countries against foreign invasion, as Juarez did against the French in Mexico in 1862, and Sandino against the Marines in Nicaragua in 1926.

This great dissimilarity of our historical and cultural roots leads me to consider two issues that I fear are making some headway in the US and affecting us deeply in Latin America.

The first is that democracy as defined by the United States, and not independence as defined by Latin America, is the issue in Nicaragua.

The second is that support for democracy abroad authorizes the United States to intervene, if not directly, then through counterrevolutionary activities financed by the United States, in order to "restore" democracy in a foreign country.

But democracy, like revolution, cannot be exported. Nor can democracy be restored where it never existed. What democracy can be "restored" in Nicaragua? Democracy could be restored in Chile where it once existed, but I see no CIAfinanced freedom fighters against Pinochet on the slopes of the Andes.

This debate is perhaps best understood by placing it in the light of European national development.

The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci makes a fundamental distinction between the politics of Machiavelli in Italy, which occur in the moment of violence in the city-state of the Medicis - and the politics of jean Bodin, the philosopher of the French centralized state, which occur in the moment of equilibrium in the nation-state of Henry IV and Louis XIII.

Bodin could invoke the rights of the middle-classes because the basic problem of foundation, unity and national consensus had already been solved in France.

Machiavelli found it necessary to invoke the rights of revolution because everything - territorial unity, national identity, a society without feudal obstacles - still had to be achieved in Italy.

Apply this to Latin America:

Revolutionary leaders such as Obregon and Calles in Mexico in the 20s, Castro in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua have had to identify the moment of violence with the moment of foundation, so as to obtain territorial unity, national identity and institutional viability. Mexico lived its moment of violence from 1910 to 1930, Cuba is barely coming out of it, Nicaragua is immersed in it.

The present-day rulers of Mexico and Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil, Peru and Uruguay live the French moment more than the Machiavellian moment: their dilemma is how to maintain a democratic and nationalistic equilibrium so as not to fall into violence again.

Will the United States help these governments poised between a balance won with difficulty, and a violence lurking forever in the shadows of our history?

The forces of democracy and equilibrium are hardly helped by the doctrine of the right to intervention, which presupposes that Marxist governments are bad and the guerillas that oppose them are good, whereas client governments of the United States are good and the guerillas that oppose them are bad.

We live in a divided world where each superpower arrogates unto itself a sphere of influence and the right to do and undo governments in that sphere. The histories of Eastern Europe, as well as the borders to the south and cast of the Soviet Union, and the histories of the Latin American republics are wounded by the intervention of the major regional power Russia or the United States.

We can judge the governments and the guerillas in these spheres of influence by the degree of their subservience to the paramount power or their independence from that power.

The Afghan guerillas are freedom fighters: they oppose the Soviet puppet government in Kabul.

Diego Rivera - Colonial Domination

But the Nicaraguan Contras are creatures of the Administration in Washington, and they try to unseat the Sandinistas, who are the first Nicaraguan government that refuses to take orders from Washington.

If Lech Walesa were ever to come to power in Poland, his first priority could not be perfect democracy, but independence from Moscow.

The same goes for Nicaragua. There cannot be democracy if there is not a nation, and there cannot be a nation if there is not independence.

The quid pro quo of peace in Central America is: we cease to be American protectorates, but we do not become Soviet protectorates. What we do become is active partners in trade, economic cooperation, cultural exchange with all the continents, with all the blocs. And if we are not menaced by military aggression, there will be no need to import arms from either bloc.

If the US promises non-intervention, we promise non-alignment. We can both promise cooperation, Latin Americans don't understand why this is so hard to accept.

History tells us that Cuba and Nicaragua are minorities, not menaces, and they represent the inevitable rise of marginal societies, not necessarily totalitarian societies.

Since they will eventually come around to economic realities of global relationship, why make them hostile? Why surround them and arm contras against them, instead of seducing them, coopting them, thereby hastening the day of their normal economic presence in the world? They should accept that it is in everyone's interest to come to terms with change and rapid institution building in small nations that have never had a chance to create their own, peculiar, national levers of power.

In view of their historic domination by US interventionism and regimes imposed by Washington, passing anti-American rhetoric from Cuba and Nicaragua should be weathered as part of a process of self-affirmation.

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