Latin America and the Myth of the “Lost Cause”

In some schools of thought, Latin America has its own version of the proverbial "lost cause" which was long a rallying cry in some sectors of the American South.

In some academic circles, northern economies have primary blame for the impoverishment of southern economies (Flickr).

For the historians of the American Civil War, the “lost cause” is an ideological movement that fantasizes the Confederate cause as a heroic struggle against very great difficulties. The doctrine of this lost cause highlights alleged virtues of the South before the war and portrays that war as an honorable struggle in defense of the southern way of life.

More controversially, the ideology of the lost cause conceals the horrors of slavery by describing them as more compassionate than cruel, and arguing that slavery taught Christianity and civilized values. It ignores the defects of the Confederacy and justifies its defeat by the massive superiority of the Yankee industrial machinery.

The credo of the “lost cause” also claims that the Reconstruction after the Civil War was a maneuver by northern politicians, financial manipulators, and opportunists (the proverbial “carpet baggers”), to undermine the southern way of life.

Naturally, there is a more honest and accurate history of the Civil War that considers the concept of the lost cause to be a myth. However, it must be granted that the ideas and iconography of the lost cause have penetrated the American consciousness. A great debate occurred recently, literally in the public square, with a burgeoning movement to remove the Confederate monuments (which shows that it is very difficult indeed to extirpate the myth of the lost cause from American history).

Similarly, many Latin American countries developed their own narrative of the lost cause, in which “Yankee imperialism”, and not their own failures, was deemed to be responsible for Latin American economic underdevelopment. For example, a Latin American version of that myth is the Dependence Theory, which proclaims that resources flow, in an exploitative way, from a “periphery” of poor underdeveloped nations to a “core” of rich nations.

The central criterion of Dependence Theory is that the states of the nucleus become rich, thereby impoverishing peripheral nations. In this fantasy, as in the history of the reconstruction of the American South based on the lost cause, Latin American development was the victim of the greed of northern corporations. That story ignores Latin America’s history of failed public policies: statism, endemic corruption, and other evils. And, as in the classic lost cause, it idealizes the virtues of the Hispano-American culture.

The 2017 Corruption Perception Index, prepared by Transparency International, reveals that the public sectors in most Latin American countries are highly corrupt and have made little progress in fighting against corruption. The Index rates 180 countries by levels of perceived corruption in their public sectors, using a scale ranging from “very transparent” to “highly corrupt.”

In Latin America, only Uruguay and Chile place near the “very transparent” category, clocking in at numbers 23 and 24 respectively. For a point of reference, the United States comes in at number 16. Practically all the other Latin American countries rank in the “highly corrupt” category, such as Nicaragua, which is ranked 151, Haiti at 157 or Venezuela at 169.

Latin American corruption, in part, is the result of the excessively large government sector and government intrusion into the economy. There are simply too many government officials interfering in the lives of people and their livelihoods. This is the kind of corruption-where bribes and lucrative government contacts predominate: this undermines trust not only in government but also in human nature itself. In the public mentality, government inefficiency and corruption are not to blame for the economic underdevelopment of the region: the fault lies with “Yankee imperialism.” Like its American version, the Latin American fable of the lost cause has penetrated the public consciousness.

Unfortunately, the prevailing myth prevents Latin America from seeking out in its own societies methods to curb corruption and increase governmental responsibility. In the realm of the possible, one approach would be to reduce the separation between government and people. Structurally, this would mean a genuinely federalist type of government where economic power is conferred more to local and departmental governments than to all-powerful national governments.

Federalism does not immunize governments against corruption. But, by managing small sums of money, and being closer to the people, federalism discourages corrupt behavior and encourages government effectiveness. And more importantly, federalism and its attendant personal responsibility, breaks with the mythology of the lost cause.

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