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Why Is Latin America Poorer than the United States?

By: Orlando Avendaño - @OrlvndoA - Aug 19, 2016, 7:05 pm
While the United States was recognized for his freedom in Latin America barbarism and misery prevailed. (Wikipedia)
While the United States flourished through freedom, Latin America descended into barbarism and misery. (Wikipedia)

EspañolSince their independence from European monarchies, Latin American countries have suffered from persistent economic and political  instability. Today the problems continue to hinder our people’s progress. It has not been the same with our neighbor to the north.

Latin America and the United States shared the same “New World” and time period for colonization and independence, and yet only the USA achieved tremendous prosperity and political stability that is envied to this day.

By simply admitting this fact, one runs the risk of being labelled a a traitor to a purported Latin American “race.” But despite Latin Americans’ desires for greatness and depressing inferiority complex, the truth is undeniable: the United States has been far more prosperous than Latin America.

Already in 1783 Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda recognized the virtues of our northern neighbor and what separated it from our failed region.

“It is impossible to conceive a more purely democratic assembly,” Miranda wrote in his diary having visited a recently independent United States. “I cannot measure the happiness and joy I experienced when I saw the admirable system of the British Constitution in practice,” he said when he visited a court in South Carolina, a state whose government he considered “purely democratic, as are all the other U.S states.”

Miranda appreciated the complete freedom of worship in the United States, and attributed the virtues and prosperity to “the advantages of a free government [over] any kind of despotism.”

A few decades later, things had not changed much. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville also wrote about the virtues of the United States in his seminal work, Democracy in America.

Tocqueville praised a “completely free society” made up of men who participate in public affairs so that liberty is always preserved. He also cherished press freedom in the United States, which prevented the development of many evils.

While the north flourished, in Latin America oppression, barbarism, savagery, backwardness, and misery prevailed.

Ask any leftist why this was so and you will get the standard ignorant answers; “imperialism” and “foreign domination” are the scapegoats that explain Latin America’s failures. But to understand the real reason why the United States has been more prosperous than Latin America one needs to read the indispensable work of Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel, The Latin Americans.

The Quest for Independence

Only by exploring the process for independence across the continent can we see why we have failed. Unlike Latin Americans, U.S. colonies didn’t feel contempt for the Old World. They wanted to “build societies better than Europe, with social equality and equal opportunity, and where human rights deemed natural by liberalism are protected,” Rangel writes.

Once Americans achieved independence, they proposed “maintaining, developing, and improving the society that had hitherto existed in those territories, not subvert it.” That is, their British heritage was asserted, honored, and improved.

Rangel noted that, in the British colonies of North America, “Locke’s thought had become so subtly diffused, so influential, so immediate, so common as the thought of Marx and Lenin would become in the so-called Third World.”

When declaring independence in 1776, Americans did not severe all ties with the British. They maintained relations and even traditions. “Despite rejecting the political tutelage of England, Americans didn’t cease to see themselves as beneficiaries and followers of British civilization.”

Latin Americans did the exact opposite: they “wanted to completely erase a Spanish heritage that was, nevertheless, the only culture they had,” Ranger explains.

In our region, wars of independence were “a blaze of anti-Spanish hatred, the violent anger of children subjected too long, a ritual sacrifice of the father,” wrote French thinker Jean-François Revel in the preface of Rangel’s book.

When reading Rangel, one realizes that a reason for this was that North Americans did not have to integrate indigenous peoples into their social system: they were either cast away or exterminated.

“The Anglo-Saxon colonists came in search of land and freedom, not of gold and slaves. The natives, expelled from the territory or exterminated, did not have to be rejected or integrated socially or psychologically. ”

They did however integrate the lower class, which Miranda already noted in 1784 when describing a barbecue: “The magistrates and officials ate and drank with the people, holding hands and drinking from the same glass.”

The poor were integrated into American society through a system of social mobility, based on private property rights, since its inception.

On the other hand, Latin Americans sought to integrate Indians and the poor in an organized manner — but with the express purpose to dominate them and  make us of their numbers: “In North America, natives were sidelined. In Latin America, they became the bulk of the workforce. ”

The Noble Savage

This integration was not the result of mere good intentions; the natives and the poor were initially used for fighting  the Spanish crown, and then against foreign powers.

But it all changed when the indigenous peoples were exalted to justify political power struggles, and with it the myth of the noble Latin American savage was born: the “good and pure man that civilization tries to corrupt.”

Ever since human innocence was presented as inextricably tied to the indigenous peoples and the poor, the marginalized, Latin America became obsessed with this archetype. It has come to represent everything that Latin Americans aspire to be and that which US perversion prevents them from becoming.

Rangel writes that “due to the myth of the noble savage, the West today suffers from an absurd guilt complex, deeply convinced of having corrupted foreign nations with Western civilization. [They believe] these people, generically labelled ‘Third World’, would have been as happy as Adam in the Garden of Eden without their influence.”

Therefore, “the myth of the noble savage concerns us personally, it is both our pride and shame.” This fable, which over the years has become prevalent, is deeply embedded in Latin American folklore, forcing the citizens of this region to reject any vestige of civilization and to live in perpetual instability.

The repudiation of European influence since independence, the complete rejection of any influence of the Old World, and the need to extol local customs, as wild as they may be, just because they represented innocence before the corruption of civilization, are the reasons why Latin America remains a failed region.

In 1924, the Argentinean author Ricardo Rojas wrote:

The Spanish Hispanicized the natives; but the natives nativized the Spanish. The conquistadores penetrated the native empires, destroying them. But three centuries later, the American colonies ousted the conqueror. The emancipation was a nativist cry against the civilization of exotic origin.

This emancipation brought about the exaltation of barbarism as that which is truly authentic and ours.

As Argentinean thinker Domingo Faustino Sarmiento already stated in his book Facundo (1845): “the cultural superiority of non-Hispanic European peoples and the United States is an evidence of civilization.”

Sarmiento insists that, in Latin America, “unsatisfactory before independence and disastrous now, the only seats of civilization and therefore the only poles from which civilization can arise are within cities,” those areas where European influence is undeniable. He remarked,

The native tribes are better organized than our rural societies. Moral progress, the culture of intelligence neglected in the tribe, is here not only neglected, but impossible… Civilization is completely unworkable and barbarism is the norm.

Certainly, anyone could point to reasons for Latin American failure that date back to long before independence, the way how we were colonized, and who did the colonizing — an undeniable difference with North Americans. However, Rangel’s book and the writings of Sarmiento and Rojas convincingly present a wholly different explanation of our failure.

Independence arose in Latin America because the privileged few wanted to secure and expand their privileges. So an entire community was idealized and made to look as immaculate before colonization, because that community was necessary to advance those interests, just as it is today.

This discourse entailed an utter contempt not only for Spaniards, but for any trace of culture that was alien to native villages and Mother Nature.

The complete rejection of the only culture and system we knew until then, mediocre as it may have been, led to rise of the famous caudillos who became the “only available remedy to anarchy,” according to Sarmiento.

This led to political instability, which in turn resulted in the devastating economic underdevelopment that still prevents us from achieving prosperity.

Orlando Avendaño Orlando Avendaño

Orlando Avendaño is a PanAm Post intern who resides in Caracas, Venezuela, where he studies social communication at Andrés Bello Catholic University. Follow @OrlvndoA.