This book is a provocative view of Latin American reality as seen through the sophisticated, analytical eyes of Luis Mercier Vega, editor of Aportes and head of the Instituto Latinoamericano de Relaciones Internacionales in Paris. Historians are forewarned: “One cannot get to know Latin America from the documents” (p. 115).
Obviously, where justice operates mainly to shield the elite from the masses, where legal principles of social equality are combined with facts of racial prejudice, and where guarantees of freedom of the press are blended with oligarchic proprietorship and government control of newsprint, there is little correspondence between the law and its application. Also where social science data are so poor, direct observation and imaginative theorizing become necessary supplementary tools for understanding the sociopolitical dynamics of contemporary Latin America. The comparative history approach can only add to the present confusion, for Latin America’s social structures, institutions, ideologies, and problems are quite unlike those of previous eras in Europe or the United States.
According to the author, although the oligarchy is losing political influence, the oligarchic spirit (snobbery, disdain for manual labor, racial prejudice) persists among the new middle-class politicians. The bourgeoisie is marginal and dependent. Only the foreign minority element is enterprising and developmental minded, while the native element is dominated by career-minded bureaucrats. The latter are the products of the universities, mere factories for the production of middle-class privilege seekers. Furthermore, a peasant class does not exist, only rural employees and marginal farmers. “The question of land reform is also the question of the creation of a peasantry” (p. 29). Nor is there an urban working class, only a Lumpenproletariat, a by-product of the accelerated rural exodus to the cities, a mass highly susceptible to demogogic appeals of urban caudillos like Vargas, Perón, and Castro.
Yet Latin America faces inexorable imperatives of change and reform, for irresponsible governments, inflexible institutions, and unchanging living standards cannot withstand the population explosion. Given stubborn oligarchies, privilege-seeking middle classes, and nonmilitant masses, who will lead Latin America out of the wilderness? The university? It produces selfish bureaucrats and politicians rather than responsible statesmen. The military? “The army does not, in fact, have the organization with which to control the country. It can govern, but it cannot administer . . .” (p. 193). The church? It has only a subsidiary interest in change and reform; its main interest is in building the strength of Catholicism.
From where, then, will the new ruling class emerge? From the growing reservoir of socially unattached intellectuals, from the institutions and organizations increasingly forced to deal with the problems of modernization. Managers, technicians, and organizers will be the agents of change as they inevitably come to dominate the state. “The state is becoming a society” (p. 192). Only the resistance of the military, which also wants to rule, is holding up the triumph of this new ruling class.
Such is the thesis of this brilliant little volume. It provides much food for thought. However, the conclusions invite challenge. For example, are the imperatives of change that overwhelming? There have been, after all, no new social upheavals since Castro’s triumph over a decade ago. Should existing pressure groups be written off as incapable of playing a meaningful role in the transformation of Latin America ? The contributions of Acción Democrática in Venezuela and of the Christian Democrats in Chile should not be so lightly rated. Are the interests of military and Mercier Vega’s new ruling class really incompatible ? The emergence of the new nationalist government in Peru, after this book was written, suggests otherwise.