This book is the second of a four-volume series collecting the notes of personal conversations and correspondence between the author and various Latin American leaders. In more than half a century of active professional life, Robert Alexander, now emeritus professor at Rutgers University, has known most of the region’s leading political figures. Perhaps best known himself for his writing on the Bolivian national revolution, Alexander has also written extensively on Latin American political parties and on such figures as Juan Domingo Perñn, Arturo Alessandri, Raúl Haya de la Torre, Rómulo Betancourt, and Juscelino Kubitschek. This volume offers 129 entries of correspondence or conversation from 22 leaders of the 5 nations. Not surprisingly, the Venezuelan and Bolivian entries make up the vast majority.
The one theme that emerges is that of personalism in Latin American politics. From the comment of Carlos Andrés Pérez that personalism is the factor responsible for the great failure of democracy in all of Latin America to Walter Guevara Arze’s observation that the whole cause of the MNR’s downfall was the personalism of Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the power of the individual personality in Latin American political life is apparent throughout the collected commentary.
A few colorful contrasts stand out. Peru’s Fernando Belaúnde Terry insists that nationalism must reflect a country’s own history, while Eduardo Santos of Colombia condemns nationalism based on “national” culture rather than universal Western culture. Although he was overthrown by his own military, Belaúnde asserts that all Latin American nations must maintain strong armed forces. Oswaldo Hurtado of Ecuador concludes that Latin American political culture inherently favors conflict, tending to eliminate opposition rather than feign conciliation, while his predecessor, Galo Plaza Laso, insists that the culture of Latin America is genuinely democratic.
The author introduces the section on each nation with a brief historical synopsis and a few comments on the circumstances of the interview or correspondence. Alexander never used a recording device or took notes in the presence of his subjects; the selections are his later notes about the encounters. The volume would have been richer if Alexander had included more of his own observations and insights from years of experience and from the exercise of hindsight. In terms of methodology and selection, this is an uneven and somewhat awkward collection of quasi documents. Nevertheless, for those familiar with Latin American history and politics, this is an interesting and useful handbook of information and anecdote.