Latinos and Americanos: The two societies compared

In 1971, President Richard Nixon said: “Latin America doesn’t matter. People don’t give a damn about Latin America.”  He may have been right then, but not now.

Both the United States and Brazil are continental in size, and the rest of the Western Hemisphere consists of countries and colonies where people speak Spanish, French, Creole, Dutch, Papiamento, English, Portuguese, or an indigenous Indian language. 

In the United States, there are states as different as tiny New Hampshire and huge California.  In Latin America, there are lands as different as Indian and mestizo Guatemala and lily-white Argentina.  Argentina has always been an enigma.  Its people are so white and European that they joke that they are really Italians who speak Spanish but would like to be Germans or Englishmen. 

In the early 1900s, Argentina was the first Latin American country to take off.  During the Second World War, according to the British author Paul Johnson, “it enjoyed a prosperity unknown in the southern hemisphere outside Australia” and accumulated $1.5 billion in dollar and sterling reserves.  Instead of using the money to expand and improve the country’s economy, its president, Juan Domingo Perón, used it to nationalize most of the economy and to give his people social benefits on a par with Scandinavia. 

How else do the two hemispheric societies compare?  Most North Americans live in a technical, industrial, free-market, capitalist society, while many Latin Americans live in societies where much of the economy is state-owned, and state-dominated, or controlled by a wealthy private elite.

Nevertheless, Paulo Prada pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that much of Latin America has transformed itself from financial basket case to economic powerhouse.  “With Europe reeling from a debt crisis, Japan stuck in decades-long stagnation, and the US recovering moderately, many economies across Latin America have rebounded. Yet, most Latin Americans stay poor.”

The exceptions are what Maria Anastasia O’Grady, the Latin American specialist of the Wall Street Journal, calls the “fab four –  Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia,” where “poverty rates are dropping and a middle class is growing. Chile has made the most progress with only 11 percent of the population living in poverty now.”  The fabulous four are “striving for open markets, political pluralism, economic competition, and monetary stability.”  Since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the “transformation in Mexican economic thinking” has been so great that many people think that “Mexico could overtake Brazil as Latin America’s largest economy in the next decade.”

Both North and South America experience the trek from the country to the cities.  Both struggle with the political, economic, social, and administrative burdens of urbanization, crowding more and more people into less and less space.

The Catholic Church was the first European institution to put down roots in Latin America, and it remains the cornerstone of Latin America's civilization and culture.  About 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America.  The Catholic church on the main square in most villages, towns, and cities testifies to the Church's influence over civil society.  And of course, the present Pope is an Argentine.

The late Benno Weiser, a former Austrian Jew who fled to Ecuador and then emigrated to Israel, where he became a diplomat, once illustrated to me just how Catholic Latin America is.  On a private trip to Quito, he was met at the airport by a friend and cabinet minister who wanted to take him to Midnight Mass.  When Weiser reminded him that he was Jewish, the minister, playing on the fact that with a small c, catholic means universal, replied: “Pero, Benno, Judíos, Cristianos, somos todos Católicos” – but Benno, Jews, Christians, we are all Catholics.

For non-Catholics in Latin America, the goal is cultural tolerance.  For non-Protestants in North America, it’s cultural pluralism.  In both places freedom can be defined as the right to be like everybody else as well as the the right to be different from everybody else.  So while North America is mainly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, the influence of the Asians, the Jews, and the Muslims is growing.  And Hispanics, most of whom are Catholics, are now the largest minority in the United States.

As for education, 7 out of 10 Latin Americans drop out of high school.  In the United States, the figure is nationally about 3 out of 10.  The majority of Latin Americans will never see the inside of a college or a university.  About half of North American high school graduates enter colleges and universities. 

Why is this so?  Though it is changing somewhat, Latin American culture emphasizes personal relationships rather than merit and education.  Education gets less emphasis.  While the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made primary school education mandatory in the 1660s, Brazil didn’t do so until the 1960s.

What about corruption?  Transparency International publishes an annual corruption index.  The higher the number, the higher the corruption level.  Here’s how TI ranked Latin America in a recent year: Argentina (105), Bolivia (110), Brazil (69), Chile (21), Colombia (78), Costa Rica (41), Cuba (69), the Dominican Republic (101), Ecuador (127), El Salvador (73), Guatemala (91), Haiti (146), Honduras (134), Mexico (98), Nicaragua (127), Panama (73), Paraguay (146), Peru (78), Uruguay (24).  At 164, Venezuela is the most corrupt in the hemisphere.

I have a favorite anecdote about Latin American corruption: the Paraguayan and Haitian finance ministers were friends from the days they earned their economics Ph.D.s at the University of Chicago.  One day the Paraguayan invites his counterpart to visit him in Asunción.  He finds him living in a 20,000-square-foot mansion with gorgeous gardens, hordes of servants, and chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes.  He asks the Paraguayan how he accumulated this, and the latter answers: “My country has gotten millions of dollars from the U.S., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to build, for example, that highway that you see over there.  Well, I got 10 percent.”

A year later, the Haitian reciprocates and invites his counterpart to visit him in Port-au-Prince.  And what does he find?  The Haitian is living n a 50,000-square-foot house, surrounded by a square mile of manicured ground.  In addition to Mercedes Benzes, there are BMWs and Lexuses.  Hordes of people serve him.  So he, also, is asked how this came to be.  And his answer is: “Like Paraguay, Haiti got millions of dollars from the USA, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to build that highway you see over there.” 

“I don’t see a highway over there,” says the Paraguayan. 

“That’s because I get 100 percent.”

Corruption is related to tax compliance.  This is the time of the year when Americans pay their income taxes.  Eighty-four percent of Americans pay their taxes honestly, voluntarily, and on time.  That’s the highest rate of compliance in the world.  In Latin America, people who pay their fair share of taxes are considered mad. 

I once dined with a Brazilian who owns factories and ranches in both Brazil and the United States.  He told me. “In Brazil, I don’t pay taxes.  In the United States, unfortunately, I do.”

Lastly, a word about the military in the two societies.  The main functions of Latin American armies are military coups or wielding power behind the scenes.  I once witnessed an election in Panama in which soldiers battled citizens in the streets.  For a day or so, Panama had two presidents until the military decided which man would be given the office.  By contrast, civilian control of the U.S. military is sacrosanct.  No matter how contentious our elections, the winner wins, the loser loses, the army stays in its barracks, and political power is transferred peacefully. 

This is America’s lasting legacy and greatest glory.