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The New International, October 1940


M. Lebrun

What Next in Latin America?


From New International, Vol. 6 No. 9, October 1940, pp. 188–191.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.


THE MOST STRIKING feature of the situation created by the new imperialist war is the fact that the days of the rational state are definitely numbered. It is now clear to every one, even to the most imbecile of Latin-American purists, that national sovereignty is a discredited juridical fiction and that the national state has perished in the ruins of the Blitzkrieg.

The most unmistakable symptom of that arterio-sclerosis which afflicts capitalist economy is the chronic paralysis of the world market. If, after the spectacular debacle of 1929, certain countries here and there were able to climb out of the pit of depression, it was at the expense of the world market and not thanks to the enlarging of this market. This was the epoch of “socialism in one country” in Russia, of the high tariff walls erected by the Hoover administration, of the closing to free trade of the British Empire at the Ottawa conference, and above all, of German autarchy. We see today how all this is ending: in the most irreparable ruin of the entire bourgeois social order. What is the effect of the present war. To reconstruct the unity of world economy on new and “super-imperialist” bases. One thing is clear: this new construction will not be erected on those obsolete foundations, historically outmoded even before 1914, which nonetheless still haunts the senile dreams of the dotard at the head of the State Department in Washington.

No, the unity of world economy will not be re-established by the automatic workings of the world market, but will rather be recreated more and more chaotically under the political direction of the conquering imperialism. Nor will this latter content itself with redrawing abstract and fictitious frontiers; it will reach down to the economic substructure of each country and will extirpate those productive forces which do not fit into its plans. That is what Hitler is already doing in Europe, and what Japan is desperately trying to do in Asia. And the United States? Yankee imperialism also, a little belated, has just discovered its “world mission.” And to prove to the world that he has outgrown the provincial phase of his development. Uncle Sam has thrown the isolationists overboard and entrusted his banner, in the coming period, to one of two self-declared interventionists, Messrs. Roosevelt and Willkie.

Latin America, too, begins to understand what lies ahead of her and is nervously discussing her uncertain future. Her ruling classes, like her governments, hardly know what to do, presenting the same pitiable spectacles as the little dictators, the light-opera kings and the other worthy chieftains of the small nations of Europe. One and all, they are torn apart by interests and sentiments of the most contradictory sort. The people of the cities, oppressed and sweated, hate fascism, hate dictatorship, but, with plenty of bitter experience already behind them, distrust everything and everybody. The inhabitants of the interior – in Europe they would be called “peasants” – live almost outside the orbit of civilization, in an apparent vegetative indifference, but they mull over ancestral social hatreds which sometimes bursts out suddenly in dark movements of religious fanaticism or even of nomadic banditry in the style of Robin Hood.

That national independence which was won for the whole of Latin America early in the nineteenth century has been for almost a hundred years a convenient juridical fiction under cover of which England, while exercising her economic hegemony and – when it came to a showdown – her political control, could leave to the native landed proprietors the expense and trouble – and also the honors – of policing and governing the continent. Part of the bargain, of course, was plenty of leisure for eloquent speeches in the “parliaments”: in the last century Brazil had a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy, à l’Anglaise.

The last world war roughly marked the end of that era. The decay of the world market, the isolation of national economies which resulted and the chronic crises of agriculture – all these developments, in bringing about their economic ruin, also undermined the political power of the great landowners. On the other hand, industrialization made its definitive entry into Latin America; the struggle between American and English imperialism became sharper; and a rising national bourgeois class appeared on the political stage raising the banner of economic emancipation ... from English dominance. (In Central America and in the northern part of South America this struggle turns against the younger Yankee imperialism, whose voracity and dangerous proximity have cost Mexico and the Caribbean countries so dear.)

The post-war political upheavals throughout the continent are all more or less expressions of these phenomena. This was the golden age of its bourgeois nationalism. But, alas, it became every day clearer that as South American Marxists had predicted, this young nationalism, which arrived so late on the international stage, found no favorable climate to grow in. Such Marxists have proved to be right, and Haya de la Torre has been proved wrong.

Gloomy indeed is the future of the bourgeois national state in Latin America. The groups which, as a result of the political ferment of the last two decades, now find themselves in power – these are exhausted. Consider, for example, the grotesque acrobatics of a Vargas, a political chameleon of the lowest type who, to keep himself in power, has finally discovered economic “nationalism.” in the name of which he pulled off his last coup d’état. Such adventurers cut less and less of a figure. The nationalistic policy of Vargas is a complete failure. To justify his coup d’état, he suspended payments on foreign debts and “rebelled” against imperialist exploitation, proclaiming the economic independence of Brazil. Two years after these fine promises, he found it necessary to recommence paying service on the foreign debt despite the complete exhaustion of the country’s resources, and had no other alternative except to begin once more to pay court to international capital, humbly knocking on Uncle Sam’s door to ask for a little money in return for a lien on the national resources. He returned thus, after a thousand detours, to the old policy of his predecessors which consisted in making periodical international loans. But the conditions for such a policy are today much less favorable in a world which has come to such a degree of disintegration that decisive political considerations weigh heaviest. Regardless of his personal sympathies, Vargas’ only hope of escaping his fate is to sell himself to Hitler, which he would do willingly enough if he could be sure that this bird would flit, victorious, out of the melee.

Vargas’ misadventures repeat themselves to a large extent in the other American countries. At the other end of the continent we now see the final upshot of the courageous efforts of Cardenas, the only really progressive representative of the whole Latin American bourgeoisie, who seriously tried to win the economic emancipation of his country. The Mexican bourgeoisie, base and cowardly like all the bourgeois classes of young countries in our stormy era, has allowed its only leader to fall, preferring to submit and bargain with the imperialists rather than to have to follow the hard road of energetic resistance. This is why Cardenas has no successor: Camacho and Almazan both repudiated his policies in advance. And that is also why Washington has not intervened with the “big stick,” refraining from interfering with the devious machinations of Standard Oil designed to light the flames of civil war in the country and raise to power its man. General Almazan. The Department of State must have good reason to believe it can count on Camacho.

Only the popular masses can carry to its conclusion the work begun by Cardenas – indeed only they can even keep it going. But the urban masses and the workers in Mexico were directly or indirectly bound to Moscow (partly through the medium of the Communist Party, partly through such petty-bourgeois leaders, bought by Stalin, as Lombardo Toledano). Under the given conditions, Cardenas could have persisted In his anti-imperialist campaign only by arousing the peasant and proletarian masses; but this he could not do since it would have meant passing beyond the social limits imposed by his own class loyalties.

Chile is in process of going through an analogous experience: the masses of the people, in a splendid outburst, put into power a Popular Front government which, for the first time in the history of the Western hemisphere, includes socialists. Also for the first time in our continent’s history, the Stalinists have played a role of the first importance in the bourgeois politics of a country. However, if the movement of the masses in Chile has played a much greater role than in Mexico, in that a “left-wing” government has come into power, this Chilean government, despite the participation of the two big “proletarian” parties, is far behind Cardenas in what it has actually accomplished. The power of Cardenas did not rest, unfortunately, on the support of the organized and conscious masses; it rested on the army, of which he was one of the leaders, and especially on the peasants of the ejidos. But we have known ever since Napoleon that the political support of the small peasants can never be translated into anything except dictatorship. And there is the contradiction before which Cardenas halted: he was in reality a dictator in spite of himself, even though personally a most sincere democrat. No bourgeois democrat, however honest and courageous, will be able to go farther than he did. Consider Chile. Thanks to its social structure, which concentrates the population in cities and in the mining districts, its political evolution is more advanced than that of Mexico. And yet the Popular Front government has already reached an impasse before it has even completed the first half of its term. Its nationalist and anti-imperialist policies have withered before they came to bloom. The expression of this impasse is to be found in the conflicts within the Front, the internal crisis of the Socialist Party which has lost its entire revolutionary wing, the ever-diminishing prestige of Stalinism, and the advances being made by Aguirre to the old conservative groups, who have always governed the country, in order to disembarrass himself of his “left-wing” friends whose support has become much too compromising.

In Cuba, after almost a dozen years of plots and counterplots, Sergeant Batista at last has decided to don the bourgeois frock coat of “the president of the republic,” determined to take up again the Machado policies as though nothing had happened since then. In Argentina, the radical party, put out of power in 1929 by the Uriburu coup d’état, is preparing to regain control of the nation in the name of democracy and cooperation with foreign capital.

Thus, after a decade of trial and error, the wheel has come full circle: the ruling classes have had enough of these so-called “nationalist” policies. Their countries are in ruins; their mineral and agricultural products pile up without finding outlets; although the price of raw materials has sunk tow, they must continue to exchange these products for the increasingly expensive manufactured goods which they have to import. The cost of living constantly increases, but the national income does not rise. Their financial reserves disappear but not their international obligations, which continually drain out of the country the meager resources they possess. The only remedy to hand is inflation, which they are already using. And that in turn makes still more inescapable a resort to imperialist loans, under still more Draconian conditions, not to mention the fact that this time it is no longer a matter of purely economic transactions but of political directives from the creditor State towards directly and openly political ends, which is to say it is a question of direct control. Once more these Latin nations will become the prey, either through recolonization or through dismemberment, of the powerful warring world imperialisms.

* * *

The most oppressive of all the imperialisms, the most voracious and implacable, which sucks, like an enormous leech, all the energies of the Latin American peoples, is ... the gentle and benevolent American democracy. And never has this exploitation been exercised with more cruelty, sophistication, injuriousness and hypocrisy than under the civilized “good neighbor” regime inaugurated by the second Roosevelt, who, a cultivated gentleman, has neither the rough brutality of the first, nor the missionary crudeness of Woodrow Wilson.

The American bourgeois press never stops complaining how badly the Latin Americans treat their generous Wall Street benefactors. The latter act as though they were being attacked, robbed, beaten. They cry for help, but the police, whether because they are negligent or because they are secretly in the plot, let their attackers go free. Journalists and politicians, senators and specialists, financiers and industrialists weep inexhaustibly about “our properties stolen by Mexico.” Daily they fulminate against “the dishonesty of those Brazilians who don’t pay the interest due us.” or “those Argentinean fascists who don’t want to buy our products,” or “those ungrateful Bolivians who have expelled Rockefeller from the Chaco,” etc., etc.

Any honest observer must repudiate this obscene propaganda. The hired journalists prove daily that the American market is the great source of revenue for the whole of Latin America. They discourse endlessly on the famous balance of trade in favor of Latin America. From 1936 to 1938, the United States bought $83,000,000 more of goods from their southern neighbors than they sold them. These figures are produced with a great air of triumph. They merely forget to look at the other side of the medal: they pretend not to know that this famous trade balance had already turned into a deficit by the end of 1938. They pretend above all to be ignorant of the tact that in those same two years, 1936–1938, the United States received from their southern vassals in revenues from direct investments – without mentioning other payment such as freight and insurance – more than $480,000,000. If to that one adds another $150,000,000 as bond service, interest and amortization of loans, the total will be a comfortable $630,000,000. Deduct from this sum the $83,000,000 from the favorable trade balance, and you will have a realistic picture of the situation. As these kinds of payments are termed “invisible,” we do not find them mentioned in the imperialist press. In any case, in order to have had the balance of trade (commercial, “invisible,” and everything else) between the United States and Latin America come out even in the period, 1936–1938, the United States would have had to buy in those countries, above what it actually bought, almost $867,000,000 worth of goods. When one considers that in 1938 total importations into the United States from Latin America came to only $550,000,000, then it is clear that it is Utopian to expect any such increase.

But that is not enough for the Wall Street blood-suckers. To plant in the consciousness of the American petty bourgeoisie jingoistic resentment against the “deep-rooted dishonesty” of “these Latins,” the imperialists try to put over the idea that American investments down there bring in no return and have turned out very badly. But the reality does not correspond to the legend artfully worked up to mislead the petty bourgeoisie. Despite these miserable times of crisis and war, these investments continue to yield considerable profits, according to Report No. 4 of Subcommittee II of the Advisory Inter-American Economic and Financial Committee, of Washington, presided over by Mr. Sumner Welles in person. The same reports frankly recognizes that these investments as a whole – which, including loans to governments, come to a grand total of $4,051,000,000 – have not turned out so badly after all ... for the investors. It states furthermore:

In contradiction to what is currently expressed, in spite of delays in the servicing of debts, the restrictions imposed by exchange control, etc. ... North American capital invested in Latin America taken as a whole has yielded a profit which is not unlike that obtained from investments in the United States itself. At any rate, an all inclusive analysis of those investments reveals that more dollars have returned to the United States than were invested by this country in Latin America.

The actual role of Yankee imperialism in Latin America is purely parasitic. Following the 1929 crisis and the political convulsions which rocked Latin America, the American government decided to halt further capital investments in countries south of the Rio Grande. At the same time, contrary to all that is taught about the stimulating function of the exportation of capital, the halting of these investments did not cause any fall in Latin American purchases in the United States. The fact is that the balance of trade began precisely at this time to swing favorably towards the United States. Thus it was neither the war nor the resulting loss of the German market which caused this situation; the loss of the European market merely aggravated a tendency already ten years old. In the 1926–1930 period, trade between the two regions balanced up in favor of Latin America by an average $155,000,000 a year. In the following five years, this average fell to $136,000,000. From 1936 to 1938, it averaged no more than $27,000,000, and in 1938 alone it came to a net deficit of $79,000,000.

Yankee Parasitism

Thus American capitalism, showing the characteristics of premature senility, lives like a retired coupon-clipper at the expense of Latin America, feeding on rents and interest payments on capital invested or loaned long ago and which has already been paid back several times over. And this rapacious and parasitic policy has flourished precisely under the sign of the “good neighbor”. American liberals salve their consciences by contrasting the present peaceful era of the “good neighbor” with those past decades when Uncle Sam did not hesitate to kill a few “dagoes” in putting his affairs in order. But in that day, although loans were often accompanied by gunboats, it could be said that part of this money filled a useful function in serving to develop certain natural resources or in opening up railroads into virgin wilderness. But today it is extortion, pure and simple. And this is what the liberals hail as the golden age of Latin American relations!

Not content with drinking the last drop of blood from this anemic economy, the Yankee imperialists wish in addition to exact from these peoples a slave-like obedience. And so when these countries turn towards Europe, whither in 1938 they still sent 54 of their total exports, when they submit to the conditions imposed by the Nazis in world trade. Wall Street has the insolence to cry out: “Beware of fascism,” They forget, these apostles of light, that from 70 to 90 of the export trade of Argentina, of Bolivia, of Uruguay, and of Venezuela depends on European markets. And what do these superheated “democrats” do to wean away Latin America from its dependence on Europe and “save” it from Hitler? They require simply that their bond interest be met in due form; that they be paid in gold and handsomely for their merchandise; and that the Latin Americans, rather than submit to barter trade with Germany, throw into the sea their surplus coffee, wheat, beef, bananas, hides, oil, sugar and cotton.

As long as these contradictions exist, important sections of the ruling classes of the countries to the south will cling to European markets as their last resort. And if it turns out to be necessary, for this, that they accept the conditions which the masters of Europe impose, that they put on a shirt of brown or any other color, that they shout “Heil Hitler!”, raise their arm, pronounce other cabalistic syllables and make other ceremonial gestures – they will do all this. Such is the moving force behind the Nazi penetration of these countries.

Unable to absorb the total export production of Latin America, Yankee imperialism can uproot the fascist growths only by also establishing its continental autarchy, that is to say, to reshape the economy of these countries in such a way as to transform it into a simple complementary economy to fit into the productive and military apparatus of the master-nation. Nor will this come about without the kind of “surgical interventions” Hitler is applying in Europe.

The Latin-American national bourgeoisie now have only two choices: to submit to the American “new order” or to the Nazi “new order”. Their national economic independence thus becomes a nocturnal fantasy dissipated by the glaring light of day. The continents are becoming “totalitarianized”, willy nilly. Profound and irresistible economic and historical necessities sweep away with a blind force the old national frontiers. This formidable simplification of geography is being achieved, in default of international working-class action, under the stormy aegis of the permanent counter-revolution of imperialism. The national state cracks and falls into pieces but the plutocratic kernel remains, keeping all its monstrous privileges.

The colonial slaves will henceforth have no archaic frontiers dividing them; they will then feel themselves to be, in each hemisphere, a single oppressed people. We may say it will then be easier to mobilize them against the common enemy: imperialism. At all events, the fortuitous obstacles, the secondary enemies which so often block the path and obscure the real goal, these will have been removed by the counter-revolution itself.

As the young bourgeois nationalism has fallen into premature senility, from the depths of the masses there will spring up a new patriotism, this time on a continental scale. There can be no turning back to restore the chaos of yesterday.

The world has never seen a new social class establish its dominance over society without bearing the seeds of the future and without possessing that all-embracing outlook it must have to represent, in a given historical period, the general interests of the whole community. Once the landed gentry and the bourgeoisie of Latin America have fallen, there is nothing more for them to do but bow their head beneath the yoke of the new conqueror. But the masses – the workers, the peasants, the intellectuals – will still have their word to say. Theirs will be the task of uniting the Americas in proletarian fraternity and of rebuilding their New World on the foundation stones of peace and socialism. But this great revolution can be accomplished only with the collaboration of the American working class.


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