B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Jack Wilson

Books in Review

“Good Neighbors”

(March 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 2, March 1942, pp. 60–62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

by John Gunther
Harper & Brothers, New York. 498 pages. $3.50

John Gunther is still on the “inside” march. In response to the urgings (!) of the present world situation he went south of the Rio Grande to explore the nether regions of the Western Hemisphere. He discovered many things, and in his helter-skelter, disorganized manner, proceeded to put them to writing, a key objective being to relate America’s interests and the Axis competitors’ among our neighbors, in light of the war. In his own words, Gunther sums up the whole problem as follows:

“Latin America counts heavily these days. It is of such vital importance to North America for a variety of reasons. First, our mounting trade, which in 1939 was worth $1,087,163,000. As a general rule United States imports from Latin America comprise roughly as per cent of our imports, a percentage not lightly to be disregarded. In 1939 our exports to Latin America were 17.9 per cent of our total trade. Figure for 1941 will be much higher.”

“Second, direct American investments in Latin America – in such categories as mines, utilities, packing plants, petroleum and the like – amount roughly to $2,840,000,000, which is about 40 per cent of all American investments abroad. Aside from direct investments, our loans are $1,610,331,794. These are hangovers from the lush days of the 1920s, and 77.2 per cent of them are wholly or partially in default. But, in theory at least, our total stake in Latin America is almost four and a half billion dollars.”

“Third, raw materials. Here the importance of the American Republics is profound. We cannot chew gum without Latin America – because Mexico and Guatemala provide the necessary chicle. We cannot play gramophone records without Latin America – because Brazil produces the necessary carnauba wax. If hemisphere trade were completely shut off, we would have no coffee for breakfast, very little cocoa, very few bananas. We might face serious shortages in bauxite, tungsten, manganese ore and tin.”

“The United States totally lacks these fourteen substances but Latin materials which are indispensable to the conduct of warfare and which we do not produce ourselves. We badly need – and will continue to need – stocks of these materials. They are: Antimony, chromium, coconut shell char, ferrograde manganese, manila fibre, mercury, mica, nickel, quartz crystal, quinine, rubber, silk, tin, tungsten.”

“The United States totally lacks these fourteen substances but Latin America has surpluses of several and with proper development could produce them all, except silk. Our neighbors can furnish us with antimony (Mexico and Peru), manganese (Brazil and Cuba), mercury (Mexico), quartz crystal (Brazil), chromium (Cuba), mica (Peru and Chile), and tin and tungsten (Bolivia). Coconut shell char could certainly be produced in Latin America if we need it, and manila fiber is now being made experimentally in Costa Rica. Brazil was once the world’s greatest producer of rubber, and an attempt is being made now to revive its rubber industry. Quinine can be grown in Ecuador.”

“Should the war spread to the Far East (this book was published before December 7, 1941 – J.W.) and cut off the United States from its normal sources of rubber, quinine, hemp and tin, we can only pray that Latin America will be a substitute. Nor should one forget that the Southern continent is today a very important producer of copper, petroleum, wool and foodstuffs, which are not included in our list of strategic shortages, but which might be highly useful in time of war. Or which might be very awkward in the hands of someone else.”

“Finally, political considerations. Latin America is, as I have said, our exposed Southern frontier.”

There, in a nutshell, is what the Good Neighbor policy is about, what America’s imperialist stakes are in Latin America (South America, in popular jargon).

Everything Is Different Now

For those reasons, frankly enumerated by Gunther, the lives of 120,000,000 people in South America are inexorably bound up with the lives of the 120,000,000 in the United States. Among the Latin Americans are 25,000,000 whites, 15,000,000 Negroes and 17,000,000 pure Indians. Over 63,000,000 people are mestizos (of mixed blood), adding to a problem which the United States hasn’t begun to solve in its own South. And just as at home one finds the basic conflict of class interests between the owning few and the millions of workers, so does Latin America present, perhaps in sharper form, the struggle of classes, to which is added the foreign oppressor, not the least dreaded of whom is the Yanqui imperialist.

Since Gunther is an “enlightened imperialist,” his interests lie in presenting a rather favorable canvas of Latin America and the rôle of American imperialism south of the Rio Grande. His sharp attacks are reserved, to be sure, for the Nazi and Italian agents, and people (nearly 10,000,000 of them) from these countries who compete with American agents for control of the various countries, either through outright military threat, economic strangulation or purchasing the favors of the ruling cliques and classes that sit on the powder keg of teeming millions.

Though Gunther uses the cleverest approach, “Yes, we committed sins, but the Good Neighbor policy is really not ruthless imperialism,” and “yes, the countries are dictatorially ruled, but are tending toward democracy,” the facts stand out, even in his book, and speak for themselves. For behind the fa$ades of “democracy” and the “Good Neighbor” policy are the realities which cannot remain ignored. This is shown by reference to the highlights of Gunther’s descriptions and comments on the Latin American countries.

How the Banana Countries Fare

Take the “Banana Republics” as an example:

“The United Fruit Company plays an important role in Costa Rica. though it is not as preponderant as in Honduras, say.

“President Somoza is the absolute and undisputed boss of Nicaragua, but he enjoys informality! (How nice!)

“Honduras, with Paraguay possibly excepted, is the poorest and least advanced state in the Americas.

“Honduras is the banana republic par excellence, and it is little more nor less than a preserve of of the United Fruit Company. About 30 per cent of all the company’s banana lands – valued at about $45,000,000 – are in Honduras. The company controls ports, harbors, newspapers, plantations. There are no taxes in Honduras (poverty is the only possession of the masses – J.W.); revenue comes from customs and the United Fruit. The government budget, about about $6,000,000, is usually out of balance and the company helps to make up the deficit. Recently, it advanced $300,000 to meet the government payrolls. Honduras is perpetually in debt.”

Colombia is one of Gunther’s “democracies” in which the masses don’t vote, can’t have unions, and are cruelly exploited by foreign business interests. The United Fruit Company has a monopoly on the banana industry; the United States controls the oil industry. Gunther adds:

“What Colombians resent – with some reason – is what they call the ‘hole-in-the-well’ policy of the United States investors. We dig out gold, they say, we suck out oil, and leave nothing for Colombia. But this is not entirely just ... the direct investment in Colombia is a fairly important sum, $228,000,000. Most of it is in oil, utilities and mining.” (If it were expropriated, United States investors might have left something for Colombia – J.W.)

Let’s take two other important countries, also signers of the pact at Rio de Janeiro recently.

Bolivia, the land of “bitter poverty,” is known for its tin and oil deposits. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what that country is about, using Gunther’s description.

“It is a kind of ‘company town’ of the tin merchants, dominated by the army also ... The most important character in Bolivia has not set foot in the country for nineteen years. He is Simon Patino, the greatest tin merchant in the world, and one of its wealthiest men (estimated wealth, $500,000,000) ... The political situation in Bolivia is that Patino and the army dominate it.”

Chile, “only country in the world with a Popular Front government,” has excellent nitrate deposits, long exploited by the Guggenheim interests, and a rich copper industry, owned 95 per cent by Anaconda and other American concerns. “The basic political struggle in Chile is much like that in Argentina, which we shall inspect presently. It is a struggle between Right and Left, between the landed oligarchs and the rising radical underpossessed,” Gunther points out, carefully ignoring the fact that the main struggle is against the imperialist domination of the United States.

A Look at Argentina

Argentina, from a material point of view, is the richest, most powerful and the most progressive country in Latin America. It is gripped by a profound crisis, political, economic and social. Gunther explains the four master bonds it has with Europe – it has greater affinity to Europe than to the United States.

“First, historical, the country is essentially white; there is no Negro problem, and scarcely any mestizo problem. The Indians had no civilization in the La Plata region; they were nomads – they did not even weave blankets – and were killed off early. Second, economic. European and particularly British capital built up the country – British investments alone are still worth about $2,000,000,000 – and about 40 per cent of total exports customarily went to Britain. Third, cultural and intellectual. Practically all intellectual currents came from Europe, and every Argentine of the upper classes thought of Paris as his spiritual home. I have met Argentinians who never read a book in Spanish till they were so. Everything had to be French. Fourth, religious. The all-powerful church represented a profound European influence, not merely for historical reasons, but because almost all priests in Argentina were Spanish or Italian.”

Gunther hints at the grave agricultural, or more accurately, peasant problem of Argentina, by his very description of the families, the wealth of the estates they own, which make up the powerful landowning class and which competes with the industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie for state power in the country.

The Alzaga Unzue family owns 1,091,586 acres valued at $26,624,814! The Anchorena, 945,194 acres, $15,970,000; Luro, 573,869 acres, $5,096,436; Pereyra, 472,308 acres, $11,317,336. Eleven other families own estates (feudal baronies would be a more appropriate description) that range from 500,000 acres to 250,000. And twelve others own land from 250,000 acres to 100,000 acres.

Here is a typical example of them, and also a key to understanding Gunther’s whole superficial approach to the problems of Latin America: “I spent one of the happiest weekends in my life as a guest on one of the greatest Argentine estancias. It covered 120,000 acres; it held 40,000 sheep, 30,000 cattle, and between 6,000 and 7,000 horses. It had its own railway station, its own telegraph; it had its own churches, hospitals, shops, a dairy, a police post. It was – and is – a kind of self-governing community rare and wonderful to behold!” What about the over-worked gauchos (ranch hands) and the peons! A brief reference – revealing in itself – that the gauchos on a prosperous and “progressive” estancia get $17.50 a month and keep. The peons get about $13.50 a month, a piece of land to till and some beef on this same estancia. That is all! Yet the burning question to millions of Argentines is of little consequence to the journalist who had a good time!

The “Most Jealous” of Neighbors

From these vast domains of the land-owning oligarchy comes the beef, the grain, the linseed, and the wool that comprise Argentina’s chief and profitable exports. The fact that these clash directly with the products of Texas and other Western states is the chief obstacle to a bloc, or treaty, or full co-operation between Washington and the Argentine oligarchs. Sumner Welles or Cordell Hull can’t make a deal with the rulers of Argentina, since the importation of beef and other products from down there creates a domestic crisis in the United States. The Western bloc in Congress is very powerful!

Gunther summarizes the relationships between the United States and Argentina under the rather amusing title, Why Some Argentinians Dislike the U.S.A.

“First and foremost, the crucial question of beef just mentioned, as well as general commercial rivalry.

“Second, nationalist jealousy and latent fear of North American imperialism. Argentina considers itself the competitor of the United States for hemisphere leadership.

“Third, lack of knowledge, insularity. Few prominent Argentinians have ever visited New York or Washington.

“Fourth, the tactlessness of many American business men in Argentina. The revolting provincialism and vulgarity of many American movies. The inadequacy of American radio programs. The convictions of many Argentinians that most citizens of the United States are savages from the cultural point of view.

“Fifth, many of the British who had a profound influence in developing Argentina were colonial-minded Yankee-haters, and the Argentines came to reflect this attitude.

“Sixth (it seems incredibly remote), the Spanish-American War. Many Argentines remember this war vividly, or were told about it by their fathers, and most of them took the Spanish side.

“Seventh, psychological envy of United States power, wealth and influence.”

Notwithstanding previous descriptions, Gunther proclaims Argentina, where only a small portion of the population votes, and where the government is completely dominated by the land-owning oligarchy, where the industrial and commercial capitalists compete for power, a democracy!

America’s Brazilian Friend

While one dislikes to slip Cuba, Mexico and other very important countries in this review, space limitations demand it. Yet Brazil must be included in this review, if only briefly.

Brazil, a country larger than the United States, has 43,000,000 people, which Getulio Vargas, erstwhile president, has run, to use Gunther’s expression, as a “one man show.” An army man from way back, Vargas assumed power in the 1930 military struggle in which he was victorious. He withstood the challenge of an opposition consisting mainly of industrial and landowning dissidents, as against his rich and powerful supporters, in the 1932 “revolution,” which lasted three months. In 1934 he forced through a “constitution” which “legalized” his dictatorial rule. In 1935 he ruthlessly crushed a revolt under Stalinist leadership. In 1937, when his term of office, under his own constitution ended, Vargas put the country under martial law and accomplished a coup d’état.

This man, along with Colonel “Butcher” Batista of Cuba, and similar types, are the so-called friends of democracy! These are the type of political and military adventurers palmed off on the American people by the Roosevelt Administration as “allies in the struggle against fascism.” Vargas, the man who killed and tortured hundreds of workers, including Stalinists, is now the white hope of the Stalinists in Brazil!

But a bargain can be made with the Brazilian dictator over coffee. And Cuba has sugar to export. The State Department many years ago learned this fact. So these countries have become “pillars of defense.”

Let me say in passing that all the brutal facts which can be gleaned from Gunther’s books are available in much clearer and rounded-out form in the book written and published by the Royal Institute of Public Affairs (of His Majesty’s government). This book, appearing in 1939, also goes into the story of industrial development and the labor movement – a subject that Gunther ignores with all the disdain of a British colonial servant looking down on an Indian.

Other Factors and the Future

Gunther discreetly mentions the rôle of the powerful and rich Catholic Church, always to the right of everyone in politics and powerful because of its vast holdings. The British scholars, no doubt, influenced by their Protestant sympathies, do an excellent job of gathering the facts on the Church’s reactionary rôle in Latin America. They tell the almost unbelievable story of the “Spanish Inquisition” in these colonies that wiped out millions of natives who didn’t like accepting Jesus at the end of a sword, lash, or fiery cross.

Out of this broad panorama of Latin America certain basic conclusions present themselves. These countries, with either a semi-colonial or colonial status, have a triple fight on their hands: national independence, the combining of the democratic with a socialist revolution, and the agricultural revolution against the semi-feudal system that now oppresses millions. Since there are added to these major problems, the millions of savages living in the Amazon area, which is wilder, more primitive and inaccessible than darkest Africa, one can see how the law of combined development must operate on this continent.

The more one studies the complexities of the Latin American countries and the problems of the masses of people, workers, peons and the savages, the more one realizes that here is a continent and peoples that, above all, need the support and strength of the powerful American labor movement in their struggle for real freedom.

The sooner the American working class aids this struggle (such as the CIO helping to organize the Latin American oil, rubber, steel, copper and tin workers against the very same companies the CIO is fighting at home) the sooner will there be a solution to the miseries and tragedies of Latin America’s millions.

These are things Gunther doesn’t talk about. That is why his companion piece to Inside Europe and Inside Asia is a tenth-rate book, purely superficial in character and written primarily to do its part in aiding American imperialism to strengthen and keep its hold over Latin American countries it now dominates, and to capture others. Gunther’s book serves to cover up for the conscience-stricken liberal, the fact that in this World War, American imperialism, even though belatedly, is seeking a world empire, far mightier than Britain ever dreamed, and Latin America, in this scheme of things, is to be an inevitable first victim

And the Englishman who told the American: “You may take Canada from us, but never Argentina,” back in 1937, is wrong. American imperialism will gobble up both, unless the working class calls a halt to imperialism.

B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29 December 2014