11 JANUARY 1963, Page 5

The Image of Latin America

By J. HALCRO FERGUSON IN recent years the advertising profession has persuaded not only business firms but entire nations of the importance of projecting a favourable public image. In the nineteenth cen- tury the British were sublimely indifferent to being pictured abroad as top-hatted, supercilious, domineering milords or plump parvenus sending children down mines or up chimneys, and the Germans were quite happy to be associated with beer, sausages, Pickelhauben and duelling scars.

Today all that has changed and every nation employs experts to destroy old images and to set up new ones in their place—or at least to choose and refurbish the most convenient of the originals.

One part of the world, however, has signally failed to keep up with the Joneses in this respect, and that is Latin America. Few intelligent Britons today think of Frenchmen as wearing narrow top-hats and pointed beards, and yet they happily accept the belief that sophisticated citY-dwellers in South America wear the same sombreros as Mexican peasants—a belief en- couraged by recent BOAC posters (they do wear sombreros, of course, since the Word merely means hat). Nobody imagines that the Japanese behave like characters in The Mikado, but the myth of perpetual Latin Ameri- can gaiety still persists—a week'of carnival once a Year in two Brazilian cities has become in Popular imagination a conga-line stretching from Mexico to Cape Horn. To misconception is added plain ignorance. Most educated people today know that Conakry is the capital of Guinea, but few could place Bogota in Colombia, although it has been there for 400 years, which is probably more than Can be said of Conakry. The biggest misconcep- tion of all is that Latin America is not a con- tinent but a country, perhaps on the analogy M South Africa, or at any rate that Paraguay could be swapped round with Uruguay without anybody noticing. , The field of misconception is so vast that it Is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps most itnportant is the general belief that life for be ordinary person is more likely to be beset riot and revolution in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. Algeria, the Congo !n.d Laos should have done something to correct 'Ins lack of perspective, but apparently they haven't.

In fact, over the last fifty years life in most _Parts of Latin America has been far more secure Ibilan in most parts of Europe. This was forcibly !might home to me three years ago on a visit the Dominican Republic—then still under the till ctatorial rule of 'El Benefactor,' the late Rafael ruiillo. I was present at the meeting of the two ol ,,,cI business acquaintances, Herr Biermann, of ■ -2erroanY, and Seiior Espaillat, of the Dominican 5ePubl1c, who. had not met since 1911. The illl.vntninican commiserated with his friend on .h,mg in such a dangerous place as Europe. Herr '3t rmann looked surprised and said Europe was al311nright, upon which Sefior Espaillat exploded, n. ut my God, man, you've had two World Wars attlee we last met.' It would be idle to deny that Latin America has experienced considerable turmoil, or that it is now going through a period of political, economic and social change that can make life uncomfortable and sometimes dan- gerous. But for the ordinary non-political citi- zen, life, though more liable to be hard than gay, has within living memory been safer than anywhere in the Old World except for Scan- dinavia (and both Norway and Denmark ex- perienced a German occupation).

A more recent image has now been super- imposed on that of gay, revolutionary Latin America. This image, largely created in the popular mind by television, is of a continent divided between the idle rich on one hand and the peasants and slum-dwellers on the other, with nobody in between. Pictorially, of course, this is a gift to the TV teams—contrast the penthouses of Copacabana with the favelas on the hills be- hind, take a shot of the stately Plaza de Armas in Lima and follow it by one of Indians search- ing for sustenance on the municipal rubbish dump.

There is more truth in these contrasts (the gap between rich and poor is the most dangerous factor in Latin America today), but it is still only a partial truth. Unfortunately, however, there is nothing very photogenic, shocking or romantic about the miles of middle-class suburbs which surround almost every Latin American city: the working-class districts of Montevideo with their corner bars and local grocers; the commuter trains coming into Buenos Aires in the rush hour; the innumerable Edwardian houses with their patios and tiled floors. There is nothing exciting or strange about the lives of bus drivers, postmen, clerks, pharmacists, civil servants, secretaries, electricians, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, nurses, doctors, TV technicians, neswpapermen or cafe proprietors.

Yet this broad section of the population, literate and articulate without being wealthy —the middle class, in fact—is constantly grow- ing. It is largely an urban class, it is true, but though Latin America depends mostly on the land, a high proportion of its citizens, like those of Australia, live in cities. And this growing middle class is becoming more and more im- portant politically. The Cuban revolution was not made, as romantic legend would have it, by bearded peasants, but by bearded bourgeoisie, while the urban proletariat did nothing until Castro was entrenched in Havana. The highly significant social revolution which took place in Bolivia in 1952 was, certainly, carried out by the miners, but its leadership was a middle-class one and the present President, Dr. Paz Estenssoro, one of the principal leaders, is a former lecturer in economics. In Argentina, though the army provides the force which is at present holding back the tide of proletarian Peronismo, it is doing so on behalf of the middle classes—indeed, the army in Argentina, as in most Latin Ameri- can countries, is a bourgeois rather than an aristocratic institution.

Here we come to another great misconception about Latin America. In popular cartoons in Europe and North America, Latin American generals and colonels are usually portrayed in the likeness of Mexican bandits, with curling mustachios, unshaven chins and ill-fitting uni- forms hung about with bandoliers, or else in gold-braided creations bedecked with medals. In fact they are staid professionals in khaki, and dictators like the late Generalissimo Trujillo' in the Dominican Republic, and Batista in Cuba, who enjoyed dressing up, had neither of them held commissioned rank in their country's forces until they came to power: they were politicos in uniform.

Nor do Latin American armies intervene in politics just for amusement or because they have been bribed by one faction to oust another. The men who freed Latin America from Spain were soldiers and not politicians, and their successors regard themselves as the guardians of the spirit of their constitutions against the legalistic wiles of the civilian politicians, many of whom are in fact law graduates. Today this ad hoc balance of forces has become anachronistic: in the highly complicated circumstances of the twen- tieth century it is impossible for an exasperated general to march on a capital and take over the government as though it were a parish council.

The soldiers in general have realised this. When Peron was ousted in 1955 in Argentina, the army was at great pains to make plain that it was setting up only an interim administra- tion, and General Aramburu was officially styled 'Provisional President.' It was, indeed, with a sigh of relief that the soldiers handed back control to the civilians in 1958, and it was with the utmost reluctance that they intervened again last year when partial elections showed the strength of Peronismo. (Whether they were right to take such action is another question and one on which they themselves are not agreed.) In similar cases in Colombia and Venezuela at the time of the overthrow of the dictatorships of Rojas Pinilla and Perez Jimenez in 1957 and 1958, the armed forces acted with similar states- manship and restraint, and both countries now have elected governments which, in so far as they are precariously situated, are endangered not by their armies, but by political extremists of Left and Right.

During the nineteenth century the pattern of revolution was one of fights between rival caudillos, usually representing 'personalist' fac- tions of the ruling class, whose causes—despite pronunciamientos about liberty and equality— were commonly activated by no higher motives than the wish to be 'in' instead of 'out.' Nowadays the budding revolutionary is less likely to be found in the barracks or the hacienda than in the high school or the uni- versity. Instead of a uniform or cowboy's cloth- ing he wears a collar and tie and sits up late over cups of coffee, arguing about Marxism and capitalism and deploring the Yanquis. He reads angry little magazines, listens to Havana and Moscow—and New York—on the short-wave radio. He marries early and moves into a suburban house or a one-roomed flat where, after the children have been put to bed, his wife makes the coffee and joins in the nocturnal political arguments.

If and when the revolution comes, the rank and tile arc no longer untutored peasants im- pressed into service by feudal landowners or en- ticed by the glamour of a desperado's reputation. They are more likely to be students, clerks and trade unionists who (as Bolivia and Cuba have shown) will be joined by a cautious peasantry only when the revolution has triumphed and has shown itself to be on their side. And the success of the revolution is less likely to be marked by bread and circuses than by a closing down of cabarets, a drive against corruption, ...ft increase in education, a new earnestness and v en austerity (the Peron regime was an excep- :ion to this rule, but Peron, despite his espousal of the workers, had much in him of the old- fashioned caudillo).

Modern Latin America, for better or for worse, far from being romantic or remote, is very much a part of the world the rest of us live in. A colleague of mine once said, 'You make South America sound like Golders Green.' Parts of it are. Parts of it are like Liberia. Uruguay is as different from Paraguay as Britain is from Albania; Argentina is more like Au- stralia than it is like Peru; Mexico is like nowhere except Mexico. But none of it is in the least like the stereotype which the rest of the world has come to accept.