The Voice of Latin America: William Benton. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 21s. 204 pp.

The only people left in the world who sincerely and enthusiastically admire the United States and are obviously trying to imitate them, are the Russians. I forget who told me this, but reading Mr. Benton’s book on Latin America the uncomfortable idea that there is more than a grain of truth in this wild assertion came repeatedly to my mind. Twin souls, a cynic could say. And Mr. Benton’s book, which is a great deal more patronising than it should be, does nothing to dispel this notion.

The main thesis of the book is that the Russians are coming. This is the Alpha and Omega of everything he says. Poverty is bad because it breeds Communists. Illiteracy is bad because ignorant peasants might become Communists. Lack of housing, hunger and unemployment are bad because frustration and hopelessness are the best encouragement to Communism. Therefore, he suggests, the United States should put an end to poverty, reform institutions, spread education, build or help to build houses, hospitals and schools, not—one imagines—because these things are good, but because they stop Communism. According to T. S. Eliot, the worst temptation of all is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason” and this can very well be applied to Mr. Benton’s brand of sincere and candid concern for other people’s welfare.

The Russians—it’appears—are up to more or less the same things. Mr. Benton himself tells us that “this obsession with the United States as the supreme enemy is the most ominous aspect” of Soviet policy. Yet a few chapters further on he explains gloomily that “the Communists are the United States’ principal problem and enemy in Latin America—as they are throughout the world.” So Communists and Americans don’t like each other and they are both very keen on using Latin America as a springboard for this and that and the only people who do not really have much to do with all this are the Latin Americans themselves. Mr. Benton’s book is supposed to tell us about what Latin Americans are saying—the title is explicit enough—but it does not. It tells us what Mr. Benton is saying and what his friends told him and how convinced he is that reforms are needed and that the United States should help to change institutions, distribute land and make everybody prosperous and happy.

But then, all this is very new. A few years ago the best defence against Communism was resistance to reform. If a Latin American intellectual had written a book like Mr. William Benton’s (Born 1st April, 1900, founded an advertising agency in New York, became Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, was elected Democratic Senator and, in 1960, accompanied Mr. Adlai Stevenson on a tour of Latin America) he would have been vociferously accused of being a Communist of a fellow-traveller. The best friends of the United States were the staunchest defenders of the established order and Perez Jimenez, Rojas Pinilla, Trujillo, Odria, Somoza, Batista and Vargas and every petty dictator or general with napoleonic ambitions who pronounced the ritualistic anti-Communist slogans was immediately accepted into the United States’ rewarding company. Now all this is but an embarrassing memory and Mr. Benton can write books in which he joyfully announces as rather startling discoveries things which have been said, shouted and written during 20 years by the democratic left-wing in Latin America. The great trouble now is that, even granting that the United States’ intentions are crystalline and sincere, popular support for these initiatives is going to be very hard to find.

Still more important than the latent anti-Americanism which is shared—justly or unjustly—by many Latin Americans, is the fact that none of the political groups which can conceivably be approached by the United States in this new reformist crusade, seems to be interested in changing anything. The rising urban middle sectors have a foot in the door of the mansion of power and privilege—or they think they do—and certainly don’t want to bring it down. With a bit of luck and help, they believe they can enter. The traditional upper classes are certainly not interested in giving away their land and money for the sake of democratic reform, fear or greed. The idea that the landed aristocracy is trembling in its boots is very wide of the mark. Both revolution and the Cold War are too far, even after the Cuban crisis, for them to worry unduly. As for greed, they are convinced that the United States’ self-interest will force it to hand over aid, even in the face of open resistance to fundamental reforms. Even more important is the very real possibility that the United States has less popular support now than before it launched its much-publicised Alliance for Progress. Before that, the US enjoyed the solid opposition of the left-wing and the equally uncompromising support of the extreme right-wing. There were then, as now, very few powerful centre parties, and most of these were definitely in the opposition. Now, the US with its enthusiastic reformist zeal has earned the hostility of the traditional landed interest without apparently shaking the solid anti-Americanism of the left-wing.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from these unhappy experiences is that it is as unwise to try to play the enlightened despot with a foreign country as it is to do it at home. The projection ad absurdum of the US position would lead them to utter the well known injunction of “Be happy or I will shoot you”. In this case it would be “Reform democratically, develop your economy and change your social structure, otherwise the Communists will do it for you. Worse still, if you don’t do it I will stop giving you financial aid and then the Communists will really get you”. The implications of this position are quite staggering. Does this mean, for example, that were it not for the Communist threat to the United States, reforms would still be treated like some virulent form of leprosy? Does this mean that the only reason why the United States has suddenly become aware of the plight of Latin America, has been because somebody called Castro got there first? More important still, is Mr. Benton trying to tell us that Che Guevara was right when he said that the survival of the Cuban revolution was in the interest of the whole of Latin America, because otherwise the huge increases in dollar aid which had been promised by the United States would not be forthcoming?