Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Lars Schoultz's In Their Own Best Interest

You can think of Lars Schoultz's In Their Own Best Interest: A History of the U.S. Effort to Improve Latin Americans (2018) as the third in a trilogy starting with Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (1998) and That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution (2009, my review is here). All three books use archival sources and extensive primary sources (even Nixon tapes) to get at what policy makers in the United States were thinking, with a high level of detail. I wonder whether at this point there are any boxes of files that Lars has not seen.

The detail alone makes this book a valuable source. He lays out the chronologies precisely, explain who the policy makers are to better understand their motivations (looking at all sorts of obscure memoirs, for example), and in general provides a clear context for what's going on. So, for example, you had a great history of how the foreign aid bureaucracy--a major uplifter--developed and grew.

All three books deal in some manner with U.S. policy makers' firm belief in the inferiority of Latin Americans. In Their Own Best Interest examines the desire to "uplift." Latin American needed uplifting, clearly, as they were living in squalor and had few prospects without U.S. assistance. Improvement was the name of the game. As Secretary of State Elihu Root said about Cuba in 1907:

First. We do not want to take them for ourselves. Second. We do not want foreign nations to take them. Third. We want to help them (p. 39).

The thread continues over decades and decades, though the emphasis changed. The uplifting was about economic development, building political institutions, instilling human rights, bringing in "modern" values, (sometimes) promoting democracy and the like. It got expensive after Nelson Rockefeller established foreign aid as a tool under FDR but was never really all that successful. Latin America never seemed quite uplifted enough for our taste.

The book is consistently laced with humor and considerable sarcasm. If you just skim, you'll miss out.

"Students of culture--ethnographers--explore how norms regulate the thinking of groups of people when they hunker round a campfire to discuss their problems and decide what to do about them.
There are campfires on almost every corner in Washington DC. They are called 'meetings'" (p. 5). 
On a former U.S. Ambassador to Chile and Mexico: "he taught his German shepherd to growl whenever it heard the word 'Greaser'" (p. 74). 
On Herbert Hoover: "One of the unluckiest of presidents, Hoover ranks just behind those who were shot" (p. 106). 
On Spruille Braden: "he had married a Chilean and become fluent in Spanish, which served primarily to increase the number of people he could offend without a translator" (p. 169). 
"If LBJ's successor, Richard Nixon, was interested in promoting democracy, he hid it better than he hid most of his secrets" (p. 238). 

The uplifting business is so big that no one knows how big its, and it is carried out by a sizeable army of contractors.

Clearly the uplifting does not work well. Just look at Nicaragua, which the U.S. has been uplifting for over a century without achieving much of anything beyond the imposition of suffering. Basically, the U.S. government keeps claiming it needs to help Nicaraguans improve upon what the U.S. has helped to damage. This becomes a sick sort of perpetual loop.

So why keep doing it? More importantly, why do altruists keep doing so? He concludes by asking us to consider the basic question of self-interests. The realists in the U.S. government fund the altruists, who may disdain the source of the money but take it anyway (he even puts LAPOP in that category). So many people benefit from uplifting that the only way it will ever stop is if Latin Americans says it should.


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