Latin American intellectual historians have too often bypassed economic thinking. It suffices to browse the Cambridge History of Latin America or the Oxford Book of Latin American Essays to appraise how orphaned economic ideas have been in our region. This “economic illiteracy” works as an incentive to eschew rawly factual but nonetheless complex relationships that took place in our region’s material life, thus hindering any comprehensive grasp of what really happened and still goes on.
I have always been intrigued by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the strong following he enjoys among my fellow Latin Americans. To be sure, he’s been the laughingstock of economic historians for decades. Still, only he can take pride in having a readership that counts up to hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans from all tracks of life who take Mr. Galeano’s dictums as nothing but the truth.
One day in 1966—I was barely 15—I went into the camp’s chief geologist’s house trailer. This particular camp was in the borders of the Orinoco River delta, a remote tropical region of flooded savannas. My parentswere very fond of this young American geologist who has just got transferred to Nigeria. So my dad sent me to help him carry his personal belongings into the company’s jeep that would take him to a small airstrip some 7 miles away.Behind his desk hung a framed yellowish sheet of paper with a long typewritten quote on it. You had to come near and look up close to read it. It appeared to be some passage of a book but, to this date, I couldnot tell for sure where it came from. It read:
“If I were a barrel of oil, comfortably located in a pool, hidden in a trap deep in the ground, the region that would be safest for me—where I might live out another 50 or 100 million years in peace and dignity—would be in some country where minerals and exploration are nationalized. The reason is that in counties such as these, there is but one hunter, and the chances of eluding him are far better than the chances of being discovered. The most dangerous place for me to live in, as a barrel of oil, would be in the United States where there are thousands of hunters and each has a different weapon” A. I. Levorsen
“As an ordinary American, I don’t know very well what it [‘indigenism’] means or connotes. It’s apparently a term that has come to have a lot of connotations in Latin America. To a native English-speaking reader like myself trying to make sense of it, the word ‘indigenous’ suggests native peoples—that is, the people who inhabited Latin America before the Spanish explorers ever arrived there. A word like ‘indigenism’ might suggest that they—the people who lived there before the Spanish ever arrived—should have greater influence in modern politics. But obviously the fact that there is a new word also suggests that maybe the word means something more complex and modern—for example, that there is a modern culture, perhaps intertwined, involving both the originally-indigenous peoples and whatever influences have occurred since.·
“Redistributionism is a spontaneous feeling”, wrote Bertrand de Jouvenel back in 1951.( 2) “This, like so many spontaneous assumptions of the human mind, is an error.” Still, populist-inspired nationalizations keep coming back to our redistributionist countries with ever growing symbolic and emotional power.
Measured up against post-war era “Keynesian goals”, and compared with French and British nationalizations, how much have Latin American nationalizations contributed, if anything, to consumption and investment on the demand side? How productive on the supply side? Have they helped increase employment or ensured conditions for long-term growth? How well have they fared in developing national infrastructure? Have they really improved the export performance of their countries?