Sunday, December 31, 2006

Washington and Bolívar, Windows on Differences in Political Culture in the 19th Century

In a remarkable essay, the 19th century Columbian author Juan Montalvo drew on the symbolic character of the germinal leaders of their respective nations--George Washington and Simon Bolivar, to sketch the fundamental distinctions between North and South American political culture. (Juan Montalvo, Los héroes de la emancipación de la raza hispanoamericana, in Siete Tratados (Paris, 1883) reproduced in Conciencia intelectual de América: antología del ensayo hispanoamericano 132-134 (Carlos Ripoll, ed., New York: Eliseo Torres, 1966). The essay is particularly relevant today as a basis for understanding the difficulty that North and South American political cultures have in harmonizing approaches to law and legal culture.

Montalvo starts with the principal character of both men. Washington's reputation, he tells us, is grounded not so much for his military prowess as for the realization of the objective for which his military skills were deployed (""El renombre de Washington no finca tanto en sus proezas militares, cuanto en el éxito mismo de la obra que llevó adelante y consumó con tanra felicidad como buen juicio" Id., at 132). Bolivar, on the other hand, is the epitome of the warrior framed in the spectres of tyranny ("El de Bolívar trae consigo el ruido de las armas, y a los resplenfores que despide esa figura radiosa vemos caer y huir y desvanecerse los espectros de la tiranía" Id., at 132). Yet both Washington and Bolívar shared the same objective-- independence for their people and the establishment of democratic states ("Entre Washington y Bolívar hay de común la identidad de fines, siendo así que el anhelode cada uno se cifra enla libertad de un puieblo y el establecimiento de la democracia" Id., at 132). Washington appears the more respected in world opinion; Bolívarthe more magnificent figure ("Washington se present más respetable y majestuosa a la contemplación del mundo, Bolívar más alto y resplandeciente." Id., at 133).

Yet Washington managed to preside over the establishment of a republic the successors to which worked hard to maintain while Bolívar's successors sought ("Washinton fundó una república que ha venido a ser después de poco una de las mayores naciones de la tierra; Bolívar fundó asimismo una gran nación, pero menos feliz que su hermano primogénito. . . . los compañeros de Bolívar todos acometieron a degollar a la real Colombia y tomar para sí la mayor presa posible, locos de amblición y tiranía." Id., at 133-134). Washington's successors sought to serve the state, and then themselves ("A Washington le rodeaban hombres tan notables como él. . . . Y éstos y todos los demás . . . eran uno en la causa, rivales en la obediencia." Id., at 133). Bolívar's successors sought to serve themselves, and then the state. They became, from the founding of the Colombian Republic, a distraction to the founding of the state. ("Bolívar tuvo que domar a sus tenientes, que combatir y vebncer a sus proprios compatriotas." Id., at 133).

Why the difference in result? Montavlo suggests that the answer might lie in the way in which succeeding generations of elites in both states interpreted the pattern of political behavior established by each of these great leaders. Somewhat ironically Montalvo lays out an odd dissimilar parallelism: Washington, he tells us, was the less ambitious, magnanimous and elevated but the more modest of the pair. ("Washington , menos ambisioso, pero menos magnánimo, más modesto, pero menos elevado que Bol'ivar."" Id., at 134). Washington accepted the modest gifts from a gratefiul nation; Bolívar refused the millions offered him by the grateful Peruvians. But Washington refused to serve a third term in office, retiring to great acclaim, a rare and happy man ("¡hombre raro y feliz! Id., at 134); Bolívar does not and ends his days rejected, persecuted and ridiculed by a large number of his contemporaries ("Bolívar acepta el mando tentador que por tercera vez, y ésta de fuente impura, viene a molestar su espíritu, y muere repelido, perseguido, escarnecido por una buena parte de sus contemporáneos" Id., at 134"). Washington's successors were guided by the example of Washington himself as a symbolic figure he had become. Bolívar's successors were also guided by Bolívar's example. But following the symbolic Washington produced an elite that sought to preserve a more or less stable republic. Fidelity to the symbolic Bolívar produced a string of tragic figures; the magnificent tragedy of Bolívar´s life pattern produced, as those that cam affter sought to replicate that pattern, to an unstable political community in which certain citizens sought to devour the very state Bolívar worked so hard to establish ("En tiempo de los dioses Saturno devoraba a sus hijos; nosotros hemos visto y estamos viendo ciertos hijos devorar a su madre." Id., at 134).

South America stands as a collective tragic figure, attached to a socio-political imperative to mimic both the greatness and the tragic choices of its great founder. North America is condemned ot the same fate--but to substantially different effect. In this context, César Chavez of Venezuela becomes easy to understand--as does the fascination of the Venezuelan masses with the magnificent self-obsessed figure Chavez cuts. The figure is difficult to resist, and ultimately transitory. But the political culture that produces him remains vibrant and privileged. It is no wonder that Chavez and Fidel Castro--both quintessentially Bolívarian figures, have been so eager to embrace Bolívar in their internal and external state relations. The recently created socialist regional trade association -- ALBA (Alternative Bolivariana Para Nuestra América) -- founded in 2004, was self consciously constructed on Bolivarian principles by these leaders.

But I believe Montalvo was not merely referencing the usual lament of South American caudillismo in contrast to North American industry and civic patriotism. That would hardly be interesting now. Instead, Montalvo took pains to point to the peculiar manifestation of the differences proceeding from South American Caudillismo within society as whole: Bolívar, he suggests, set a pattern that is now discernible in the nature of corruption in South America--in a political society where service to one's own interests and desires takes precedence, fiduciary notions are difficult to cultivate. If a culture of fiduciary duty, like that of the United States, is permeated with the sort of petty corruption that sometimes requires significant correction, a culture less imbued with such values, as a matter of politico-cultural reality, may find it harder to build the foundations for behavior in which the interests of a principal (the state, the corporation, etc.) is put before one's own personal interests.

I do not mean to suggest any judgment that North American political culture is better or better equipped for this or another political or cultural task. Rather, it suggests that the starting point for cultural understanding of the relationship of the individual to the state or any other entity, that the organizing principal for measuring the acceptability of particular conduct, is to some extent highly dependent on cultural tropes whose power is ignored at one's peril. Transpositions of conduct norms that are highly dependent on judgments ansd assumptions that are basic to the donating culture but not to the receiving culture can only result in frustration. Anti corruption efforts exported from the United States, based on American values, assumptions about the propriety of basic behaviors that have no exact counterparts in South America, will not be transposable without significant "translation." This insight suggests that while it is possible to harmonize objectives and goals--for example, with respect to anti-corruption efforts--it will be harder to harmonize techniques, methods and approaches to the attainment of those goals.

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