...we propose to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom. To achieve this goal political freedom must accompany material progress...Let us once again transform the American Continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts, a tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women, an example to all the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand. Let us once again awaken our American revolution until it guides the struggles of people everywhere-not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man.
- President John F. Kennedy, 1961
The Alliance for Progress was one of the flagship foreign policy initiatives of John F. Kennedy. The goal was to increase economic co-operation between North and South America, and to help countries south of the Rio Grande to "modernize" their economies and political structures, which is to say to help them become liberal, free-market democracies. The tools to be used were aid and trade. The initiative is particularly interesting because it is an early example of how a group of academic theorists became plugged into the U.S. state and used it as a vehicle for their ideas, a pattern which we are familiar with in our day due to the influence of the neoconservatives in the administration of George W. Bush. The errors of both groups were remarkably similar.
The goals of the Alliance for Progress were breathtakingly vast and naive in their scope. Kennedy announced that over a ten year period, he wanted to help Latin American Republics achieve 2.5% annual growth, eliminate adult illiteracy, democratize their governments, and carry out sweeping "land reform", a euphemism for massive social engineering which would involve the transfer of land from large landowners to the population at large, a process that took centuries in Western European countries. The planners behind the Alliance rightly recognized it was "revolutionary" in scope, and this was intentional because it was supposed to provide an alternative blueprint to the future for countries that might be tempted to turn to the Soviet Union and socialism. It was not a coincidence that the Alliance was announced so shortly after the Cuban Revolution had installed Fidel Castro in Havana.
The Alliance achieved limited economic goals and brought significant improvements in the standard of living for many Latin Americans due to a large-scale transfer of U.S. aid. But it spectacularly failed in its goal to bring about any sort of widespread transformation in Latin America because the means committed were vastly inadequate to the desired ends. The Alliance essentially envisaged the abandonment of traditional ways of politics and social organization by an entire continent, at the same time, and the embracing of a homogenous economic and political model exemplified by the United States. It represented one of the high water sheds of American arrogance about the extent to which the rest of the world desired their system, and another high water shed of naive belief that this sytem could be easily exported to any other context.
Just like the planners of the Iraq War who thought that it would suffice to decapitate Saddam's regime to cause a liberal democracy to spring into existence, the group of academics and policymakers behind the Alliance for Progress assumed that the peoples of Latin America wanted to follow the example of the United States and "modernize" their economies and political structures. The chief proponent of the scheme, Walt Whitman Rostow, was a famous economist who had spearheaded the development of "modernization theory". Drunk on the philosopher's stone of social science, he believed that academics in America had discovered the key to human progress and were capable of engineering transitions from "traditional societies" to economic "modernity", the latter being a state of economic and political liberalism that looked suspiciously identical to the contemporary United States, but had been rebranded as the "scientific", pre-determined outset of economic development.
The proponents of the theory were totally uninterested in the actual state of the "traditional" societies that they wanted to change, and hence were blind to the real political obstacles to bringing about the transformation they sought. The process of modernizing economies and political structures in Europe and the United States took centuries of struggle and bloodshed, but the Alliance for Progress aimed to bring about the same result through the mere application of foreign aid and diplomatic pressure. Any tendency that did not run in the direction of economic and political "modernity" - tendencies that one may not approve of but nevertheless exist and must be overcome rather than wished out of existence - were labelled as atavistic vestiges of a "primitive society" that would quickly be swept away when people saw the sort of life that the American model would give them.
Entirely lost in the worldview of the Alliance was the autonomous desires of Latin Americans. When the Alliance began to fail, Latin American governments were blamed for not having the political will to go through with the programme, or for administering it inefficiently. It rarely occurred to any critic to consider the diverse nature of Latin America societies, and the ethnic, class, cultural, and historical factors that militated against the application of a simplistic model of "modernization" to the region. The Alliance for Progress only made sense if one viewed the peoples of Latin America as blank slates, or as naive children eager to learn from the political and social "grown-ups" to the north. And it was precisely in these arrogant terms that Rostow characterized the whole programme, ignoring the complex natures of the societies he sought to change.
All of these factors were considered as irrelevant to the "science" behind the scheme, which told its planners that all societies would evolve towards a homogenous point defined by economic and political freedom. Equipped with this "science", they did not feel it was necessary to consider each country and its problems on their own terms. And this, of course, is precisely the same mistake made by the Bush administration's planners in Iraq.
The persistency of conflicts over land reform in Paraguay, or between the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and the descendents of European settlers in that country, demonstrate the complex nature of Latin American societies. But all of these details were brushed under the carpet by the Kennedy apostles of democratic capitalism, who were all too willing to define whole peoples as "abnormal" or psychologically unsound if they refused to abandon their history and culture and wholeheartedly embrace the market. And even though the Alliance for Progress failed - an outcome that should have been obvious to anyone who had not departed reality to exclusively inhabit "scientific" models of development - the errors of thought behind it live on.