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I have had a question for a long time. Well, as long as I have been living in South America. It is a question that I am sometimes afraid of asking, because it carries a long weight of cultural prejudice and ignorance with it, but it is a question I can't avoid wondering about, can't avoid asking.

If you are dealing with stereotypes, Latinos, Spanish and Portuguese speakers in South America, are gregarious, friendly, sociable people who form close family groups and social groups. Of course, there is always a gamut of personality traits and the worst interpretation of this stereotype, of Latin America as a continent full of carefree, non-stop partying, is obviously only a dream sold to tourists. But in general, yes, people in Latin America have way better social skills than people in the United States. People tend to be more familial, more friendly, more able to easily talk and communicate, more free with their feelings, more expressive. However you want to phrase it, while it isn't always cafes and dancing all night, the social life here is a big improvement over the cold, stilted and impersonal life of the American exurbs.

So, my question is, all this ability to communicate and form warm relationships, that must translate into a pluralistic, open society where people are able to empathize with each other and form politically and socially stable communities, right? Um, no. Most countries in Latin America have only managed to become stable democracies recently, and some are still on their way. Venezuela is currently sliding into a communist failed state, Brazil has just elected a (barely hidden) crytofacist, Colombia just exited a civil war, Cuba is still a dictatorship after sixty years, Peru ended its civil war in the late 1990s, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina all had dictatorships dating sometime into the 1980s. Even Spain and Portugal, which often look down on their "colonies" for their lack of sophistication, only managed to leave their fascist dictatorships and join the civilized world in 1975.

Since I have been living in Chile, I have been involved in the youthful, optimistic side of South America. A lot of people here would rather forget the dictatorship. Most people under the age of 35 can't remember it. But every once in a while, especially with something like the election of Jair Bolsonaro, I am reminded, bitterly, that Latin America isn't quite into its Thomas Friedman phase of endless taxidriver's nephews getting jobs as app designers. There is still, culturally, a current of authoritarianism here, hidden by the casual attitude and cultural creativity.

I know at some point, someone who has passed Leftism 101 is saying "But the CIA and neoliberalism". Shut up. The word neoliberalism doesn't mean anything. And its condescending to act like the United States has been the serpent in the garden of Eden of Latin America. The history of reactionary thought in South America was here before we were. And the tendency towards dictatorship, disrespect of human rights and civil war isn't only that of right-wing forces. Both as state actors (Cuba, Venezuela) and as non-state actors (FARC, El Sendero Luminoso), left wing groups share similar cultural beliefs.

I do believe that there is something cultural that predisposes the Spanish speaking world towards authoritarianism. Because the same group identity that is so pleasant when you are drinking wine with your friends at night becomes terrible when it is the basis for people's actions. Paradoxically, knowing that you belong to a group doesn't increase people's empathy, it lessens it. When people's social customs, friendships, courtships, and social roles and status are so certain, and so omnipresent, people never get a chance to look outside of them. People don't have to develop empathy for others, because others are just like them. The stringency of the Spanish language has something to do with this: Spanish is supervised by a "Royal Academy", where the Spanish language is seen as an external, intrinsic reality that can only be approved of by --- SURPRISE--- people who are appointed by a monarch. The idea that there is no intrinsic "correct way" to say something, no authority figure that can tell you whether or not your words somehow "fit reality", is something that Spanish speakers find both bewildering and threatening. Because language, social roles, and group identity are ingrained so early, and so totally, as an absolute, irreducible fact of life, there is no way to empathize or communicate with people who have different experiences, other of course, than war, torture and murder.

But the worst, worst excesses that you can go and read about, are of course a walk in the park compared to losing that sense of cultural absoluteness.

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