Many readers will be familiar with the dictum “poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” uttered by Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz at the turn of the 20th century. The latest in-depth survey of attitudes and values across the hemisphere conducted by Latinobarómetro, a prestigious research organization, indicates that Latin Americans are now a lot closer to God and farther from the U.S. than in Porfirio Díaz's time.
There has been a gradual erosion of support for the Catholic Church in Latin America. Rather than a move away from religion, this signifies the consolidation of a phenomenon that has been quietly taking place for some years: the rise of evangelical churches. An overwhelming 85 percent of the population of Latin America declares itself religious. The novelty is that 15 percent of the population now declares itself Protestant rather than Catholic.
The second important finding has to do with attitudes toward the United States. Around 40 percent of Latin Americans have a favorable opinion of the U. S., a much smaller figure than 10 years ago. In Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Bolivia, the figure is lower. Despite the fact that more Latin Americans than ever want to migrate to the U.S. (it is estimated that one million illegal immigrants came into the country last year) and that many families depend on cash remittances from migrants based in the U.S., a majority of Latin Americans continue to view their northern neighbor with suspicion.
There is a subtle connection between these two findings that is worth noting.
The spectacular growth of Protestantism in countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Peru and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, is one of the ways in which ordinary Latin Americans have revolted against centralized power. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has always been associated with the status quo, the various evangelical cults that have gained strength among the poor speak to a more flexible, decentralized and less hierarchic form of religion. More importantly, the Catholic Church is perceived as being attached to the elites. Since only one quarter of respondents said citizens are equal before the law in their countries, it is hardly surprising that an institution perceived as part and parcel of a discriminatory system is losing support to religious groups that have penetrated the shantytowns with a message of spiritual revolt against the status quo, emphasizing self-help and social cooperation as substitutes for state action.
How does this relate to continuing skepticism toward the United States? When people respond to surveys, they tend to associate “the United States” with the U.S. government rather than with a set of values. The interesting question is why the growth in spiritual alternatives to Catholicism across Latin America coincides with a distrust, at least among large chunks of the population, of the U.S. The obvious explanations have to do with Washington's interventionist foreign policy, the anti-U.S. rhetoric of certain leaders, and the stern tone of some U.S. representatives who tour Latin America, including military officers and diplomats. While there is no question that a country like Mexico still reels from the humiliating Hidalgo-Guadalupe treaty of 1848, by which that country lost half its territory to the U.S., and leaders like Hugo Chávez and the “Peronistas” in Argentina whip up anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, I would suggest a more important reason needs to be taken into account.
Among many Latin Americans, there is the perception that the U.S. is too closely allied with political and business elite groups. These are the very groups that ordinary Latin American citizens have been revolting against for decades, by moving to a different church, by supporting “outsiders” in various Presidential elections against traditional parties or by creating substitutes for state services at the grassroots level. Among some Latin Americans, the U.S. is perceived as another pillarlike the Catholic Church, traditional parties, or the militaryof the prevailing system. Although nothing in the survey specifically connects the two, there is an interesting consonance between the level of dissatisfaction with the main official institutions in various Latin American countries and the level of skepticism toward the U.S.
Understanding why this is so is not rocket science. For ordinary Latin Americans, the obvious attraction of the U.S. as a land of opportunity is somewhat overshadowed by the most immediate face of the U.S. in the region, namely the various representatives who tend to associate themselves with the prevailing Latin American governments, perceived as favoring their cronies (except in extreme cases like Chávez in Venezuela). There is, moreover, a very loose perception of who constitutes a “U.S. representative” because in people's imaginations that notion includes frequent visitors from the International Monetary Fund even if they are not U.S. citizens!
How does one rectify this? Apart from the obvious waylending less support to measures seen to reinforce the prevailing system based on legal discrimination between those who are close to government and those who are not, I can think of only one way: a massive increase in exchanges that do not pass through official institutions of any kind. In other words, a greater communication between civil societies rather than between governments or entities perceived as being part of the status quo.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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