Latin America Dislikes Us


ON my recent voyage from Argentina, where I had lived over twenty years, I made the acquaintance of most of the American passengers on shipboard. Some of them had lived in Argentina, others were returning home after a short visit to that country.

‘Why are we Americans unpopular in South America?’ was a question sooner or later put to me. Evidently, when a great part of a continent gravitates directly toward the United States and no part of it can claim to be quite outside the pale of American influence, the reaction of the people subjected to its effects cannot but be of the deepest concern to any American who has at heart the interests and prestige of his country. Although my opinion on the subject is based chiefly on my knowledge of Argentine matters, I venture to say that to a great extent it may be applied as well to the rest of the Latin American world, so closely homogeneous in its origins, language, religion, and temperament.

To begin with, I shall try to back my assertion of American ascendancy in Latin America at large by a few facts not quite so universally known as the principles of the Monroe Doctrine, or the proposition that the Latin American nations have received from America the impulse to their emancipation and the pattern of their political institutions.

American scientists, undergoing hardships untold, have discovered the means of stamping out malaria, and time and again have offered in this cause their disinterested services to Latin American nations. American capital has frequently been lent to national, provincial, and municipal governments on exceptionally liberal terms. We cannot, in all justice, omit mentioning the mission of Professor Kemmerer, of Princeton University, which restored the shaken finances of Chile and Peru; and the painstaking work of arbitration accomplished by the United States for the settlement of most of the disputes which have endangered peace between the South American countries. Do many Americans know of the existence all over South America of American cultural institutions, schools, hospitals, branches of the Y. M. C. A., and of the International Correspondence School of Scranton, Pennsylvania?

Numbers of young men from every South American country go yearly to the universities and colleges of the United States; and of those I have met I do not know one who has not spoken in the most appreciative terms of the treatment he received. A prominent lawyer in Buenos Aires, who in his youth studied in the United States, spends part of what is left of his busy hours in promoting the welfare of American institutions in the Argentine capital; he raises the banner for America’s cause whenever it is wantonly attacked by local jingoists, and from time to time publishes in one of Argentina’s leading papers reminiscences of his happy days in the States.

I have had the advantage of knowing, sometimes intimately, most of Argentina’s ambassadors to the United States, and have found that all of them remember their stay at Washington with feelings of pleasure and gratitude for the hospitality shown them, not only by society, but everywhere and by everyone during their travels through the States. One of these ambassadors was eventually called upon to occupy an important administrative post in his country, and on more than one occasion provoked acid comments in the Congress and the press of his country by his insistence on having improved American methods applied to Argentine agricultural life. ‘ What a colossal country!’ was the favorite expression of that ambassador when speaking of the United States.

And yet in the last fourteen years two Argentine administrations have shown themselves frigid toward America. Any move of the United States for the promotion or protection of our most legitimate interests in a Latin American country has faced an outburst of suspicion even among the balanced elements of its society and press. Americans resident or traveling in Latin America carry away with them the unsavory impression that, most undeservedly, America is not popular there.

If this is so, it would be puerile to try to attribute it, as is often done, exclusively or even chiefly to a sense of petty jealousy on the part of Latin America toward its great Northern neighbor. There are, manifestly, more substantial causes at work. Some of these, as far as my personal experience goes, I will now endeavor to make clear.


I shall begin with the one which, being of an accidental character, can be quickly disposed of. In the course of the Great War, when every European plant was mobilized for war purposes and thus disabled for foreign trade, South America had to look to the United States for the replenishment of her stock in trade in manufactured goods. Now it seems to be beyond doubt that by so doing South America exposed herself to a most grievous disappointment. During the progress of the war, and for quite a long time after its end, I heard innumerable stories and complaints of unfair dealings on the part of American producers, The chief grievance was that when samples of American goods had been approved, and a corresponding order placed and paid for, the goods, in quite a number of cases, proved to be of a very inferior quality, or even consisted of things never asked for. The widespread belief that many a time sand and rubbish were found in cases or bales may be an exaggeration, a distorted offspring of anger and disappointment, but none the less this belief persists and is detrimental to American prestige.

A personal experience may illustrate the feeling prevalent at that time toward trade with America. I had become acquainted with a rather important wholesale dealer in jewelry in Buenos Aires, a man of the highest reputation. Some time after the Armistice, in November 1918, I dropped into his office and we commented on the portentous event. As he spoke to me of the effects the war had had upon his own trade, he said: ‘For my own sake, too, I am glad this war is over. I will now give myself the satisfaction of putting up a poster at the door of my office, with the inscription, “No American goods bought or sold."' Which, of course, he never did.

I will pass now to the second, far less objectionable obstacle to American popularity in South America, but one which is, to my mind, less easy to overcome, being traceable to a basic difference in Latin American and AngloAmerican temperaments. The maxim ‘Time is money’ does not mean much, in the best of cases, to the Southerner. Punctuality is, with him, a questionable virtue. Like the famous ‘My home is your home,’ the motto Sea breve — ‘Be brief’ — ought not to be taken too literally. In government and private offices plenty of time is given to periodical libations of coffee, — the excellent, cozy Brazilian cafezinho,— which is to a business conversation what oil is to a motor. And plenty of it, too, has to be applied. Few things are more distasteful to a South American than a dry, matter-of-fact opening in business. In the Southern Continent infinitely more is obtained by personality than by the most convincing arguments. When in sympathy with you, a South American will pat you affectionately on the shoulder; and when you have wound up to the point of patting him back, you may begin to take an optimistic view of the course your affair is taking.

Then, the Latin American is greatly addicted to form. Faulty spelling and grammar may, as often as not, be couched on the most expensive vellum adorned with beautifully engraved letterheads. The most preposterous proposition will not be scornfully rejected, but, for form’s sake, promised careful consideration. The average American seems quite to overlook these characteristics; nor does he seem inclined to humor them even when he is aware of them. ‘Well, we just offer you an excellent thing on the most excellent terms; so what is the use of beating around the bush? Let’s make it short.’

Nor is this tendency to subject form to matter less resented when applied to things in which America alone has a word to say. For instance: some time after the enactment of the present American customs tariff, a prominent Argentine statesman gave a public lecture on the economic situation of his country, laying particular stress on the unfavorable effects of that measure on Argentine affairs; later, in discussing this lecture with some Argentine friends, I heard less recrimination against the tariff itself, since, after all, it was a measure dictated by American necessity, than against the lack of any manifestation of sympathy or consideration toward the countries who were to suffer from its effects. Clearly a simple show of such consideration would have been as welcome to these countries as is, to a patient, the capsule which helps him to swallow a bitter medicine.


I have said that any move of the United States in a Latin American country for the promotion or protection of its interests is likely to be regarded in the Southern Continent as smacking of intervention, and to be followed by an outburst of passion. Of this I am absolutely positive. I remember most vividly the repercussion in Argentina of the incidents at Tampico, Mexico, and the more recent affair with Nicaragua.

I have purposely used the word ‘passion.’ Nothing short of emotionalism could have given rise to the mass of wild opinions I have read on those occasions even in serious papers and have heard from educated and otherwise dispassionate men. The source of this emotion is a double one. First, a deep-seated consciousness of Latin America as opposed to Anglo-Amcrica. Second, a no less firmly rooted conviction that in the course of time the present ascendancy of the United States over Cuba, Panama, Haiti, and the little republics of Central America will appear in the light of a mere preliminary stage of further encroachments; that sooner or later Mexico will have to follow suit, and next the northern republics of the Southern Continent. Passion does not go far enough to fear that the rest of South America will eventually be merged into the United States; distance is considered too great an obstacle. Nevertheless the belief is rampant that by hook or by crook America will bring about at least an economic subjugation of these countries. This is an axiom, a creed — and, as such, impervious to argument. It is based on the simple assumption that such is the policy of the United States. Few seem to realize that Latin America, being a complex of nations, can by no means be the object of a single policy on the part of the United States.

It is self-evident that the ownership and control by America of a canal through the Republic of Panama must produce relations of a very special character between the two countries. The case of Nicaragua is, and will be to an increasing degree, a similar one. It stands to reason that, whatever the degree of gravitation by the small Central American republics toward the United States, it is of necessity of a very different kind than the attraction exercised by its Northern neighbor upon so bulky a body as Mexico. Of still another character is the influence which the United States exercises upon Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, because of their proximity to the Panama Canal; and of another kind, again, as I have endeavored to show, is America’s attitude toward the countries farther south. If, however, we were to agree with the Latin Americans that the United States observes a single policy toward them all, then theAmerican point of view could hardly be more clearly expressed than in the late President Roosevelt’s Message to Congress on December 6, 1904. ‘It is not true that the United States feel any land hunger or entertain any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such as are for their welfare.... If a nation knows how to act with reasonable efficiency in social and political matters, if it keeps or pays its obligations, it need fear no intervention from the United States.’ But chronic wrongdoing or impotence ‘may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.’


Unless the American people flatly disclaim such a policy, one would think that they would back it up for the purpose of discountenancing the manifestations of Latin America’s preconceived distrust. Yet what actually happens is this. Let us suppose that the United States decides upon a certain course in accordance with the above policy. Very soon America’s sinister designs are denounced all over South America by press, orators, and proclamations pasted on walls. Eventually everyone gets used to this state of affairs, then tired of it, and peace is again about to reign supreme.

But, while the storm is raging, doctrine has been at work in America and now steps forward. A philippic against unqualified aggression will, in all probability, be hurled at the administration, in the name of universal peace, by some prominent American citizen. Societies, leagues, and unions, whose very names disclose their incompetence in foreign matters, denounce, in defense of selfdetermination, the administration’s encroachments. Labor heaps abuse on its head for treading down weak nations in order to help the capitalists fleece them. Most welcome arguments, all of them, for America’s detractors.

Eventually this second storm, too, will blow itself out if left alone. But this is not to be. For now the administration itself steps into the arena with an explanatory statement. No sooner published than it is seized upon, dissected, refuted, derided, and another storm of anti-American feeling rages in Latin America. When at last it definitely subsides from sheer exhaustion, the result is that, far from moving the United States an inch from a policy dictated by a categorical imperative, it has only stirred up ill feeling everywhere.

The late Mr. Page, America’s ambassador to England during the war, used to deplore the absence of an articulate American international conscience. If he had lived, he would now, in all probability, have reversed his judgment. America’s international conscience is asserting itself with an ever-increasing precision in European affairs. Conscience being a state of mind, one and indivisible, it is bound to manifest itself in the whole gamut of phenomena within the range of its perception. If American international conscience were to limit itself to a continent or a group of nations, because immediately interested in them, this would not be conscience, but opportunism. International conscience is universal by definition. In its manifestation toward Latin America this should mean, to a great extent, a more conscious respect for form, so dear to the Latin American mind, and in fact scarcely inferior to substance in the field of international dealings. All sincere friends of both Americas would acclaim such a departure as conducive to a better and eventually a lasting understanding between their Northern and Southern parts.