Latin America


THERE are two things to keep in mind about the Conference of the Foreign Ministers of the American Republics as it proceeds with its labors in Mexico City. First, it is a serious attempt on the part of nineteen American governments to face the threats of disintegration of the American power bloc in the midst of a peculiarly trying era. And second, it is unlikely that the success of the attempt can be measured immediately by the resolutions and decisions which come out of the conference.

The mere fact that the conference could take place with a full attendance is a favorable indication. It was called together under auspices which to the formality-loving minds of some of the Latin American statesmen must have seemed shockingly unconventional. Two countries, Argentina and El Salvador, for the first time in the history of inter-American official gatherings, were excluded by simply being omitted from the invitation list. It is also the first inter-American conference not arranged under the auspices of the Pan American Union.

The request of Argentina that a Pan American Union meeting be held, at which her diplomatic relations with the other countries would be considered, was flatly turned down. And not all the other republics were pleased with the prospect that the Argentine question might be discussed, and even decided, without benefit of Pan American Union protocol.

On any of these points, sensitive governments might have found technical grounds for keeping their delegations at home. But actually, long before the end of January, Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla of Mexico had received acceptances from all the invited republics. Countries like Chile and Bolivia, which were supposed to be under Argentine influence or sympathetic to Argentina, announced that they were sending strong delegations headed by their foreign ministers. Bolivia’s included Finance Minister Victor Paz Estenssoro, considered to be the brains of the National Revolutionary Movement Party, the MNR, now in control of the Bolivian government.

Apparently the Mexico City conference has not been seriously damaged by its unconventional status, by resentment in some governments at Washington’s zeal for managing the show, by Argentine objections, or even by the efforts of some Argentine diplomats to induce certain governments to turn down their invitations. When the final test came, all nineteen governments decided it was worth their while to cut themselves in on the proceedings.

Latin American headaches

One factor that stands in the way of clear-cut decisions by any international conference is the widespread disorganization of economic life in most of the republics. The war has increased the demand for strategic materials in certain regions, improved employment for certain types of labor, and piled up largely unexpendable dollar balances in banks and national treasuries.

But otherwise most of Latin America has suffered from abnormal shortages of consumers’ goods and food products, from transportation deficiencies in moving to market such goods as the republics have, from currency inflation which has shot the prices of necessities far above the moderate rise in wages and incomes, and from the resulting black market.

There is no immediate prospect of larger shipping services or of more industrial or agricultural machinery to help Latin America to overcome the shortages; and rarely on either a national or a local scale has any republic’s price-regulation authority been able to hold, prices in line or to keep necessary supplies out of the black markets.

To take two or three outstanding examples: in Chile basic living costs rose more than 18 per cent from October, 1943, to October, 1944 — not counting many black-market statistics. In Mexico a large part of the population has been living under near-famine conditions since the 1943 harvests. A recent crackdown by the government, reducing the price of two or three basic foodstuffs by a few centavos in the better-controlled large city markets, has been hailed as an almost miraculous achievement. In Brazil an increase in the supply of fish partially made up for the meat shortage; but since late 1943, fishing operations have fallen off rapidly because of lack of fuel for the boats in a country with insufficient petroleum resources.

These situations cannot be cured by the resolutions or pledges of a conference, or by any amount of good will between governments. But because they exist, and because many Latin American populations are aware that they are suffering more direct privations from the war than are the people of the United States, the feeling unquestionably is spreading that somehow the Good Neighbor policy, inter-American cooperation, and “going along” in the war have been expensive for Latin America.

A large hurdle for the Mexico City conference to clear is the growing impression that the Hemisphere front is more and more being run by the United States to preserve its own luxurious standards of living. The fact that such impressions may be erroneous — and that the Latin American countries may gain more security from the defeat of the Axis than the United States will — by no means prevents them from doing serious damage to both the spirit and the practice of inter-American coöperation.

The boys are worried

These strains of the war have produced widespread political instability. Too many governments in Latin America are concerned over their own chances of survival to spend much energy furthering international objectives.

Argentina’s fascist political disturbances, for instance, are among the most dangerous dividing forces in the Hemisphere. Bolivia’s brutal Andean imitations of the Argentine experiment under the MNR Party’s dictatorship threaten the republic with Indian upheaval and civil war.

Chile’s mounting troubles with inflation, living costs, and supply shortages, coupled with the almost immediate danger of losing most of her copper and nitrate contracts with the Allies, have nearly broken down the capacity of the government to operate through its multi-party pseudo-parliamentary system. President Ríos is consequently under growing temptation to move closer to the fascist wing of the Army and to gamble on establishing an Argentineplan dictatorship as a means of preserving “order.”

Elections ahead

Brazil is unsettled by the underground movements against the regime of Dictator Getulio Vargas. As yet these have produced no disturbance of more than local consequence, but they have led the administration to play a noticeable amount of “security politics” with high Army and civil appointments, and the number of prominent citizens temporarily jailed or otherwise under government restraint for alleged opposition activities appears to be growing.

There are a large number of potential developments including the end of the war in Europe — which could bring the Vargas regime face to face with a test of its power of survival. One suggestive symptom is that General Vargas’s recent vague promises of holding a presidential election after the war is over have failed to appease the opposition.

Peru, suffering from shortages and price-control difficulties, faces the ordeal of a presidential election this year. In Ecuador a junta of highly influential citizens with powerful United States connections is openly advertising its aims of overthrowing the liberal Velasco Ibarra administration which came into power through revolution last spring.

In Central America, Guatemala appears now to have carried out the most successful democratic revolution in the country’s history. The three-man junta which led these operations is to turn over the government on March 15 to a duly elected constitutional president, Juan José Arevalo. In the meantime Guatemala has distinguished itself by being the first country to break relations with the Franco government in Spain.

Except for Costa Rica, the rest of Central America is either in turmoil or threatened with it. Sporadic fighting breaks out from time to time against the old dictatorial regimes in Nicaragua and Honduras, and free Guatemala is full of juntas and bands of refugees waiting to take on a struggle with the bloody repressionists who put down a liberal revolution in neighboring El Salvador last fall.

All these circumstances make slippery footing both for the Mexico City conference itself and for the follow-through on its labors. Quite apart from the difficulties of patching up an understanding with Argentina, it will do a good job if it holds the interAmerican front together without serious impairment.