Oct 28, 2005 10:30 am


Cuban exile Carlos Alberto Montaner, one of Latin America´s foremost intellectuals and someone who, like myself, has little patience with US-bashers who blame their northern neighbor for that region´s backwardness, makes a thoughtful argument for accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He does so in a column that, unlike others in his website, is not yet available in English. The interesting thing about this piece is that the author uses Latin America to show that “regime change” is hardly ever successful. The reason is that if a republican juridical and constitutional structure is imposed from above by an outside power, basic values and habits need to sustain it-the type Iraq obviously lacks for the moment.

According to Montaner, Washington´s first attempt at regime change abroad took place in 1898 when, after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. occupied Cuba, rebuilt it, forced the locals to write a Constitution and hold elections, and left the island after handing power to President Estrada Palma. Four years later, Cuba was in total chaos and soon the U.S. marines were back. The same sequence—chaos, U.S. intervention to force the installation of a democratic republic, more chaos, new intervention-repeated itself a dozen times across the hemisphere. And, after all that sound and fury, Latin America´s failure to sustain reasonable republican structures continued. What American regime-changing idealists (to speak only of the well-intentioned interventionists) were missing was a basic point: the greatness of the United States had not come about by magic when the Constitution was approved in 1787 but through a tradition that antedated that Constitution, made of certain values and habits as regards the way people interacted and coexisted.

People who suffer under dictators tend to want freedom. Iraqis did so under Hussein, Cubans do so under Castro, Nicaraguans did so under Somoza. But you don´t go from there-not even with persuasive American guns pointing at your temples-to republican structures that limit power and protect the individual against third parties or against the state itself in a sudden leap. That much the U.S. failed to understand with regard to Latin America (and in sheer frustration Washington often ended up allying itself with very unsavoury characters). It is also what a part of the U.S. establishment, sometimes with the best intentions, fails to understand today with regard to Iraq.

Montaner ends his piece by suggesting U.S. troops should withdraw after the elections because “it is better to sit down and wait for a miracle to happen than to try to do it oneself”. This realization on the part of someone who deeply admires the United States and has promoted many of the values of civilization across this hemisphere for decades is particularly important.

One final note. Many Latin Americans have written authoritatively about the roots of their region´s political traditions and why they are distant from the values that led the Founding Fathers of the U.S. to frame a Constitution that was able to work reasonably well for a long time. No one did so better than the late Venezuelan author Carlos Rangel (who must be turning in his grave to see what is happening to his country today in books such as The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the U.S. and Third World Ideology and Western Reality .

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Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 10/28/2005

Concerning my views on US and Cuba after the American-hispanic war, see William Marina post. I think he summarizes very what I was trying to say: the US invaded Cuba to turn it into a protectorate not to push for a regime change...

Gus diZerega - 10/28/2005

Montaner's piece and Sergio Alejandro Mendez's comments are generally on target. However, I read Montaner as saying that the US's treatment of Cuba was quite different from its treatment of, say, the Philippines, where the result was empire at the point of a gun and the massacre of thousands. So I am unsure where the vitriol in Mendez's arguments comes from. On the other hand, I am hardly well read in what the US did in Cuba rights after the Spanish American War.

There is however another point worth considering:

F. A. Hayek made major contributions to understanding free societies, and perhaps the most central among them was his emphasizing the irreducible complexity of social life (not just the market). Would-be social engineers would inevitably fail in their efforts and, as he explained in The Road to Serfdom, become more violent and dictatorial the more they tried to accomplish their goals. Just like Republicans today.

Further, he emphasized that the anticipated gains of expediency would often outweigh the anticipated costs of violating our principles. This would be misleading. Due to the complexity of free societies, as a rule the actual but often unforeseeable costs would outweigh any anticipated benefits. Therefore, acting from principle was a far better guide than acting from expediency.

Too many libertarians and classical liberals have ignored Hayek's wisdom over the past several years. They abandoned the deeper insights of their tradition to bay like dogs in favor of Bush's imperial policies.

I think all libertarian and classical liberal hawks who supported the war need to do some serious soul searching as to their understanding of the prerequisites of liberty, given how quickly they abandoned them in the clinch.

It is debatable whether it is wise to intervene to stop genocide by a government against its own people or defend a free people against attack by an aggressive enemy (and I am not necessarily against intervention in such cases), but it should not be debatable as to whether a free society should go on a crusade to force liberty with the barrel of a gun on societies who have not achieved it for themselves.

Each people have to develop their own institutions of liberty and, who knows, perhaps in the process they will do better than we. Such possibilities are short circuited when we attempt to do it for them even if we succeed, and in the far greater likelihood of our failure, we discredit the cause of liberty where it is most needed.

William Marina - 10/28/2005

I have posted my own comments as an article just after that of Alvaro Vargas Llosa summarizing Montaner's views.

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 10/28/2005

Althought it is weird that I agree with propagandist and condemed liar like Carlos Alberto Montaner, I still can see some divergent points:

1- First, not all regime change attemped by the US has been unsuccesfull in history. As Bush apologists love to point, it worked in Japan and Germany. Althought they miss two important conditions: 1- The preexistence of some democratic tradition 2- The massive investment of money to effectively rebuild what has been destroyed after war (Plan Marshall etc..). Nothing of that is happening in Iraq. More importantly, the US has no intention of actually creating a strong Iraq nor bringing "democracy and liberty" to the country. That is the US excuse for war, a way to cover the lies they used to justify it (WMD) and their real interests (Oil, geostrategic control and investment and deployement of troops).

2- I fail to see the US war against spain as an attemp to change regime. Americans simply fought and autenti imperialist war againt spain to kick any potential european rivals left in from the caribean. In the process they occupied Cuba, they also frsutrated the local aspirations of the local independentist movement. The way Montaner tries to present US intervention as a failed attemp of good will to push a "regime change" seems to me like utter nonsense.