Land of Jekyll and Hyde

by Carlos Fuentes, March 22, 1986


Selections from
The Nation magazine

edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper


Much of Carlos Fuentes' life has been closely bound to the United States, but his perspective is uniquely international. He was born in Washington, where his father was a member of the diplomatic corps. In the 1950s he worked in Mexico's Foreign Ministry and later served as Mexican Ambassador to France. He is the author of several novels, including Terra Nostra, The Old Gringo and most recently, Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins. In 1984 he won Mexico's National Prize in Literature.


The perception of the United States in Latin America has undergone enormous variations ever since history brought us together as inevitable neighbors. The American Revolution inspired our own founding fathers to draw political legitimacy from revolt. The Constitution of the United States became the model for our own republics, but the limitations proved to be fictional ones, whereby a legal country disguised a real country. Latin American conservatives in the early nineteenth century were the militant foes of the United States. They saw it as an uncompromisingly revolutionary state, unwilling to reach any kind of conciliation with exiled Tories, ready to repel their contra attacks and to send them expeditiously to face firing squads.

Latin American conservatives saw the United States as a multiple menace to their interests: it was a Protestant power in the hemisphere, and it was a modernizing, democratic, capitalist and egalitarian power. Those were the worst sins in the conservative book, where virtue spelled Catholicism, Counter Reformation, royal absolutism, the divine right of kings, patrimonialism and privilege. But most of all, conservatives from Mexico to Argentina feared the expansionist policies of the new American republic.

They were soon joined in this fear by Latin American liberals, who initially identified with all those U.S. virtues that the conservatives regarded as vices. But the annexation of Texas and the entire Southwest after the Mexican War of 1846, and the interventionist policies following the Spanish-American War of 1898, convinced liberals that the conservatives were right: the gringos were the enemy.

Admiration changed to fear and fault finding. At the turn of the century most Latin Americans readily adopted the views expressed in "Ariel," the enormously influential essay by the Uruguayan writer Jose Enrique Rodo. The United States stands for progress and material achievements, Rodo wrote, but it is a barren spiritual landscape. Cultural primacy in this hemisphere belongs to the Latins, who may be materially poor but are spiritually rich. The brutality of U.S. interventions in Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Cuba and the Dominican Republic during the first three decades of this century magnified and justified this attitude.

I believe that, by and large, it was my generation that upset Rodo's perception. Pablo Neruda had sung with and to Whitman; Octavio Paz made us conscious of Pound, Cummings and Crane, whom he translated. Julio Cortazar not only translated the complete stories of Poe; he brought jazz to Latin America. Gabriel Garcia Marquez proclaimed his admiration for Hemingway and Faulkner, and Jorge Luis Borges translated the Wild Palms in 1956. I wrote on Melville and movies. And indeed, a great deal of the work of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig is an ironic extension of the Hollywood dream.

Having grown up in the United States, I was willing and able, in spite of catcalls from my compatriots, to praise the democratic process of the United States, its capacities for self-criticism, self-government, self-negotiation, even self-flagellation and self-consciousness. In the New Deal era I witnessed the best in the United States: the value it set on its human capital, its energy and enthusiasm for solving problems, its choice of dialogue instead of confrontation on Latin American issues. When the United States joined the effort to win World War II, Roosevelt's noninterventionist policies in Latin America had already won the support of most of the people there. We were finally willing to admit that there was a conjunction of the actions and the ideals of the North Americans.

This illusion has been painfully shattered over the past thirty years. Two democratically elected governments in this hemisphere-Guatemala's in 1954 and Chile's in 1973-were overthrown with the full connivance of U.S. administrations. Who could then believe that the United States truly favored the democratic process in the continent? Washington placed two indigenous Latin American revolutions-Cuba's in 1959 and Nicaragua's in 1979-in the context of the East-West conflict and then forced them to live up to that self-fulfilling prophecy. The lesson was clearly understood by Latin Americans: the United States does not care about democracy in Latin America. It worries more about the independence of formerly dependent Latin American republics and will risk anything- including the stability of other, friendly republics-to realign its client states.

The perversion of language that accompanies this perversion of politics is best illustrated by Reagan's rhetoric on the Nicaraguan contras. By calling them "freedom fighters" and "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers," he may hoodwink members of Congress and part of the media, but he merely reminds Latin Americans that the contras are paid and manipulated by the United States government, that they are recruited and commanded by Somoza's former National Guardsmen and that they are criminals who not only kill Nicaraguan farmers, women and children but are also particularly adept at killing one another. Their internal brutality is perfectly documented by Christopher Dickey in his recent book, With the Contras.

So we are left with this final image of the United States: a democracy inside but an empire outside; Dr. Jekyll at home, Mr. Hyde in Latin America.

We will continue to praise the democratic achievements and the cultural values of the society of the United States. But we will continue to oppose its arrogant and violent policies in Latin America. We will do so painfully, because we love so many things in the United States. We will not confuse the United States and the Soviet Union, or indeed accept their moral equivalence. The problem is far more tragic: the Russians act as an empire inside and outside. They are perfectly coherent. The United States, by acting like the Russians in its sphere of influence, becomes profoundly incoherent and hypocritical.

Latin Americans must not simply ship Mr. Hyde back to Washington. We must defeat him in his old stamping grounds, the Caribbean and Central America. Then we can all sit down and talk with Dr. Jekyll, his alter ego having been exorcised by his friends in this hemisphere.

Selections from The Nation magazine,1865-1990

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