From Wasteland to Promised Land

6. Suffering in the Wasteland: Independence -- or In Dependency?

he Wasteland is a disturbing transition zone between Egypt and the Promised Land, between bondage and liberation. So Latin American today, in its second century after independence, finds itself in a wilderness between colonial subjugation and genuine self-determination.

Liberation theologians point to institutional evil, rather than individual evil, as the major factor keeping the poor trapped in the Wasteland. They shift the critical focus from problems caused by evil leaders to the oppression caused by large impersonal forces. And they further point out that these forces are not to be found solely in developing nations. (For example, in most societies, even developed ones, male-dominated social structures dehumanize women.) They remind us how a military-industrial complex, multinational corporations, government bureaucracies, giant banking centers, or other powerful institutions or organizations may depersonalize citizens, depriving them of effective control over their own lives.

The 1950s was an optimistic decade of developmentalism. But by 1967, Pope Paul VI questioned this optimism in his encyclical, Populorum Progressio. He saw rich nations developing quickly while poor nations developed slowly. He saw discord between people and nations arising from glaring worldwide inequalities of power and possessions. These conflicts arose in part, the Pope said, from too narrowly conceiving development as limited to economic growth. He called for broadening the goal to promote the good of every person, with emphasis on the whole person.

While in parts vague and offering no radical solutions, the Pope's encyclical nevertheless dramatized how poor nations may be held captive by economic dependence on rich ones, and served to correct a popular belief that economic growth alone is sufficient for progress.

Four years later, Gustavo Gutierrez raised a more substantive critique of developmentalism in his epochal work, A Theology of Liberation. As he saw it, underdevelopment, instead of being a step on the way to progress, is really the historical end-product of the economic expansion of the great capitalist countries. The amount of fat of wealthy nations is directly related to the amount of hunger of poor nations. Thus the first step toward liberation must be to sever the bondage of dependence. Gutierrez did not purport to be stating anything original, but simply advanced, in a theological context, ideas drawn from Andre Gunder Frank, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and other secular latin American social scientists who had produced various systems of dependency theory, based, in some cases, on Lenin's doctrine of imperialism.

It would be fatuous to deny that some of Latin America's poverty is traceable historically to the operations of First World companies and to the intervention of First World governments, as dependency theory holds. Due to the influence of Gutierrez and later Boff and others, dependency theory became a cardinal tenet of liberation theology. However, the theory is now recognized by Boff and Gutierrez as being of questionable value as a key to the solution or even diagnosis. Gutierrez now writes that the theory "does not take sufficient account of the internal dynamics of each country or of the vast dimensions of the world of the poor."

The existence of dependence does not automatically justify the charge that it stems from exploitation. This charge assumes a zero-sum situation where one region can increase its wealth only at the expense of other regions, which is to overlook the evidence that the world's wealth is not static but constantly being magnified by human enterprise. Economically, Canada is heavily dependent upon u.s. trade and investment, yet its standard of living is among the highest on earth -- due, in no small measure, to precisely that trade and investment. Albania, by contrast, was until recently the least dependent of all nations; under Enver Hoxha it followed a policy of almost total isolation, and neither traded nor maintained diplomatic relations even with other Marxist states. Yet its standard of living was the lowest in Europe -- due, in no small measure, to precisely that policy.

Insofar as dependency theory is (in a limited sense) analytically correct, the social ills to which it calls attention could be substantially dispelled by the proper allocation to the public of land and land value, or rent. Instead, most of the land rent is misappropriated by foreign corporations or domestic land-owning oligarchies. We will return to this very important point in Chapter 8.