Published Date

March 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 14: Is the Good Neighbor Policy a Success? (1945) 

If a honeymoon is an educational period in which you learn about your partner, then the war has indeed been a honeymoon in inter-American relations. We have come to understand that “Latin America” is a very loose and inaccurate name for a highly diversified continent of twenty nations.

True, they all speak Spanish except Haiti, which uses French, and Brazil, whose 44 million inhabitants (one-third of all Latin Americans) speak Portuguese. But the convenient term “Latin America” should not mislead anyone into assuming that the area is a uniform political or economic whole. Most of these units differ greatly in size, composition of population, social structure, type of government, and degree of economic development. Each country must be considered by itself, and all generalizations should be avoided or carefully qualified when applied to a single country.

A considerable number of the total population of 120 million people in “Latin America” are not in the least Latin in origin or culture but are Indians, Negroes, and people of mixed blood. Above all, these twenty countries are strongly nationalistic and do not think of themselves as Latin Americans at all, but as Mexicans, Peruvians, Cubans, Costa Ricans, and so on. A Haitian is just as surprised at being called “Latin American” as our Virginia and Texas soldiers are today when hailed abroad as “Yankees.” Latin Americans dislike being lumped together indiscriminately, just as we should dislike it if they called all the people between the Rio Grande and Hudson Bay “English Americans.”

Geographically these nations differ greatly from one another too. Distances are vast, for their territory is three times the size of the United States. One country, Brazil, is so large that the entire U. S. A. could be dropped into it and still leave room for a second Texas. On the other hand, El Salvador is about the size of Maryland, and Costa Rica has a population smaller than that of Washington, D. C. Moreover, some of the countries of South America are not neighbors of ours, geographically speaking, because they are closer to Europe than to us. All of South America, incidently, is east of Detroit, and nearly all is east of New York City.


Latin America Is Not All Jungle

Nor is all this great expanse of territory a tangled jungle steaming under a tropical sun. Most of the countries have some tropical or semitropical areas, but there are many temperate regions. Latin Americans are sensitive on this point, and tourists who wear tropical helmets in temperate cities like Lima, Peru, will be met with reserve. Americans who used to hoot at Englishmen looking for Indians on Broadway will understand this feeling.

The social and cultural achievements of the twenty nations are likewise varied. In some countries illiteracy runs as high as 75 per cent, while in others the majority of people are literate. The tiny Central American republic of Costa Rica has long prided itself upon having more teachers than soldiers. In every country there are at least a few extremely well-educated individuals who speak several languages fluently and who are at home in the world of European culture.

Living standards are relatively low on the whole, at least compared to ours. A few countries have made important advances in improving the social and economic conditions of their people. In Uruguay, for example, during the presidency (1903–07, 1911–14) of the energetic and farseeing José Batlle y Ordónez, workers won many reforms. They have an eight-hour day, and accident insurance for industrial workers; child labor is not allowed; and old people receive pensions. Elections are decided by secret ballot, and women are allowed to vote. Uruguay has over 1,500 free primary schools, good secondary schools, and a university. In addition, the government supports a School of the Air to reach by radio programs those among the rural population who can neither read nor write. Uruguay is somewhat ahead of the rest, but in most Latin-American countries the standard of living of the people is improving.

The standard of living of any country depends upon the nature of its resources and the vigor and intelligence with which they are developed. In this field, too, there are great contrasts, although economically all the Latin-American nations have some bonds in common. They have all been producers of raw materials for the world, such as coffee, wheat, bananas, tin, silver, and oil, and have all had to borrow capital from abroad. They have all lacked capital, manpower, and technical knowledge to develop fully their great natural resources.

Certain other characteristics of Latin America may be noted. It has the smallest population and lowest number of inhabitants per square mile of any continent save Australia. This holds true despite the fact that Haiti, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic are among the most densely populated countries in the world.

Most of the nations are primarily dependent on agriculture and mining, and are comparatively young in the scale of economic development. The total import trade of South America in 1938 was less than that of France; its total export trade was less than that of Germany.

Between half and two-thirds of the people of Latin America are only very indirectly connected with systems of commerce. Most of them produce what they need from the land, living in isolation and relative poverty. Millions of Latin Americans probably do not buy or sell as much as one hundred dollars’ worth of goods a year.

Another common characteristic is the difficulty of transportation. High mountain ranges and great areas of jungle are serious obstacles to the construction of highways and railroads. As a result, transportation by land is inadequate and fragmentary in the extreme. Only three areas—those centering on Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Santiago—possess rail networks even remotely comparable to those of Europe or the United States. Surface passenger travel between countries is largely confined to steamships. Highway mileage passable for automobiles has increased substantially in recent years but is still remarkably low. A large part of Latin America depends upon cart roads and mule trails, while the Amazon River and its tributaries is the principal transportation system for an area two-thirds the size of the United States.

The airplane has brought about a revolution in transportation. Since 1927 there has been a tremendous development of air lines throughout the area. Today in only seven of the twenty republics does railroad mileage exceed air-line mileage, and many Latin-American countries have more air-line mileage per thousand square miles than the United States.

Before the war American and European air lines did much to bring about this tremendous development of air transportation. The United States government as a part of our wartime assistance has also provided technical assistance and trained many pilots. All the principal countries now have growing national air services.

Their Industries Are Developing

Industrialization is well under way in certain countries where both World Wars stimulated local manufactures, and high protective tariffs were put up to aid “infant industries.” Argentina, which with Brazil includes the leading manufacturing centers, had in 1939 twice as many people employed in industry as in agriculture and cattle raising. Its factory products almost equaled in value the wheat and beef which had previously been the only foundations of its export economy.

Argentina’s large textile industry—woolens, linen, cotton, silk cloth—supplies most of its people’s demand. Meatpacking houses turn out three-fourths of the world’s exports of chilled beef. Flour, sugar, wines, canned goods, and vegetable oils are among the foodstuffs processed. Shoes, cigarettes, soap, paper, glass, furniture, paints, cements, electrical appliances, chemicals, tires, and the assembling of automobiles are among the manufactures.

Brazil also has important industries and during the next decade may well become the principal manufacturing nation of Latin America. Its industrial capital, São Paulo, is the most dynamic city in all Latin America. Its citizens face the future with as much energy, optimism, and vision as can be found anywhere north or south of the Rio Grande. Its pace is the pace of Chicago and of New York.

Mexico, Uruguay, and Chile also have considerable industrial development. Latin America is not favored, however, with easily available resources of coal or water power, so that its industry will always have to overcome great obstacles in order to gain maximum growth.

Much of the industrial development of Latin America was made possible by the billions of dollars of capital poured into Latin America by Europe and the United States. Our investments, which in 1939 came to almost 4 billion dollars, include “direct investments” in the production of foodstuffs, mining, utilities, and manufacturing and “indirect investments” in the bonds of the various governments. British investments are estimated at 3.6 billions. All other European investments are relatively small and scattered.

Latin America, between the two World Wars, traded chiefly with Britain, Germany, and the United States. There was very little inter-American trade, partly because of transportation difficulties. The United States provides the chief market for the Caribbean countries, but farther to the south, our trade relations become progressively less important, With Argentina and Uruguay our score was very low indeed, for in 1938 we bought only 14 per cent of Uruguay’s exports and 12 per cent of Argentina’s.

The explanation is, of course, that the United States is a good customer for tropical agricultural products, but a poor customer—or no customer at all—for a number of important temperate zone farm products which compete with our own. In 1939 we bought 57 per cent of Latin America’s coffee, 67 per cent of its cacao, 72 per cent of its sugar, 79 per cent of its bananas. But we took only 8 per cent of its wool, 5 per cent of its meats, no wheat or corn, and only 4 per cent of its other cereals. More than this, we competed in the world’s markets with Latin America in certain export surpluses, such as cotton and wheat.

Latin America Has Many Races

In the last analysis, a country’s position in the world depends largely upon its citizens. If we are to understand our neighbors and develop an intelligent policy toward them, we must realize that, above all, the people of Latin America are greatly diversified.

Because Americans know Mexico best, they often assume that all Latin America is full of native tribes holding ceremonial dances in quaint costumes. There are many Indians in Mexico, Central America, and in the Andean countries of South America (Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). But in other Latin-American countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, real Indians are about as rare as cigar store Indians in the United States.

There are other racial differences too. Haiti is a Negro republic; Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica are largely white; while Brazil has probably a more thoroughly mixed population than any other country in the world.

In every country, too, more recent European immigration has added to the complexity of the racial composition of Latin America. Spaniards have gone to all Spanish-speaking countries and there has been a constant flow of Portuguese to Brazil. Italians were welcomed in great numbers by Brazil and Argentina where they became citizens and easily fused with the rest of the population. German and Japanese immigrants were not as important numerically as the others mentioned, but they settled together in villages and towns by themselves. In some parts of southern Brazil and southern Chile a majority of the inhabitants were German speaking.

This concentration of German and Japanese in certain special areas prevented their absorption and assimilation. It also made possible their organization and manipulation from abroad by Germany and Japan. Latin-American governments naturally resented this threat to their national unity. After war broke out in 1939 they became increasingly concerned lest Nazi Germany—and later Japan—invade their territory. Stern measures were taken against this menace.

This European and Japanese immigration, when added to the already diversified racial structure of Latin America, helps to explain why almost no generalization can be made about the people of Latin America. Whatever their racial composition, it is safe to say that the men are certainly not all dashing caballeros, plucking guitars outside the windows of seductive señoritas a la Hollywood. They are on the whole a serious, hard-working people, largely farmers. Industrialized cities, like Buenos Aires, Argentina, with over three million inhabitants, and São Paulo, Brazil, with some two million, are few and far between. Latin Americans live on farms or in small towns, they foment revolutions, drink rum, and dance the rhumba much less often than we think.

Latin Americans Now Play “Béisbol”

Nor do all Latin Americans bloodthirstily attend bullfights when they feel the need of relaxation. In fact, bullfighting is forbidden in many countries below the Rio Grande. In the last twenty-five years they have been playing more and more tenisfutbolbásquetbolbéisbol, and el boxeo. Prize fighting received a big impetus in Latin America when the Cuban “Kid Chocolate” began his career, and when Luis Angel Firpo, the Argentine “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” nearly knocked out Jack Dempsey. Chilean fight fans tripled in number when Arturo Godoy fought Joe Louis. And so today you will find Latin Americans talking glibly about un noquat (a knockout) or un K.O. in el ring during un match de box.

Soccer has been growing in importance during the last twenty-five years, and Latin Americans are expert at it. Uruguay once won the Olympic championship and Brazil has been runner-up.

The sport that is really sweeping the continent now, however, and is adding the greatest number of words to the Spanish vocabulary is béisbol. The fans back their teams as enthusiastically and as vocally as Brooklyn supports the Dodgers. Maten al ampayer (kill the umpire) is as familiar a cry in Santiago, Chile, as in any American ball park.

European Influence Is Strong

It is important, too, to know that the government and business of many of the Latin-American nations are controlled by men of Spanish and Portuguese descent. In language, religion, ideals, and temperament they are far more sympathetic to Continental Europe than to England or the United States.

For centuries the business and cultural interests of the ruling classes have been centered primarily upon the Continent. They have usually looked to France as the fountainhead of culture, and often to Germany as the home of science and mechanical excellence. England, of course, has enjoyed much prestige too. In fact European civilization generally was more highly regarded by upper-class Latin Americans than was our culture.

Transportation to Europe was decidedly more rapid and comfortable than to the United States, and social and business travel to the Continent greatly exceeded that to this country. Until recently a considerable proportion of the wealthy aristocracy actually lived in Europe, making only occasional visits to the countries of their birth. Santos-Dumont, the great Brazilian aeronautical pioneer, whom Brazil regards as the father of aviation, was one of those voluntary exiles. It is typical of the past lack of knowledge and understanding between our two continents that Santos-Dumont has been nearly unknown here and the Wright brothers almost ignored by Latin Americans.

Population and Area of the Latin-American Countries

Area (in Sq. Mi.)CountryPopulation
23,000Costa Rica687,354
19,325Dominican Rep.1,768,163
13,176El Salvador1,862,980

U. S. Investments Abroad before the War

In Latin America
Central America385,000,000
All Others225,000,000
In Other Regions
Canada & Newfoundland4,400,000,000
All Others5,000,000
Grand Total$13,350,000,000

Next section: There Is No One Latin-American Type