I HAVE just returned from an exhilarating trip to Guatemala in Central America. I was visiting the Francisco Marroquin University, a 35-year-old private college which is pulsating with success and dynamism. Its founder, Manuel Ayau, is one of the most brilliant people I have met. He is now in his 90th year and recently qualified as a helicopter pilot.
Yet I left my happy visit to Central America in some alarm at the peculiar leftward lurches in the politics of the Spanish-speaking nations. Venezuela has elected a politician of comical populist prejudices. Bolivia has selected a man with comparable gravity-defying views. Chile chose a left-leaning head of state last week. In so far as the electoral processes seem fairly honest what right has anyone to express doubts?
Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, seems to regard impoverished and oppressed Cuba as a role model. Perhaps he should also visit North Korea. He is better placed than Fidel Castro. Instead of a sugar-fuelled economy he has vast reserves of oil. Yet every announcement he makes implies a future of oppression and poverty. His wheeze of nationalising coffee has never been a triumph wherever it has been tried. Has the nationalising of any industry ever been less than an expensive fiasco ?
Yet Latin Americas predisposition to induce misery and poverty seems more than just an accident of the moment. The Spanish crown never seems to have operated an enlightened policy towards its territories. It was initially merely royal theft. They bleached the Aztec and Inca empires of their treasures. Expropriation remains a dominant idea in the Hispanic mind.
Chavez may be a fool but I dont doubt he would like to see his nation rich and his people happy. We might agree that Castro had honourable aims but communist ideals decay into ragged brutality. Expropriating capitalist oil companies or coffee corporations is the best he can think of. I can see the opulence of the United States is exasperating and baffling to those nations to its south but I believe Latin Americas economic failures are explained more subtly than stale notions of exploitation by gringos or yankees.
I have two Hispanic heroes. They are Alvaro Vargos Llosa and Hernando de Soto, both Peruvians. In their descriptions of their blighted continent (including the republics of Central America) they explain that what they failed to inherit from Europe was the rule of law and free trade. Most of these poor communities erect trade barriers against each other. Most have unjust, corrupt and capricious courts.
De Soto observes how all of Latin America has a system of absurd, oppressive and intrusive regulations that bar all bu