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Two decades of change and challenge in Latin American politics

Partners in Conflict: The United States and Latin America, by Abraham F. Lowenthal. Johns Hopkins University Press. 240 pp. $19.95. Sociologist Robert Kelly, who began his career as a specialist in Argentine politics, says the average United States citizen associates Latin America most strongly with dictators and buses falling off cliffs. Many on the left, who would like to think all US policy has failed, believe life has not changed for Latin America. Many on the right, who would ward off hard challenges, believe nothing can change.

Those who would like to believe that between dictatorship and revolution alternatives exist will find some relief in Abraham Lowenthal's starting point in ``Partners in Conflict'' - a persuasive insistence that we recognize the broad and important changes that have swept Latin America in the last two decades.

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Readers who are accustomed to fund-raising appeals backed by grim statistics will be surprised to learn that literacy has risen rapidly, infant mortality has fallen dramatically, rural labor has given way to impressive industrialization, life spans have lengthened by more than a decade, and political power has been increasingly shared. At the same time centrally planned economies and their versions of authoritarian government have failed - especially in Cuba, Guyana, Suriname, Grenada, Jamaica, Santa Lucia, and Nicaragua.

Lowenthal's command of facts and figures supports his argument that Latin America is a very different place from what it was the last time the US revitalized its approach to the region. That was in the '60s, when President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress. The alliance was a massive development and education effort that made a favorable impression on many Latins before dictators and corruption killed it.

Two decades of change have created conditions for the spread and stabilization of democracy that never existed before, Lowenthal argues. He also recognizes how rapidly the Latin debt crisis and recession of the 1980s is eroding the new democratic foundation. As former US Attorney General Elliot Richardson declares on the dust jacket blurb, Lowenthal delivers ``an important and timely message.''

The best of Lowenthal's message is delivered in concise lists of policy options and political choices for both Latin America and the US. He characterizes our past policies as interventionist (as in Grenada and Nicaragua) and activist (imposing US values and terms on aid). Lowenthal lays out five steps toward a ``development policy'' to meet the hemisphere's new realities.

The emphasis on international lending, new commercial loans, and promotion of global commerce is not very far from many professed principles of the Reagan administration, the proposals of the Kissinger Commission, and the concerns of the International Commission on Central American Recovery and Development, a group conceived by Sen. Terry Sanford and composed mainly of Central Americans.

The outstanding weakness of this book lies in Lowenthal's failure to explore Latin America's own responsibilities for both its past and present. Perhaps this is understandable in a book whose focus is US policy, but it leaves the impression that the US deserves most of the blame for the misery of Latin America. This is hard to argue when one of your key points is that US influence has been declining rapidly.

Lowenthal does suggest that Latin America must move on three fronts. It must recognize the connection between democracy and human rights and isolate violators. It must work harder on the social underpinnings of democracy, including the delicate issues of family planning and income distribution. And its democracies must create a system of mutual support.

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Such prescriptions are fine as intellectual outlines. Lowenthal, a professor at the University of Southern California, has an academic's luxury of responding to difficult realities with provocative but general ideas. He can note, for instance, that 20 percent of Peru's export earnings may come from cocaine. His response, however, is a few words about ``effective cooperation between the US and Latin America'' and better drug education in the US.

He can argue that we are distracted from Latin America's most important countries and problems by our ``obsession with Central America,'' but he fails to recognize that in a world where a few guerrillas can destroy a national economy and create massive migration, tiny El Salvador does count, and that Cuba and Nicaragua cannot be lightly dismissed as ``leftist experiments.''

Perhaps it is the academic habit of both author and publisher that allows strong arguments to be encrusted in jargon. A good exercise for a political science class would be to turn the following into plain English: ``...the inherent tensions between the US and Latin America arising from fundamental asymmetries in the Western Hemisphere have been strongly reinforced by major shifts in the Hemisphere's political economy.''

Where academic training ought to excel it fails. Instead of footnotes documenting important facts and sources, we have for each chapter a list of sources unconnected to any point in the text. The index, which ought to be a reader's map over the terrain covered, appears to have been created by a minimalist computer.

This book would have worked best as a concise outline of Latin America's changing realities and the policy options they suggest. Here is a clear case in which an author's argument is better than his book. Sometimes less is more. Not every good argument deserves a book.

Wallace Kaufman writes widely about Latin America.

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