Page images
PDF
EPUB

The common purposes and ideals which the political leaders in the several republics so consistently pursued during the long struggle for independence, laid the lasting foundations of the Pan American movement, which in later years was destined to play so important a part in the destinies of this continent. In fact, one of the most inspiring characteristics of the early struggles of the American republics was the spirit of coöperation and mutual helpfulness which led large groups of patriots from remote sections of the continent to endure almost unbelievable hardships in order to support their struggling brethren. Patriots from Venezuela and Colombia undertook long and arduous journeys in order to support the people of Ecuador, and groups of republican enthusiasts from Argentina and Chile braved the hardships of the Andes in order to assist Peru in her hour of need.

A century has now elapsed since these heroic struggles, and is both fitting and helpful that we undertake an estimate of the results accomplished. This means a retrospect of the development of democracy with special reference to the conditions which have determined its growth on the American continent; the circumstances that have favored its progress and the obstacles that must be overcome in order to move forward toward the fulfilment of its higher possibilities.

Although the history of republican institutions in Central and South America has been in many respects a checkered one, it is a notable fact that, with two exceptions—and those extending over a comparatively brief period—all these nations have adhered to the republican form of organization even when the actual operation of the system was far removed from that contemplated by the founders. The record of the American republics during the century that has elapsed since their declaration of independence has made possible a more accurate study of the relation between democracy as a form of social organization on the one hand, and republican institutions as the political expression of such organization on the other.

Now that democracy has become the goal toward which the nations of the world are striving, it is difficult for us to picture the dismay, amounting almost to horror, which the term “democracy” inspired a century ago. Even to the founders of our constitutional system it was synonymous with “mob rule.” Their devotion to republican institutions was accompanied by an equally pronounced antagonism to democracy. It was not until well toward the second half of the nineteenth century that it began to be apparent that the effective operation of republican institutions requires a democratic social organization and that the infirmities from which republican institutions often suffer are due to the absence of such a democratic foundation.

In fact, the problem of overwhelming importance today confronting the republics of the American continent is to bring their social organization into closer harmony with their political institutions. The wide discrepancy existing between these two elements of national life is the cause of many evils and the source of much political unrest. While the ends in view are clear and unmistakable, the measures to be adopted for their attainment are at times difficult to formulate and often even more difficult of adoption.

The first and most important lesson to be learned is that we cannot hope for the smooth operation of republican institutions as long as any considerable portion of the population remains in a condition of abject economic dependence. In so many sections of the continent, the condition of the laboring classes, especially that of the agricultural laborer, so closely approaches serfdom as to be hardly distinguishable from it. As long as such a condition of economic subjection exists, the political destinies of the country will be managed by small groups of men removed from the control of any effective public opinion, and will slowly, but surely, degenerate into oligarchy. Election laws no matter how perfect are of no avail, and it is equally futile to increase the number of elective offices in the hope that thereby the participation of the masses of the voters in public life will be strengthened. While it is comparatively easy for the student of political institutions to point out existing shortcomings, the formulation of a workable solution presents difficulties which at times seem to be unsurmountable. There are, however, a few cardinal principles of outstanding importance which must be made an integral part of national policy in those republics in which the laboring population or any considerable portion thereof is illiterate, unorganized, and with a standard of life dangerously close to the margin of subsistence.

In the first place we must learn to distinguish between national wealth and national welfare. There is a deeply rooted belief in America and elsewhere that these two terms are synonymous, and that with the progressive exploitation of the natural resources of a country through the investment of foreign or native capital the condition of the masses is certain to improve. No one will deny that there is a measure of truth in this assumption in a country in which the laboring classes are well organized and therefore in a position to secure for themselves a fair share of the national product. But in the circumstances in which some of the republics of the American continent find themselves, with a laboring population unorganized and with a relatively low standard of life, the exploitation of natural resources is inevitably accompanied by an increasing exploitation of the laboring classes. It is true, and it is to the everlasting credit of North American enterprise in Latin American countries, that, recognizing the importance of a stable labor supply, as well as the possibility of increased industrial efficiency through better living conditions, earnest and notable efforts have been made to improve of the condition of the laboring classes. It is also true that the governments in Central and South America are today making earnest efforts toward the same end. But the road still to be traveled is distressingly long.

It is by no means a fortuitous circumstance that where labor is adequately organized, as in certain sections of Argentina and in the nitrate provinces of northern Chile, the wage scale is not only high, but out of all proportion to the remuneration received by labor in adjacent countries. Moreover, it is generally assumed that these conditions will be remedied as soon as the process of popular education has proceeded far enough to produce an economic awakening on the part of the laboring classes. Efforts to improve popular education are not lacking; in fact real, national sacrifices are being made for this purpose, but owing to limited financial resources the advance is necessarily slow and in the meantime the present generation is suffering from all the degenerating influences of inadequate nutrition, bad housing, and unfavorable sanitary surroundings.

It would seem, therefore, that the only possible solution to this social problem, of overwhelming importance to the political future of the Latin American republics, is the determination by the governments of a minimum wage scale, both in agriculture and industry, and the elimination of the many abuses which now exist, due to the dependence of the agricultural laborer on the stores established on their estates by the great landed proprietors. If there is one lesson to be learned from the experience of a century of economic development, it is that this drastic measure is necessary as a first step toward economic emancipation, without which the great mass of agricultural laborers and even certain sections of industrial labor cannot be made a real and

a vital factor in the development of a virile democracy.

The importance of such a step as part of a comprehensive plan of social legislation has been greatly increased by reason of the situation which has arisen as the result of the World War. The social upheaval in Europe and, especially, in Russia, has had a far-reaching influence on the laboring classes throughout Latin America. The demand for the betterment of living conditions is becoming more and more insistent and its influence on political life increasingly apparent. Unless measures are taken to satisfy this demand, the growing discontent is certain to manifest itself in political unrest and a possible undermining of established order. Legislation of the kind referred to has therefore become, not merely a step toward social justice, but a requisite for future stability. It is, of course, true that any system of minimum wage laws must be supplemented by a comprehensive plan of social legislation designed to give the increased income of the laboring classes its greatest effectiveness in raising the standard of living. This involves the construction of laborers' dwellings by the public authorities, national or local, the improvement of recreation facilities, and, above all, the restriction and ultimate elimination of the use of intoixcating liquors, which have done so much to undermine the physical and moral welfare of the laboring classes throughout the continent.

This step once taken, a further problem confronts those countries such as Mexico and most of the other republics of Central and South America whose social system is based on great landed estates; namely, the development of a class of small landed proprietors. The problem of developing through any governmental action a class of small land owners presents enormous difficulties. It is futile either through expropriation or confiscation to break up the large agricultural holdings into small farms. Unless the agricultural population is equipped with the technical preparation for farm management, combined with a strong and abiding desire for individual ownership, all governmental effort is doomed to failure, and usually expensive failure.

The disastrous experience of Mexico under the Madero régime in the attempt to develop a class of small farmers is most instructive. We are so apt to forget that where the traditions of a people have led them to the common ownership of land, rather than individual proprietorship, as was the case with the Indians of the greater part of Mexico, the desire for individual ownership is absent and must be gradually developed. The experience thus far acquired would seem to indicate that however necessary the development of a class of small farmers may be to the further progress of democracy in the republics of Latin America, this end will only be attained through the gradual transformation of tenants into proprietors, much in the same way and by the same slow and difficult process through which increasing numbers of negro tenants in our southern states are being transformed into land proprietors.

Running parallel with these economic changes, and only secondary in importance to them, are certain political principles, the recognition of which is essential to the normal and progres

« PreviousContinue »