Volume 1, Number 16
25 June 2001

My Ten Years in Marxistland

Dear Friends,

Curiouser and curiouser. The looking glass seemed to melt, into a fuzzy substance that I could walk through to a different world. I stopped young people to ask what kind of society this was. They all spoke Spanish. So I decided I had better learn it.

My first looking-glass world was Bolivia in 1960. There I taught for one year (whenever the students were not on strike) in the University of San Andres. The students — almost all Marxists who disliked my world — were lively and friendly. Toward the end of my year, I came down with hepatitis. Students came to see me, and at the end they prepared a big fiesta, which I enjoyed from my bed. They were not Quakers, but I sensed Quakerly love from them. When I returned home, I wrote a book, Latin America: Today's Economic and Social Revolution (McGraw-Hill 1964), which contained parts of papers they had written for me or shown to me. I dedicated it to them, con todo mi afecto ... con un fuerte abrazo.

For ten years thereafter I conducted an annual seminar for Marxist students from Mexico, the first one in Mexico City and the other nine at whatever university I was teaching at in the United States (Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins, and Colorado). During that period I also traveled to all the Latin American countries except Cuba, to lecture and hold discussions with Marxist students in the major universities. Paragraphs in quotations in this Letter consist of papers written by them or are from authors they recommended. All these quotations are found in my book, Latin America, at pages indicated. (The book is out of print but can be found in university libraries).

The Economic Revolution

"The Alliance for Progress (foreign aid program) is but a cunning shift in the strategy of the United States. Your fundamental purpose is still economic domination in our hemisphere. But you do sense that a revolution is in the making and that it is too strong to be quelled by the blunt weapons of the past. So your only recourse is to board it and dilute it from the inside" (p.1).

Agrarian Reform

La tierra es de todos, come el aire, el agua, la luz, y el calor del sol. (Inscription carved above the entry to the Ministry of Education, Mexico City. "Land is like air, like water, like light, like the heat of the sun." (p.33)

Note: In countries where Indians predominate, latifundios (large land holdings) have been associated with a feudal form of agriculture known as the "hacienda" system. Upon the Spanish conquest, Indians were placed under the tutelage of Spaniards and gradually became servants (peons) of the master to whom lands, previously theirs, had been given by the King of Spain. They met their obligations through labor and sharecropping. After World War II (earlier in Mexico), agrarian reforms ended the hacienda system in country after country, but the reforms themselves have confiscated rights of the peasants wholesale. (I wrote about these reforms in The Peasant Betrayed, by Powelson & Stock, 1960.) Such is the situation in Chiapas, Mexico, about which I plan to write a future Letter. Mostly, these peasants still live in poverty. Despite what my students thought, most of the haciendas were owned by Latin Americans, only a few by American corporations. All of these have by now been sold or "reformed."

"The representative of the United States of America (in a conference on agrarian reform in 1959) did not approve one single proposal that might signify the expropriation of land, because he was thinking of the enormous latifundios exploited in Latin America by businesses and private persons of his country. Nor did he approve the creation of an Inter-American Agrarian Bank, because he understood that an institution of this nature would be, as indeed it would, a constant invitation to all the peoples of Latin America to accelerate or undertake their respective agrarian reforms. Such an occurrence would constitute a menace to the territorial interests of the United States." (pp.33-34)


"The economy of the United States displays pronounced monopolistic traits. The large enterprise is the typical economic unit in the American union. Groups of two, three, or four big companies dominate the most important activities. Their power does not derive from the fact that there are no other enterprises operating in each activity, but to the great magnitude of the 'small group' in charge of each branch's operations. Thus the economy of the United States is characterized by a concentration of giants in each important activity." (José Luis Ceceña, Mexican economist; p. 69)

Primary Products

"He who has no trade, no skills, and cannot read or write is a poor man. He lives by his `broad and sinewy hands' and his strong back. He splits rails, and society pays him verbal homage for his humble beginnings. When rail fences are supplanted by wire (which he cannot make), he digs ditches. When giant excavators can do his day's work in a few seconds, he polishes boots. When depression comes, people do not have their shoes shined, and even with prosperity they never wear more than one pair at a time. For years he alternates between the breadline and a meager livelihood, for — unlike other people — none of his occupations provides him with skills to cope with an ever more complex society. One day he wakes up to find that continuous charity alone will keep him alive." (p. 99)

Note: This is my paraphrase of what many Marxist students told me. The students believed that dependency on primary products (agriculture and mining) kept Latin America poor. It was in the interests of the United States to perpetuate this dependency, because then the U.S. could buy primary products more cheaply.

Sugar and Cuba

"The trouble with the economy was sugar. A warning of the danger of monoculture, of the trend toward a one-crop economy, had been given as far back as 1883 by the greatest of Cuba's heroes. In that year José Martí, revolutionist, orator, poet, philosopher, sounded the alarm: 'A people commits suicide the day on which it bases its economy on a single crop.' ... But in Cuba's case it wasn't suicide. It was murder. In 1883 Cuba was on the road to the top of the cliff, but it was the United States that pushed it over the top." (This was written by two US economists quoted wherever I went in Latin America). (p.138)

Free trade

"Capitalist economies were protectionist in their earlier days but became free traders upon maturity as a means of expanding their power over weaker ones. Contrary to the wishes of the powerful, protectionism is necessary for less developed countries in their fight against political vassalage to the great powers." (Paraphrased from Iván Anaya, Bolivian economist). (p.195)

Why the United States opposes Economic Development in Latin America

"The fear of ... vacuum causes the country to the north to look askance at our development. Only machinery and capital goods would be exported to Latin America, and fewer consumer goods — this would represent a loss for the United States. This explains why the North American government emphasizes consumer goods in its aid to underdeveloped peoples, and small quantities of money insufficient to push their growth. If American aid were given in capital goods, it would be much more effective and would meet the desires of our peoples. In consumer goods, however, it serves only to kill off national industries." (by a student; p. 222)

"The intimate dependence of the economy of our country on that of the cyclic center is revealed in relations of interchange. It is a dependence taking on political and cultural aspects as well, influencing in decisive form the backwardness of Bolivia. It is expressed not only through the imposition of prices by the United States but also in the "American aid," which destroys incentive to produce within Bolivian territory and serves to dump excess North American production in Bolivia." (by a student; p. 222)

What should I say to them?

All this was a looking-glass world because it carried a certain resemblance to my world, yet my world was different from that one. My experiences were different, too. I had walked through the slums of every Latin American country except Cuba, talking to their inhabitants; the students were mostly from middle-class families who had never known the poor except as servants. I had sat across the table from presidents, ministers, American ambassadors, and CEOs of multinational corporations. These were all imaginary figures to the students, who could only form their own images of them. The best I could do (I thought) was to bring my students the viewpoints of the world where they had not lived. I did not try to persuade them of the "correctness" of that world, or of any world; I just wanted them to know what it was like.

One rule I have applied in teaching is: "Never tell a student he is wrong." (Well, hardly ever). Instead, ask the student where her opinion comes from or how he obtained the facts. Carry on the conversation from there. This I applied to the Marxist students, and they appreciated the respect I showed for them. In return, they began to treat my world with respect.

To overthrow the government of the dictator, General Stroessner, of Paraguay?

Readers may be surprised that it was not the Marxist students, but the American Embassy, that arranged my visit with Paraguayans plotting the overthrow of General Alfredo Stroessner. Wherever I went, I found the embassies eager to keep in touch with the opposition. "We might have to deal with them some day," they explained.

Of course the plotters did not tell me their strategy. But they did explain all the crimes committed by General Stroessner, and they objected to our government supporting him. They knew that I, as a professor, and the student officer of the embassy who accompanied me, could not influence our policy in any other way except through our voices, so their aim was to influence that. Why did they not think we might be CIA officers ready to report them to the military? I don't know.

Stroessner was overthrown, not by the students but by a military coup in 1989, which sent him into exile.

Sincerely your Friend,

Jack Powelson

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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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