Friday, July 08, 2011

Is Individualism Just a Hispanic Attribute?

Jorge Castañeda, author of "Manana Forever?"
By Robert Valencia

I remember not too long ago when a Japanese friend was asked about the difference between Latin Americans and Asians, and he answered as follows: “One Asian person can’t do much, but if a handful of them work together they can build a world-class enterprise. One Latin American person can build a world-class enterprise, but if they work together they can’t do much.”

Perhaps this could be a perfect analogy that can be found on the most recent book “Mañana Forever?” written by Jorge Castañeda, former Foreign Relations Minister of Mexico. Considered one of the most outstanding intellectuals in Latin America, Castañeda outlines some of the most notable peculiarities from Mexicans, particularly one ethos—according to him-- most of them share: “El que no transa no avanza” (whoever doesn’t make any monkey business will not succeed in life).

Though the author calls Mexicans to get rid of counterproductive practices on the realms of economy, politics, and culture if they want to take over a more prominent place in the world stage, Castañeda affirms the book does not intend to examine the national character like Octavio Paz or Carlos Fuentes did, but it seeks to explain why some Mexican traits such as individualism and lack of trust towards rule of law and local authorities represent a hurdle to reach modernity.

At glance, one might think that a country like Mexico has everything to win: Its population, largely young, is the largest in the Spanish-speaking world, is the 12th largest economy in the world, a gamut of races and ethnicities, and a myriad of free-trade agreements—chief among them the most important of all: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But the description Castañeda provides regarding Mexicans as a whole can also be related to the rest of Latin America, since many of them also have garnered a profound mistrust toward authorities and rule of law, added to the individualism that has led Latin America to widen the equality gap (and, as the author pointed out, this trait exacerbates the security instability in many Latin American countries). Mexicans, the author says, are not team players, and hence, they have never won any FIFA World Cup. Save Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, no Latin American team has held the most prestigious soccer trophy. On the other hand, many Latinos stand out in sports that don’t require teamwork, especially in the Olympics, the Formula 1, among others. In the media and entertainment business, no Latin music bands that are recognized worldwide, whereas vocalists like Shakira, Ricky Martin or Luis Miguel have reached success across the globe.

To say that individualism is something that Latin Americans exclusively share would be also unfair. Despite the fact that Europeans seek collective solutions to problems—one example is the Greece’s economic downturn—many developed countries register the world’s highest suicide rates. Newsweek magazine ranks Finland, Sweden, and Japan as the world’s best countries. The magazine recognizes, however, that the result of these suicide cases is due to the pursuit of self-reliance that sets them apart from their immediate group of friends and families.

Latin America’s individualism can be changed with a great dose of faith. If Latin Americans can follow the socioeconomic model Brazil and Chile have attained in the last couple of years, the individualism complex can turn into collectivism. But time will only tell if this kind of determination can turn many of our capable nations to the likes of South Korea or Singapore. 

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