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Correction to This Article
The review misspelled the name of one of the people who raised the author. It is Bernardine Dohrn.

Book Review: 'Gringo' by Chesa Boudin

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By Marie Arana
Sunday, May 24, 2009

GRINGO

A Coming of Age in Latin America

This Story

By Chesa Boudin

Scribner. 224 pp. $25

For too long, Latin America has been a proving ground for U.S. political passions. The right aspires to dominate it. The left sees it as a means to justify ideological ends. When we're not ignoring it altogether, we stage CIA coups there or sport Che T-shirts at anti-free-market rallies. It hardly exists but for our points of view.

This is not a new phenomenon. Since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, we've made it clear that the United States would not tolerate outside interference in Latin America. Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick" corollary 81 years later upped the ante: It insisted on our government's ability to intervene militarily if we perceived flagrant wrongdoing by any Latin American nation. "América para los americanos," as Latin Americans like to put it. The Americas -- for North Americans. Even Simón Bolívar, back in Jefferson's day, predicted that it was only a matter of time before the United States assumed a hemispheric droit du seigneur that would plague his lands in the name of liberty.

For those on the right, that license has meant coups, assassinations, toxic crop sprayers. For U.S. business, it has meant a rich lode of natural resources. For those on the left, Latin America is the slate on which our every capitalist greed is written, the perfect thumping board for angry radicals. If you are angry enough, you shoulder your backpack and head south, fall in love with a terrorist guerrilla, join the Weather Underground and bomb the Pentagon or the U.S. Capitol, rob armored cars. Radicals of a more bookish bent pore over Eduardo Galeano's "The Open Veins of Latin America," a classic of the extreme left, published in 1971 and delivered from Hugo Chavez's hands into President Obama's just this past April.

In truth, anyone deeply interested in hemispheric affairs will have read that book years ago. As incandescent as Galeano's anger can be, as passionate as his prose, as revelatory as his account of 500 years of foreign pillage and Latin American servitude, "Open Veins" is a 40-year-old call to arms.

Like Chavez's gift, the radical left seems to be caught in a time warp. In few books is this more evident than Chesa Boudin's mind-numbing rant, "Gringo." There is nothing passionate, incandescent or even remotely revelatory here. Although Boudin has an impressive pedigree as a member of the left (he's the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, leaders of the notorious Weather Underground) and has spent the past decade witnessing the myriad injustices of Latin America, his book reveals a remarkable lack of sophistication, both as an argument against free-market imperialism and as a work of travel journalism.

He calls his book "Gringo" because, while traveling in Latin America, the word "became a second name." And yet, for all the term's awkwardness, it represents an otherness that wins him friends and gets him out of scrapes with the authorities. Whether it's landing a job translating for Hugo Chavez or dodging trouble in a remote backwater, he eventually comes to value his "gringo wild card" and embraces it for the protection it represents.

This is no traveler in need of protection. Despite his publisher's claims that Boudin's book "echoes the sense of adventure of Che Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries" and the political passion of Galeano's "Memory of Fire," nothing too dangerous ever happens here. "Gringo" is a workmanlike account of 10 trips to various Latin American countries taken by a pleasant enough young man who knows what he thinks before he sets foot out the door.

It begins when he's fresh out of high school. He leaves the "mom and dad" -- prominent radical theorists Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers -- who raised him while his own parents were in jail, and heads for Guatemala, intent on going native. He rides the ramshackle buses of Petén, along with the chickens. He endures a diet of endless tortillas. He sleeps in a humble shack. He sees the Guatemalan jungle being razed bit by bit by a heartless world. "Clearing the land like this might help Guatemala export more beef to raise foreign currency to service its debts," he writes, in a typically uninspired passage, "but it also meant the destruction of ancient tropical forest."

We labor through this woefully un-Galeano-ish prose as Boudin makes his way to Santiago. Enrolling as a student in the University of Chile, he turns up his nose at luxury apartments he can well afford, refusing to live like the gringos who "isolate themselves from the ugly reality of poverty and inequality, and a neocolonial legacy." Instead, he finds himself a room the size of a large walk-in closet, where for $50 a month "rent was low enough for me to feel like I was living in solidarity with the working class."

And so it goes. In Buenos Aires, it's the evil hand of "neoliberalism" -- the rule of the free market -- that keeps the lower classes in bondage. In Manaus, he beds a young mother of three, sharing two rooms with more than a dozen of her relatives -- all women and children. In Colombia, he travels down the Cacarica River to visit the displaced people of the Chocó. In Ecuador, he whiles away days with the drunken boys of the disappearing Cofán tribe. In Bolivia, he descends the toxic tin mines of Potosí and befriends an old miner who speaks like a sociology professor. But the real drama for Chesa Boudin, the reader always suspects, is back in the United States, where the fiery legacy of his parents was forged long ago.

The anti-establishment passions of the Weather Underground that culminated in armed robbery and landed his parents in prison in Attica inform every page of this book. No event happens, no person moves through, without an accompanying polemic against the CIA, the IMF or the greedy neoliberalists who are inflicting damage on Latin America's poor. Granted, a reasoned account of the crippling effects of U.S.-backed coups or the World Bank's inability to address the urgent problems of poverty would be welcome -- even timely and necessary. But Boudin's scattershot approach employs nothing like reason.

Eventually, Boudin admits, the American left is the real destination of his journey. "I came to see Latin America," he writes, "as a prism through which I could better understand my own roots in the radical left in the United States, and the role my country plays in a global society."

So, there we have it. Though we await desperately needed insights into the promise that has always been Latin America, we get the shaky road map of a callow young man.

Marie Arana is a former editor of Book World. Currently a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress, she is at work on a biography of Simón Bolívar. She can be reached at aranam@washpost.com.


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