Former U.S. and Latin American officials who helped launch the Alliance for Progress 25 years ago gathered here last week to lament its passing, and to suggest how the present could learn from that once heralded hemispheric experiment.
One of several critics attending, Prof. Abraham Lowenthal of the University of Southern California, suggested that the message is not getting through. Only one in 10 students taking his course on U.S.-Latin American relations could identify John F. Kennedy's unprecedented effort to generate democratic change.
But, said Lowenthal, "more than half can identify the Bay of Pigs," the U.S.-sponsored, abortive invasion of Cuba that came just a month after the birth of the alliance.
The two-day conference turned out not to be the "nostalgic, geriatric exercise" that one speaker predicted but a rousing polemic.
Kennedy's speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, argued that while the program formally ran 10 years, it actually died when the president was slain two years later. Other speakers stressed that its impact is still felt.
The message that clearly burned the ears of an aging audience came from a young scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Howard J. Wiarda. He contended that the alliance's designers, while competent and well-intentioned, displayed "woeful ignorance of Latin America."
The alliance, proposed by Kennedy in a speech on March 13, 1961, was joined by all Latin American countries except Cuba at a conference in Uruguay five months later. The charter set many goals, including 2.5 percent economic growth per capita annually, infusion of U.S capital, redistribution of income in favor of the poor, and reduction of illiteracy.
Wiarda elaborated a contention of other critics, charging that the concepts of the alliance "were all U.S. models or derived from the U.S. experience." Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. disputed that thesis, as did Chilean Felipe Herrera, the first president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Salvadoran economist Jorge Sol. Sol said that of the 10 points made in Kennedy's initial address, "eight were suggested by Latin Americans" then in Washington and consulted by Goodwin.
Lincoln Gordon, who organized the Punta del Este conference and held high U.S. posts through the decade, took sharp exception to the paper by Wiarda, saying he had "made bricks of straw, and straw men" at which to throw them. But Gordon also concluded that the United States failed to make the alliance a true partnership.
Former assistant secretary of state William D. Rogers lamented a current dimming of "a vision of shared enterprise" that characterized the alliance. He pointed out that the United States has taken no part in the two current multilateral efforts in the region, the Contadora group seeking peace in Central America and a Latin American coalition addressing the debt crisis.
A bureaucrat turned critic, Jerome Levinson, who coauthored "The Alliance That Lost Its Way" in 1970, said the program frightened the middle classes here and in Latin America. "I'm not so sure" the results would have been different had Kennedy lived, he added.
The region as a whole did grow at the rate set as the alliance's primary goal, but no speaker contended that there was significant redistribution of income. Perhaps the most pessimistic assessment came from Joao Baena Soarez, secretary general of the Organization of American States, who said, "On the whole, the region is worse off than it was 25 years ago."
The conference was organized by the Center for Advanced Studies of the Americas, which links American, Catholic, George Washington and Georgetown universities.