Latin America is a dynamic continent at a political crossroads. The next president’s policy will help lead it toward greater prosperity–or lead it to a dangerous populism.
Magical realism, in which the beautiful collides with the terrifying and the mundane intersects with the fantastical, is the defining style in Latin American literature. It seems to have a fair hold on the continent’s politics, too. These days, a contentious and at times violent debate is underway from Puerto Vallarta to Puerto Montt over the destiny of a vastly complex, bountiful yet impoverished region of 560 million people. Like a Borges novel, the Latin American electorate resists easy explanation or categorization. Thirteen elections in 2006-2007 failed to answer the simple question: Is Latin America the home of free-market democracy or the bastion of populist autocracy? It is both, of course, and everything in between.
In Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, Michael Reid, the Economist’s editor for the Americas, has amassed an impressive body of statistics, anecdotes, and arguments to help us understand better, if incompletely, the conundrum of Latin America. As a heavy consumer of daily intelligence during my role as a director of the National Security Council in the 1990s, I can appreciate the enormous task the author undertook to piece together nearly two centuries of historical material into a compelling and astute narrative of the roots and prospects of capitalism and self-rule in the Americas. He has done an outstanding job; only a well-seasoned journalist steeped in the drama of the region during these last 25 years could pull off the rich blend of story-telling and rational behind-the-headlines analysis offered here. But despite the wealth of information presented, the book ends up where it began, with more questions than answers about the state of capitalist democracy in a part of the world still largely unknown to outsiders.
But it’s hard to blame him. The reality of the booming Latin America of today is as confounding as the crisis years at the turn of the millennium. What’s different now from the lost years of the 1998–2003 economic downturn, as Reid points out, is a sense of cautious optimism brewing in the hemisphere; according to a new Gallup International poll, Latin Americans were the most optimistic of any regional group in the world about the new year. The same cannot be said, however, about the prospects of improving U.S. relations with the continent, at least while George W. Bush is in the White House. Experts in Washington, quick to lament the harmful missteps of the current administration (especially its first term), are scratching their heads about how the next president should address the real challenges posed by our southern neighbors. But Reid’s history, if unintentionally, makes the course clear: What Washington needs is a raft of new policies that draw on a more dynamic understanding of the hemisphere.
In the early 1990s, the end of the cold war and its proxy battles in Latin America ushered in a new era to the region and its relations with the United States. The habits of democracy were gradually taking root, increasingly free from the damaging, militaristic approach taken by Washington for so many years. As the wars in Central America wound down and General Augusto Pinochet and his ilk were shown the door, the inter-American agenda took on a cooperative tone, exemplified by the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami. There, the emerging democracies of the region agreed with Canada and the United States to begin negotiating a Free Trade Area of the Americas; they also created a wide range of consultations and forums to deepen cooperation on judicial issues, defense, education, and energy. Notably, the Americas led the world in fashioning a multilateral response to coups and other threats to democracy, intervening in such places as Paraguay, Peru, Guatemala, and Haiti, mostly to good effect. And, after an acrimonious debate, Washington even moved away from its hated unilateral counter-drug certification process toward a multilateral evaluation mechanism. Compared with the current moment of distrust and outright animosity in some quarters, the Clinton era was a high-water mark for hemispheric relations.
So what happened? Why, after years of relatively good news, has Latin America seemingly turned so strongly against the North? Yes, the economic downturn of the last decade soured Latin Americans on free-market recipes pushed by Washington.
But the answer, in Reid’s eyes, has less to do with changes in U.S. policy per se than with the persistent tension within Latin American history between autocrats and democrats. It’s a long story, as Reid reminds us by devoting several chapters to Latin American political and economic history, from the struggle for independence in 1810, through the rise of the strongman caudillo, to the liberal reformers of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the populist nationalism of the 1920s to 1960s. Hovering throughout is the ever-relevant Simón Bolívar, hero not only to the Spanish colonists but also to the controversial Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela. For Reid, Bolívar represents the unity of two archetypes: the caudillo and the modernizing technocrat. An admirer of the United States and Great Britain’s parliamentary monarchy, a reader of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Locke, and an experienced military leader, Bolívar favored a strong central government, regional integration, and “paternalist authoritarianism” with some modest checks and balances.
In Venezuela, dictators (elected and otherwise) have used and abused Bolívar’s legacy for their own purposes, but none with such great fanfare as Chávez, the current proponent of a “Bolivarian Revolution” for Venezuela and its neighbors. Chávez and his aggressive campaign to revive militarist populism in Latin America, financed by the global surge in oil prices, are what animate Reid (and many others) the most. Forgotten Continent presents a powerful rejection of the Bolivarian cause, not only by reaffirming the varied strands of liberalism woven throughout Latin American history, but also by giving us an upbeat interpretation of the region’s slow but steady progress toward economic growth and democratic consolidation.
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