The Magazine

Trouble Down Below

What's wrong with Latin America.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By MARK FALCOFF
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Forgotten Continent

The Battle for Latin America's Soul

by Michael Reid

Yale, 400 pp., $30

What's new in Latin America? One way of finding out is to go to the website of the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald. Recently, for example, these were the lead stories: "Rosales [leader of the opposition in Venezuela] denounces kidnappings by the FARC [the Colombian guerrillas] in Venezuela"; "Retired military officer [in Argentina] caught with 1,100 kilos of cocaine"; "Six bodies bound in a shallow grave in Northern Mexico [apparently members of the Juárez narco-cartel]"; "Former vice-president denounces electoral fraud in Paraguay"; "Police lack clues in the case of the murder of a former Ecuadorian congressman"; "Huge arsenal discovered in a Honduran jail"; "Venezuela and Colombia on the verge of breaking diplomatic relations."

Is the Herald exaggerating or sensationalizing? Not at all. As someone who has been following the Latin American prints for more than four decades, I can attest that these stories represent a quite typical diet of the daily news reports coming out of the huge continent to our immediate south. Today is like yesterday; tomorrow will be pretty much like today.

In spite of this discouraging picture, some people seem to think that, with all our other problems, we should be spending far more time agonizing about the fate of these dysfunctional societies. One of them is Michael Reid, a British journalist married to a Peruvian who, for many years, has reported on the region for the Economist. To this end he has penned this book--a vast tour d'horizon chock-full of data, local color, observations, and economic -analysis. In fact, it reads like back issues of Reid's magazine, stitched together and perhaps expanded at greater length.

Not that this is all bad. Forgotten Continent is probably the best general book currently available on Latin America, and one not likely to be superseded for some time. It is knowledgeable, trenchant, and for the most part eminently fair and objective. Who will want to bother to plow through its 400 pages (some rather long on facts and figures) is hard to say; as publishers and agents have been telling me for years, books on Latin America appeal only to a left-wing market--and not a very large one at that.

To be sure, Reid's approach is not ideological; it is written in the Economist's house style: a conflation of condescension, hard economic data, and on-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand pronouncements which seem always somehow to come down (just barely) on the side of optimism. Whether in the case of Latin America such optimism is justified is quite another matter.

The thesis of the book--it can be easily discerned from the subtitle--is that Latin America is at an institutional fork in the road. One path has been taken by the fragile but sometimes determined efforts at democracy by about a dozen countries, led by Chile, Colombia, Brazil, and Uruguay, followed at some distance by countries like Peru, most of Central America, and Paraguay. The other has been taken by republics that have succumbed to the populist temptation--led, of course, by Venezuela's clownish dictator-president Hugo Chávez, but followed closely by Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, and the on-again/off-again Kirchners in Argentina.

Reid is not optimistic about the possibilities of populism resolving the region's problems, even in countries like Venezuela that are currently awash in petrodollars. In that regard he is quite right, and he has plenty of facts and figures to back him up. But his metaphorical fork in the road is more imaginary than real. The fundamental problem is not the faux-révolutionisme of populist demagogues, who are bound to come to a bad end, but the highly unsatisfactory performance of the new democracies.

Reid says that the good news about the region is that the swing of the pendulum between weak civilian governments and incompetent (sometimes hideously repressive) military dictatorships has come to an end. So has hyperinflation. The bad news is that these societies--even ones ruled by more or less civilized rules of the electoral game--are still vastly underperforming compared with their (theoretical) potential.

Here and there he finds bright spots in all the crucial areas--economic policy, rule of law, governance, even education--and obviously some countries (notably Chile and, to some extent, Brazil) are doing much better than others. But a careful reading of Reid's survey, which admittedly covers a huge and complex area, nonetheless leads to one dismal conclusion. Even in the best of cases one is left with scattered archipelagos of progress in a huge sea of mediocrity and stagnation.