Monday, March 24, 2008

On Books

Moises Naim reviews The Forgotten Continent;
Reid is correct in observing that Latin America has undergone an economic makeover in the last two decades, and he is also right in saying that its progress is not well known outside the region or sufficiently acknowledged by Latins themselves. The inflation that once ravaged the region has been largely tamed, as have the massive budgetary imbalances produced by profligate government spending. Today, Latin America is more fiscally disciplined than the United States. The enormous foreign debt that precipitated a global debt crisis in the 1980s has been curtailed and, after more than two decades of anemic growth, the region's economy has been expanding at about 5 percent annually for the past four years.

Even more important, Reid documents how this growth, combined with newfound price stability and innovative social programs, has significantly reduced poverty. The portion of the continent's population living under the poverty line dropped from 42 percent to 35 percent in the last four years alone. Even in Mexico, which has had paltry economic growth, poverty dropped from 37 percent to 14 percent since 1996. As Forgotten Continent persuasively shows, Latin America is witnessing the rapid emergence of a substantial middle class, which few countries there have ever had.

Unfortunately, foreigners and the local intelligentsia are not the only ones who dismiss this progress. The Latin American people, too, are increasingly impatient. Yes, things are getting better, but for large segments of the population life is either still dire or not improving fast enough. According to Gallup polls conducted in 140 countries in 2006-07, Latin America leads the world in terms of people's expectations for how quickly their personal situations will improve. One reason for this optimism is that in relatively new or revitalized democracies (another insufficiently recognized success) politicians find it all too easy to rise to power on grandiose promises; thus, Bolivia's President Evo Morales pledges full equality to his country's indigenous population in a short time, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez promises complete self-sufficiency in food production.

Among voters, high expectations can quickly give way to frustration or even cynicism. Latin Americans get saturation coverage of corruption scandals both real and fabricated: One minute it's a suitcase stuffed with cash in Argentina; the next, it's Mexico's interior minister accused of influence peddling. Economic progress has yet to appease a population that has grown both wildly hopeful and deeply distrustful.

This is the paradox at the core of Reid's book: While the social and economic face of Latin America is becoming more attractive, political life remains ugly and, in some countries, is getting even uglier. The politics of race, rage and revenge embodied by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Mexico's opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been widely exported and can now be found, with varying degrees of influence, in most other Latin countries.

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