[Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul. By Michael Reid. 384 pp. Yale University Press.]

There is an intellectual tradition in Latin America: pessimism.

You could trace back this disheartened way to think of our future to the early days of Latin America’s independent life. I dare to think that it was Simón Bolívar himself (1783-1830), “El Libertador” (“The Liberator”) who founded the Latin American tradition of denial in face of any hint at progress.

The scion of a wealthy landowning family, established in Venezuela in the 17th century, Bolívar became a revolutionary warrior as well as an man of letters. His military prowess
put an end to Spanish rule in what are now the six republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. In many writings he elaborated the ideals of 19th century national liberation. A Jacobin in his youth, he became a dictator towards his final years.

His political career ended amidst the fierce civil wars that would ravage South America’s independent nations for the rest of the 19th century. Utterly impoverished and terminally ill, Bolívar wrote a disappointed farewell letter to one of his generals, only two weeks before passing away:

You know that I have ruled for twenty years, and from these I have derived only a few certainties: (1) [South] America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; (3) The only thing you can do in [South] America is emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably in the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; (5) Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America her final hour.1

Such dreary views, such gloomy predictions echoed in a large part of our intelligentsia. At the turn of the 20th century, European positivism was assimilated by a majority of Latin American thinkers that bended Auguste Comte’s ideas into a sort of “scientific pessimism” that still lingers on. Emphasizing positive characteristics in Latin America, I am sad to say, can be particularly daring down here.

Michael Reid’s Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin American Soul rebels against this Latin American tradition of denial. That feature alone makes it essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the dramatic changes undergone in Latin America during the past 50 years.

A long time editor of the Americas section of The Economist, Reid’s command of the intricacies of Latin America’s past and present economical and political facts allows him to elucidate a number of difficult matters with careful scholarship and elegant writing.

Reid’s main contention is that “for the first time in Latin America’s history, genuine and durable mass democracies have emerged across much of the region.” The breadth and depth of this process that began in the early eighties is neither well known nor fairly assessed despite its far-reaching consequences.

Consider: in 1977 all but four countries in Latin America were military dictatorships. “Two generations ago—Reid notes—a majority of Latin Americans lived in semi-feudal conditions in the countryside; little more than a generation ago, many were being murdered because of their political beliefs.” While reading this paragraph, many images came to my mind as if to corroborate Reid’s seemingly too optimistic assertions.

I thought of Bolivia, for instance, the third-largest cultivator of coca in the world (after Colombia and Peru) where more than 200 military coups and counter coups have occurred since it attained independence in 1825. That means an average of 1.2 coups per year in a nation where cruel wars against invading neighbors, waged at different times in the 19th and 20th centuries, decimated its aboriginal population depriving the country from its coastline on the Pacific.

But, as Reid correctly points out, despite its current political unrest, the sober fact is that Bolivians have not witnessed a military coup since 1980. How has this come to be?

Reid ascribes this continental change of attitude in favor of democracy to various causes, most especially the economic reforms attempted by elected governments throughout the region. No matter how painful, faulty and unfinished, he argues, those reforms had an enduring political effect that never went away.

An impoverished, landlocked Andean nation, with an area of 1.980 sq kilometers (almost three times the size of Montana) of which only 2.7% is arable land, Bolivia has a population of 9 million people. The country sits on estimated natural gas reserves of more 650 million cubic meters and is undergoing one of the most outstanding political processes in recent Latin American: for the first time in 183 years an indigenous elected president is in office.

The election of Evo Morales in 2005 capped a political crisis that had dragged on for almost four years during which three constitutional presidents were forced to resign by escalating street demonstrations and road blockades. As bloody as many of these events were, the military did not intervene.

In May 2006, I went to Bolivia to report on the nationalization of oil and gas fields theretofore under control of foreign companies. I found the country extremely polarized over racial and economic issues. During my stay, I talked to ex-president Carlos Mesa and asked him about rumor going around about an imminent military coup to topple Morales. Mesa, who is well known for his rectitude and impartiality, told me that however bitter political strife might get in Bolivia, military coups belonged in the past. “How about the Embassy?”, I asked.

“Had this man [Morales] been elected in, say, 1970—Mr. Mesa replied—he would have been overthrown in 48 hours by a coup engineered in the U.S. Embassy.” To be sure, one of the unintended benefits of Washington’s neglect is that “la Embajada” no longer has the clout it used to have—and wield—in our countries during the Cold War era.

Traditional worn-out parties and interest groups are now being politically—that is, electorally—challenged by forces that simply have never been reckoned with in the past. Indigenism, in its myriad forms, is probably the most important emerging political force in the Andean countries.

After years of large deficits, earnings from hydrocarbons exports have already pushed Bolivia’s current account surplus to about 12% of GDP. Whether those revenues will ultimately benefit the poor—in 2007, 60% of the Bolivian population lived below the poverty line—is still something to be seen. Which leads me to one of Reid’s main concerns: cutting down poverty and fostering opportunities for all as the best response to the populist challenge.

For more on the topic of U.S. interventions and how they interact with the formation of democracies, listen to the EconTalk podcast, Christopher Coyne on Exporting Democracy after War, with host Russ Roberts.

Most commentators dwell on the social and political havoc allegedly caused in many Latin American countries by the Washington Consensus—a “damaged brand,” according to Foreign Policy’s editor Moisés Naím—whereas Reid still advocates for a mix of fiscal austerity, privatization and market liberalization.

But he qualifies his admiration for the Washington consensus by showing how, in most cases, the reforms launched during the eighties and early nineties were maliciously left incomplete. Indeed, when the economy in Argentina—a long time poster child of “free-market” reforms—collapsed in 2002, experts asked: What went wrong?

Reid provides ample evidence in his book that what went wrong in Argentina has been going wrong all over the continent for almost twenty years. Politicians that followed debt-ridden dictators failed to find the necessary compromises to advance viable macroeconomic reforms: “Perhaps the most important missing commitment was to equity, to slashing poverty and inequality”.

Nevertheless, Reid points optimistically at many signs or progress without closing his eyes to the legacy of social exclusion that have characterized Latin American countries for almost two centuries.

Despite acute disparities that have given rise to radical populist leaders like Chávez in Venezuela, and never dismissing the fact that profligate populism is a dangerous and ineffectual trend, Reid dedicates more pages to the good things that Latin American governments and private groups are doing to spread the benefits of democracy and keep their people home.

The long, comprehensive chapter on Chávez’s Venezuela bears witness to Reid’s unbiased approach to the “third wave ” of populism that sweeps the region. But, unlike many alarmed observers, Reid does not believe that a Venezuelan inspired “sphere of influence” has any chance to prevail in the region.

“The prospect facing Venezuela—he argues—might not be that of turning into a second Cuba but a second Nigeria-a failed petrostate.” Given the inefficiencies and corruption characteristic of populist petrostates, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chavez’s “revolution” implode amidst internecine struggles over cash and privileges.

Reid delivers an equally unbiased valuation of the “reformist response” to radical populism. One of Reid’s conclusions is that clientelistic practices—of swapping votes for favors—no longer hold anything like a monopoly in Latin America’s democratic politics.

I think he’s right and Mexico, archetypal home to political clientelism in Latin America, provides the best example.

After seven decades of tight-fisted control of the electoral authority and now-sophisticated, now-ruthless election-rigging bureaucracy of the same populist party, a landslide of opposition ballots made electoral fraud impossible. In Peru, ballots raised the infamous Alberto Fujimori to power in 1992. Ten years later, ballots (and international pressure) ultimately ousted him after his failed attempt to rig an election in 2000, seeking for a third term.

Reid correctly notes that democracy has not been imposed in Latin America by any conquering army. And insists on the resilience of Latin American still young democracies.

Over the past quarter of century—he concludes—democratic governments in Latin America have solved several big problems. They have conquered inflation, though the battle was long and costly. They have ended the self-imposed isolation of the region. In most places they have cut the armed forces down to size and trained them in a new democratic role. And they have started to tackle the region’s historical legacy of extreme inequality, widespread poverty, chaotic urbanization and educational neglect.

It is not difficult to agree with the ever sanguine Reid that the tasks ahead might be less onerous. But they are clearly more complex, one reason being that extreme poverty afflicts 205 million Latin Americans.

Though few of them are intellectuals, they still are 205 million pessimists all the same.


Letter to General Flores, dated in Barranquilla (Colombia), 25 November 1830.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.