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South America Comes Out On Top

By Michael Shifter
The Washington Post, November 7, 2010

How the South Will Take the North Through the 21st Century

By Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Bloomsbury. 472 pp. $30

Reviewed by Michael Shifter

Will this be Latin America's century? Will the region's recent economic and social progress make it a power to be seriously reckoned with on the global stage? Oscar Guardiola-Rivera certainly thinks so. His notably upbeat outlook is in line with a recent report in the Economist, "Nobody's Backyard: The Rise of Latin America"; on the magazine's cover, maps of North and South America are inverted.

Guardiola-Rivera, a Colombian who teaches international law and globalization at the University of London, also echoes Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, best known for "Open Veins of Latin America." (Originally published in 1971, that is the book Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez gave to Barack Obama at a hemispheric summit meeting last year.) Guardiola-Rivera's "What if Latin America Ruled the World?" is as broad in its historic sweep as Galeano's classic. Both explore centuries of European and U.S. exploitation of Latin America, the plundering of a resource-rich continent.

But Guardiola-Rivera does not share Galeano's fatalism. On the contrary, for him, "the peoples of the South have risen up and now stand together." To buttress the argument, he does his best to highlight the unique virtues of Latin America's indigenous communities and social movements that have, he believes, enabled the region to "resist some of the most extreme consequences of the globalist and unfettered market policies that have wreaked havoc elsewhere in the developed world."

The problem is that Latin America successfully weathered the recent financial crisis not for the reasons Guardiola-Rivera cites - by repudiating the recipes of the "neoliberal" model, Washington consensus and other economic orthodoxies. Instead, the region performed far better than expected precisely because it adhered to such tenets of fiscal discipline and sound economic management. Ironically, the United States, which failed to apply its own prescriptions, paid the heaviest cost.

Brazil stands out for its remarkable economic and political advances and striking ascent in regional and global affairs. But the country's success cannot be attributed to an experiment in embracing the values of community living as practiced by many indigenous groups. Instead, it is a product of quintessentially capitalist development under the effective social policies started by the neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso. That development accelerated, paradoxically, under the presidency of Latin America's leading leftist figure, Luis Incio "Lula" da Silva, who will leave office Jan. 1 with record high support.

The book also includes Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, Evo Morales's Bolivia and Rafael Correa's Ecuador among the vanguard of Latin America's growing strength and global projection. True, the three regional leaders have put their fingers on legitimate social grievances, and are symptomatic of the failure of a traditional political order and the search for different models of governance and economic development. But the results have not been encouraging and can easily puncture Guardiola-Rivera's sometimes expansive, romantic depictions. Chavez's rhetoric is seductive, but his record is not one that anybody would be eager to emulate. After more than a decade with him in office, Venezuela is more dependent on oil exports (particularly to the United States) than under any of his predecessors. Correa is having severe political difficulties with Ecuador's indigenous movement, notably with regard to environmental controversies. And Morales is facing splits and growing dissent within his political party. Disillusionment with Chavez's "Socialism of the 21st Century" in these societies has set in.

But Guardiola-Rivera seems confident that the recent proliferation of regional groups will yield greater integration and solidarity. He is particularly exuberant about the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which got off the ground in February in Cancun, Mexico. But these groups belie the reality of a Latin America that, far from being politically united, is fragmented, marked by many bilateral strains and moving in divergent directions. Regional harmony is a nice aspiration but remains quite elusive.

Curiously, China, a more plausible contender to rule the world, gets scant attention in the book. Just as Europe and the United States once bought Latin America's commodities, China is now pursuing a similar strategy to fuel its own spectacular development. China has replaced the United States as Brazil's and Chile's main trading partner. Its voracious appetite is another reason that some South American countries were able to get through last year's financial crisis.

The book is also enthusiastic about the Latin Americanization of U.S. society and its political implications for a more positive and humane global agenda. The demographic trend is clear - by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics will be 29 percent of the population. But Latinos are highly differentiated, and their attitudes on economic, social and foreign policy questions are far from uniform. It is risky to draw political conclusions from observations about the Latino population's cultural richness and vibrancy.

Latin America is changing rapidly, in uncertain and often contradictory ways. Many countries are gaining economic ground and becoming more influential global actors. They are no longer on the losing side of history, as Galeano wrote four decades ago. But if they manage to rule the world, it may not be a world that Guardiola-Rivera or Galeano would cheer about. It will not be utopia, but a world as we know it today - with Latin America acting like other countries that made it to the top.