The Latin American Waltz
From cross-border invasions to energy shortages, how is Latin America a study in contrasts?
March 17, 2008
One of the first iconographic representations of the New World can be found in Spain’s great Museo del Prado. It is a tree painted 500 years ago by Hieronymus Bosch.
This tree, which for the painter evoked the lands discovered by Columbus, appears in Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in the panel representing Paradise.
From the time of their discovery, the Americas were identified by Europeans with Paradise on Earth. Therefore, in the Western imagination the new continent was depicted as a utopia where everything was marvelously possible.
The search for utopia is a constant theme in the history of the Americas. The results of this search, however, have never measured up to expectations. The golden age evolved into the age of steel, and its eternal spring turned into a long season in hell.
We can summarize the failure to find utopia in the Latin American landscape by reviewing the continent’s urban history, a frustrated tale of the discovery of promised lands and resplendent cities.
For example, the Brazilian cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, whose names are full of promise and optimism, have turned into immense tentacular orbs. They affirm how impossible utopias are to realize — becoming deviant paradises transformed into hells, such as Acapulco, which Carlos Fuentes rechristened “Kafkapulco.”
One can find many other examples of impossible utopias and monstrous deviations in the search for a better world that quickly changed the course of the search for paradise into a temporal endeavor rather than a spatial one.
The continent’s history developed as a series of frustrated, aborted, failed, or continually renewed attempts to reach a better tomorrow.
The search for utopia has also pervaded the history of Latin America’s political economy. Since its independence, one of Latin America’s core dependencies has been its belief in miracles.
Miracles forged by the Marxist or free-market magicians, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, on the basis of a few grand theories and paradigms.
In the 20th century — led by the Marx Brothers and the Chicago Boys, all of whom proclaimed great principles and offered to sacrifice the social realities of their countries to their monetary gods.
The entire region was captivated by magical realism. It blindly supported ready-made solutions — sometimes in a violent form — that were unleashed on society and projected onto reality itself and which after a short time were exchanged for more alluring alternatives.
From structuralism to monetarism, and from Marxism to free-market neo-liberalism, the entire continent danced an endless waltz of paradigms, changing step in time to the topics, lessons and the consensus from the north.
In the early 1990s, the Washington Consensus — enumerating the ten commandments of economic reform necessary to conquer underdevelopment — was ultimately just another variation on that endless waltz.
As with other transplanted theories, this one did not take root. And like many others, it was painfully rejected by a continent that had been continually wounded and scarred by macroeconomic surgical interventions.
But over the course of the last two decades, a great transformation seems to be emerging in Latin America, more subtle and fragile than a simple shift of paradigms.
The region’s economies have propelled one of the most remarkable reform processes of their history, in tandem with a generalized movement toward democracy. Although incomplete and imperfect, this synchronized dual movement of economic reforms and a transition to democracy is very encouraging.
The reform policies enacted reflect a more pragmatic approach, a political economy of the possible. The history of Latin America seems to have split at some point near the end of the 20th century. It is true that search for utopia still endures.
The governments of many countries in the region continue to talk about magical formulas and lyric exaltations. These chimeras turn into yet more tragic realisms and painful falls, as the recent experiences of several nations, flattened by unprecedented recessions, show.
The shortcuts they insist on taking in order to avoid the long and winding path of gradual reform only lead these countries into more dead ends.
But other nations, like Chile under Lagos or Brazil under Lula, strive not to invent a third way but simply to forge their own path of pragmatic political economy that combines neo-classical orthodoxies with progressive social policies.
In these Latin American countries, economic reformers are not afraid of straying from the mold of economic paradigms.
Their economic ministers and the governors of their central banks have adopted a pragmatic spirit, in contrast to their predecessors.
These economic policies are intended to offer hope to a continent tired of therapies consisting of shocks and counter-shocks, of structural adjustments and misadjustments.
At the beginning of this century, the trajectories of Chile, Brazil, and Mexico outline the profile of a great, unheralded transformation — the silent emergence of the political economy of the possible.
Like many other world events announced with bombast in the newspapers, it may be that this advent is only temporary, and that all the fanfare will be in vain.
The Chilean experience suggests, however, that this transformation may endure. The history of Latin America is, like a toss of the dice, unpredictable and open to possibilities.
Editor’s Note: Copyright 2007 MIT Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher.
This is the first excerpt of a two-part series. Read Part II here.
The history of Latin America seems to have split at some point near the end of the 20th century.
The search for utopia still endures. The governments of many countries in the region continue to talk about magical formulas and lyric exaltations.
The Washington Consensus was painfully rejected by the continent that had been continually wounded and scarred by macroeconomic surgical interventions.
Since its independence, one of Latin America's core dependencies has been its belief in miracles.
The shortcuts taken in order to avoid the long and winding path of gradual reform only lead these countries into more dead ends.
Director, Telefónica International and Professor of Economics, ESADE Business School. Javier Santiso is Director, Telefónica International and Professor of Economics, ESADE Business School. He is also the Chair of the OECD Emerging Markets Network (EmNet), which he created while at the OECD. Previously, he was the Director of the OECD Development Centre and as the […]