[Diana Raby, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool, reviews The Battle for Latin America’s Soul by Michael Reid. Reid is the Latin America editor at the Economist. Click here to read the first chapter of Diana Raby's book Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today.]
Book Review - Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul by Michael Reid
By Diana Raby
Reid, a journalist for The Economist,
with extensive experience of Latin America, has produced an ambitious,
well-crafted but flawed study. He writes well and musters an impressive
range of sources, and is passionate about the region. But the cause to
which he devotes his massive knowledge and impressive analytical skills
is mind-numbingly prosaic: his aim is to save Latin America’s “soul”
for free trade, neoliberalism and global capitalism.
The book might well be sub-titled “an anti-Chávez manifesto”, for the Venezuelan leader and those allied with his regional ALBA project are the main targets of Reid’s critique. The issue in Latin America, for Reid, is between the “populist autocracy” of Chávez and his ilk, and the “democratic reformism” of Chile, Brazil and Mexico (p. xiv). The great success story, in the author’s view, is Chile, and while recognising that its neoliberal growth began with brutal repression under Pinochet, he lavishes praise on the democratic governments of the “Concertación” which have maintained the same economic policies.
In chapters 2-4 Reid provides a well-documented summary of the region’s economic and political history since colonial times. He engages effectively with those who attribute Latin American backwardness to the Iberian Catholic heritage, recognising that this may have contributed to such tendencies as clientelism, personalism and bureaucracy, but pointing out that this cannot explain the dramatic recent progress of Spain itself. He makes the standard liberal criticisms of dependency theory, and analyses with some justice the failings of import substitution industrialisation (ISI). He recognises the heavy-handedness of US interventionism since the nineteenth century, yet argues implausibly that national security doctrines (the rationale of the military regimes of the 1970s and ‘80s) were “home-grown products rather than American imports” (p. 116). And when it comes to the Cuban revolution, he gives a highly tendentious interpretation which whitewashes Washington’s role and minimises the revolution’s achievements.
But the heart of Reid’s analysis is the thesis, argued repeatedly and forcefully, that liberal reformism and free trade are the key to solving the region’s problems, and have finally begun to triumph in the last two decades. To maintain this thesis despite the apparent dramatic failures of neoliberalism, he has to resort to ad-hoc explanations and special pleading. Argentina’s successive crises were due to specific errors such as currency convertibility, the Mexican debacle of the mid-90s was due to corruption and governmental weakness, Ecuador’s repeated catastrophes resulted from “poor management” and inadequate reforms, Bolivia’s slide into crisis after an initially successful stabilisation was caused by external factors, and so on: anything other than the imbalances and inequalities produced by neoliberalism as such, the one thing that all these countries had in common.
It would be unfair to brand Reid as a mere reactionary: he insists on the need for some measure of social justice - “...if capitalism is to thrive it needs to be underpinned by an effective state and social policies, which have to be paid for with an adequate level of tax revenues” (p. 313). The problem is that the free-trade, privatisation, multinational-dominated agenda he advocates systematically prevents Latin American states from pursuing such policies. Furthermore, he accuses “rich-world leftists” of condescension in supporting Castro and Chávez while themselves enjoying the fruits of liberal capitalism, but fails to see that his own assumptions (that Latin Americans want the same capitalist solutions as Europeans or North Americans) are also thoroughly condescending.
Disappointingly also, for such a well-informed and meticulous writer, Reid’s account of Venezuela reproduces some of the standard errors and slanders of anti-chavista journalism: that Chávez ordered the repression of opposition demonstrators on 11 April 2002, that poverty rose under Chávez (only true for the period of unrest caused by the opposition coup and strike from 2002 to 2004), that Chávez said he was “a communist” when advocating 21st-century socialism, etc. A similar bias afflicts Reid’s account of contemporary Bolivia, whose President Evo Morales is patronisingly dismissed as “a cocagrowers’ leader and socialist with a pudding-basin haircut and a stripy jumper” (pp 1-2). And he is extraordinarily generous with regard to the Colombian government, making light of its responsibility for military and paramilitary repression; for Reid, Colombia’s main problems are the FARC insurgency and the fact that “the democratic state still struggles to impose the rule of law across the whole of the national territory” (p 272), when many would say that what the Colombian state is striving to impose is not the rule of law but the arbitrary control of a corrupt oligarchy.
Reid is at times eloquent, even passionate, about Latin America. Much of his analysis is thoughtful and perceptive, but it is ruined by his glib assumption that liberal capitalism is “the only game in town” and his refusal to take seriously the emergence of a radical alternative in the ALBA group of countries.
Michael Reid, Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. xv + 384. £19.99 hard cover.
This review was written for the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, where it will be appearing later this year. It is published in Red Pepper's Venezuela blog with the permission of the author.