Sun, Mar 24, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Latin America remains fragile

From Washington's point of view a lot has improved in its ``backyard'' but it's too early to start celebrating

By Jonathan Power

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

US President George W. Bush, the world now realizes, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. World events, everything from the political composition of the US Supreme Court, from terrorism to the US economy seem to have a preordained way of working in his electoral favor. Again it is happening with Latin America. By rights the chickens should be coming home to roost as Bush girds up for his visit to Mexico, Peru and Central America but, in fact, Argentina apart, the tides, both political and economic, appear to be working in his favor. Just the other day the IMF issued a report saying that Latin America was "set for recovery," likely to benefit from lower financing costs, higher commodities and an expected rebound in the US economy, with a projected growth by the end of the year of 4 percent (excluding Argentina).

For the last five years the region has taken something of a battering: commodity prices fell by a quarter and access to external financing was sharply restricted, portfolio flows dried up and capital inflows slowed down.

On the political front there has been severe turbulence in many of the countries that most matter. Argentina entered an almost insuperable crisis of both economics and governance. Peru went through the destabilizing business of driving into exile Alberto Fujimori who had turned an elected victory into a quasi dictatorship. Venezuela voted into power Hugo Chavez, who immediately set about policies that have curtailed democratic rights whilst frightening away investors. And Colombia has appeared to enter a new phase of self-destructiveness to add to a past that is the most violent of any country on the southern continent.

But despite this, from Bush's perspective, it must seem that on balance rather nice progress is being made.

Peru now has a democratically elected president and one set on combating the country's endemic and corroding corruption. In Colombia it looks increasingly likely that a rightist candidate will win the forthcoming election and gear up the army's war against the leftist guerrillas and the drug traffickers in the all-out way the US wants. Even in Venezuela it appear as if Chavez is no longer quite so firmly in the saddle and this vigorous critic of the US may find he is out on his ear at the next election.

Moreover, despite recurrent crises, Latin America's turn to democracy in the late 1970s has managed for the most part to sustain itself. Before 1975 military dictatorships ran every country apart from Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. Today, when there has been no successful military coup since the early 1980s, when the ex-president of Chile Augusto Pinochet spends most of his time housebound and disgraced, when Argentina and Uruguay have imprisoned their old military dictators and Mexico has finally overthrown the straitjacket of its corrupted one-party rule, the political atmosphere could not be more different than 20 years ago.

To add to the positive list there are the accomplishments, limited and insufficient but still very important, for following the "Washington consensus" during the 1990s, the rulebook of the then orthodoxy of the IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury that argued that these economies would never progress unless they liberalized and opened themselves up to the forces of globalization. The inflation prevalent in the late 1980s and early 1990s when prices were increasing at several thousand percent a year has now been squashed, an outcome which benefits poorer people more than any other group. Privatization has also got rid of some of the price gouging of the old monopolies, bringing in better service in areas such as power delivery and telecommunications. Not least, some countries, Mexico and Chile in particular, have at last made real progress in developing an alert manufacturing export sector.

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