Lessons from Latin America: Review of Which Way Latin America?

Review: Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization
Edited by Andrew F. Cooper and Jorge Heine

By Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

This is a wide-ranging, systematically organised, and highly informative collection on a continent that stands on the threshold of a new era. From the end of the Second World War until the end of the Cold War, the people of Latin America were repeatedly the victims of brutal U.S.-backed, and often U.S.-created, military dictatorships. In the 1980s and 1990s, many of their economies were wrecked by the prescriptions of the international financial institutions and rapacious foreign commercial banks. Millions of Latin Americans also face the destruction of their agricultural livelihoods, as domestic markets collapse in face of hugely-subsidised U.S. exports; their only alternative has been to grow coca leaf for sale to drug mafias and export to the North American market.

In response, in what one contributor calls a democratic backlash, the voters of Latin America have, in the last decade or so, elected several governments of the centre-left or left, most of which are led by charismatic and capable figures such as Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and Bolivia's Evo Morales. They have all had a significant impact. Lula has given Brazil's poor a new hope with his ‘Zero Hunger' and other programmes; Morales has successfully proposed a U.N. resolution that makes access to clean water a human right; and Chávez has, in effect, used Venezuela's oil revenues to aid other Latin American states. Several states have also taken radical initiatives on the flourishing trade in illegal drugs.


Some have replaced punitive sentences with harm-reduction policies; Mexico has reopened the legalisation debate. In addition, the Obama administration has reactivated U.S. engagement with Latin America, including positive new initiatives towards Cuba. As the co-editors' papers show, India and China are expanding their relations with the continent in unprecedented ways, with China's involvement being greater than India's so far. Today, therefore, the “disintegration” of the neoconservative worldview means that Latin America's prospects are more open than they have been for decades. Formidable problems still obtain. These include severe structural poverty and inequality, and the entrenched interests bitterly hostile even to mild social democracy — they have repeatedly attempted what one contributor calls “coups under the table.” Furthermore, the U.S. security establishment is bewildered and angered by the rapid loss of its dominance over the Organisation of American States (OAS); partly following Chávez's example, its member states have greatly diversified their relations with the rest of the world. The U.S., however, still accounts for the overwhelming bulk of Latin America's foreign trade and has not stopped trying to bully the OAS.


Inevitably, Latin America's own multilateral bodies face new questions. The Commonwealth Caribbean, already very familiar with globalisation, needs to relocate itself politically in relation to the other states in the Caribbean Basin. The OAS, for its part, has built up a strong record of intervention to protect democracy in member states and can start moving from its club-like outlook towards an articulated form of networked multilateralism. The volume concludes with four country studies, including one on Haiti, which is all the more sobering as it was written before the catastrophic earthquake of January 2010. Most of the contributors distance themselves from a realist epistemology, though several are surprisingly nervous about Chávez. One of them even seems to think democracy and free-market capitalism have to go together. As a whole, however, it is accessibly written throughout and contains excellent political and economic detail. It will be a valuable guide for academics, research students, and journalists as well as the increasing number of Indian public and private bodies, which have dealings with Latin America. Above all, it contributes to the ways in which the world can learn from that continent.

The review appears in the August 31, 2010 online edition of The Hindu, one of India's largest daily newspapers. Available at: http://www.hindu.com/br/2010/08/31/stories/2010083151791700.htm.

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is Senior Deputy Editor for The Hindu and Adjunct Professor at the Asian College of Journalism.

This review was also translated to Spanish and published September 7, 2010 in El Correo de la Defensa, compiled by the Defense Committee of the Chamber of Deputies of the Argentine Parliament.