For our centennial issue, our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.
Latin America’s last hundred years were ones of fitful economic gains, brutal dictatorships and tentative democracies, and complicated relations with the ascendant global superpower next door, the United States. Three books captured these and other trends that helped shape the region’s economic, political, and social trajectories.
For decades, dependency theory dominated Latin American economics, explaining the region’s struggles largely as results of its subordinate position in the global economy and the inherent limits of foreign capital for generating broad-based and inclusive growth. Because of its sweeping theoretical framework and the success of at least one of its authors—Cardoso later became president of Brazil—Dependency and Development in Latin America is a model of the genre. Governments put the authors’ views into practice through import-substitution industrialization, combining high import tariffs, quotas, and other protections with subsidies to boost domestic manufacturing. These measures spurred strong growth rates for a time, but the costs to public coffers and consumers alike precipitated a region-wide debt crisis and a lost economic decade in the 1980s. In the years that followed, many Latin American countries more fully embraced the market-oriented economic recommendations known as the Washington Consensus than did other developing regions.
In 1978, aside from the English-speaking Caribbean, only three Latin American countries were democratic. A mix of authoritarian civilian and military regimes held sway. Nunca Más, the report of a truth commission set up by newly elected President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 as Argentina returned to democracy, chronicled the individual horrors and the systematic violation of human rights during one period of military rule between 1976 and 1983. Based on thousands of interviews and exhaustive research, this almost unbearable read became a surprise bestseller and a model for other truth commissions as countries emerged from repressive rule. Its devastating clarity bolstered support for democracy in Argentina and throughout the region that remains strong, if somewhat diminished, today.
According to public opinion polls, most Latin Americans have a positive view of the United States and its people. Still, justified outrage over the country’s actions in the past have left many people suspicious of its intentions in the region in the present. No book better depicted the rationale and raw emotion behind this distrust than Galeano’s famous account, which chronicled centuries of exploitation by outsiders, from European conquistadors to U.S. multinational corporations. This memory of Latin America’s victimhood remains politically salient and expedient; in 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador demanded that Spain apologize for its conquests and the atrocities committed by the conquistadors.
Few authors have written about the region as a whole in recent years, nor have many laid out a vision for its future. In part, the paucity of works reflects a recognition of the region’s great variety across dozens of countries; after all, few books have been written about Asia writ large, either. But this deficit also suggests a Latin America on the margins of today’s global trends. Economic growth in the region has been too tepid to draw the serious investment by global companies. The lack of widespread terrorism and war has, in good ways, consigned it to the geopolitical sidelines. Meanwhile, governments in the region have turned inward to focus on their own political struggles and their failures to meet voters’ demands for better public services, increased economic opportunities, and reduced corruption.
By delving into Latin America’s intellectual history, Krauze illuminates the old ideas that continue to drive debates. Varied strains of anti-Americanism still pervade diplomatic relations and often stymie bilateral initiatives. Aspiring politicians on the left and the right today emulate the tactics of leaders such as Eva Perón, who served as Argentina’s first lady from 1946 to 1952, and Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president from 2002 to 2013, who railed against elites and sought to channel the so-called popular will without the interference of pesky democratic checks and balances. A century ago, the Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui argued for the rights of indigenous peoples, foreshadowing the identity politics now taking root. These theories, philosophies, and approaches remain alive and vital to understanding the region today.
Reid, a longtime Latin America reporter and editor for The Economist, wrote the best current history of the region. In his 2008 classic, he did not gloss over the region’s problems, but he also told a quieter story of falling poverty rates, slightly narrowing inequalities, expanding social services, and hard-fought democratic advances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated health, education, and economic structures, threatening decades of gains in Latin America. Violence, corruption, and poor infrastructure and public services hold back economic opportunities and prosperity. The region has done little to prepare for the industrial and labor transformations that automation and technology will swiftly bring.
Still, Latin America can play a vital role in the global fight against climate change. It is home to many of the world’s largest reserves of minerals essential for green technologies. And many of its countries have begun their own transition away from fossil fuels from an enviable base of already productive renewable energies. The region is well placed to take advantage of the once-in-a-generation unmooring of global supply chains now underway, with so many of its countries already free trade partners and democratic allies of the United States. Yet its political leaders, companies, workers, activists, and voters will need to grab the opportunities before other regions do to ensure that Latin America does not flatline while other parts of the world rise. As Reid notes in his 2017 revised edition, Latin America has surmounted considerable challenges in the past. And although democratic governance requires that reforms be incremental, Latin America’s history shows such efforts can bring real, lasting, and positive change.