The Life and Times of Raúl Prebisch, 1901–1986

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The Life and Times of Raúl Prebisch, 1901–1986
By Edgar J. Dosman
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008
624 pp. $49.95
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A towering figure in twentieth-century international economics, Raúl Prebisch was a powerful theorist, world-class institution builder, and charismatic orator. He drove forward such transformative ideas as import-substitution industrialization, unequal terms of trade, and the 1970s rallying cry "the new international economic order." Exiled from his ungrateful Argentina, Prebisch became a lifelong leader of large UN agencies, launching the influential Latin American Economic Secretariat in Santiago, Chile, and the UN Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva. In this exhaustively researched, authoritative treatment, Dosman, a Canadian political scientist, finds Prebisch to be a sensible, centrist economist, opposing excessive industrial protectionism and seeking an effective balance between the state and the market. Similarly, in the raging North-South diplomatic debates, Prebisch was somewhere in the middle, searching for compromises based on mutual interests and frustrated by Latin America's perennial incapacity to implement effective economic integration. Prebisch (more, it seems, than Dosman) admired the United States, even as he resisted its heavy-handedness, and fervently criticized Latin American economic elites and political populists for blocking badly needed internal reforms; Argentine President Juan Perón brutally destroyed Prebisch's first great achievement, an independent Argentine central bank. Ultimately, Prebisch emerges as something of a tragic figure, unable to persuade his fellow Argentines or the international community to abandon their vanities and passions in favor of more rational governance. In dark and intimate interviews, Prebisch's two wives and other close associates insinuate that there were personal moral lapses. Overall, Dosman has given us a large, important book that not only immortalizes a great man but also starkly illuminates the repetitive patterns of inter-American relations.