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Andean Ascent

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
February 10, 2012
Financial Times


Washington's huffy, incredulous attitude towards the rise of the populist left in Latin America could be reduced to an urban teen's text message lexicon: SMH, or Shake My Head. Or as the longer version might read, how can a region that the US has showered with all the formulas for prosperity and security now suddenly have no use for our counsel?

In 2004, Hal Weitzman, currently a Chicago-based reporter for this newspaper, moved to Lima to cover the Andean region. That gave him a ground-level view of the political, social, cultural and economic stories then rewriting the rules in Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The result is the rollicking but ultimately serious Latin Lessons.

Weitzman's richly detailed storytelling explains why Washington's policies towards the Andes became such politically useful mobilising tools for new left-populist leaders in the first decade of this century. He doesn't credit the US with the emergence of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, or Rafael Correa in Ecuador: "The radical Left came to power because of a range of Latin American problems – poverty and inequality, corruption and lack of governance, racism and marginalisation." But he does argue that, in this context, Washington's market orthodoxy and the aggressive coca eradication that accompanied the "war on drugs" offered the perfect foil.

Weitzman's years on the ground – 2004-2007 – coincided with a global commodities boom. In the Andes, oil, gas, lithium and an array of minerals brought significant revenues for domestic spending. Yet electoral franchise and social protest – both of which the US promoted – held the region's heads of state, more than any time before, accountable to their own citizens. Mollifying Washington became less of a priority.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Weitzman's book is his willingness to challenge the viability of the economic policies often referred to collectively as the "Washington Consensus". In his view, the biggest problem with the belief that free trade and privatisation would set the region on a path of prosperity was the "fallacy of equating economic growth with contentment". Latin America lacked two elements essential to sustain a functioning and modestly fair market economy: well-developed institutions to regulate the market; and a system and culture of taxation enabling the state to finance everything from infrastructure to social programmes.

With capitalism in crisis in the industrialised west, Weitzman's take is timely even if he shies away from the evidence that the region has prospered precisely because, with a handful of exceptions, the left, centre and right largely embrace macroeconomic and fiscal fundamentals.

The conclusion of this otherwise joyfully written, well-researched book is the least satisfying part. The author takes a detour into policy – a forced coda that sounds too much like an editor-imposed treatise from, well, the Council on Foreign Relations. As Weitzman writes, Latin America has by now diversified its trade, investment, diplomatic and commercial portfolios. He celebrates this newfound independence and correctly points out that the region's remarkable economic growth represents a largely missed opportunity for the US. But he then pushes further, arguing that Washington's ability to adjust to a new multipolar world order should be judged by whether it can rebuild its ties with Latin America.

Maybe not. Even without progress in this area, the US is awkwardly adapting to its new international environment. And viewed from the other side, history shows Latin America fares better when it can duck Washington's efforts to test-drive new foreign policy ideas. May the future likewise draw from this essential Latin lesson.

Julia Sweig is the director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of 'Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century' (PublicAffairs).

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.

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