Forgotten superpower


Michael Reid’s Forgotten Continent is an eloquent examination of Latin America’s fragile democracies, but lets Washington off the hook when it comes to explaining what went wrong


Forgotten Continent:
The Battle for Latin America’s Soul

Michael Reid
2007, Yale University Press
384 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN A RECENT article in the Guardian, the newspaper with the most liberal facade among the British press, Stephen Kinzer argued that the big winner of US engagement in the Middle East was Latin America.

With Washington consumed by the Iraq conflict, it has no time, energy or political capital to confront challenges south of the Rio Grande, allowing Latin American states to embark on experiments that the US would once have tried to crush. Down south, the dominoes have been toppling to the left, but the giant has been looking the other way.

Kinzer’s point is well made, not least because this former New York Times correspondent gave us Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, a controversial survey of US adventures overseas, and because his article was published in the organ Michael Reid, author of Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, himself contributed to until the eve of the Chiapas rebellion. It highlights both the longstanding dilemma facing Washington when it comes to exercising its self-appointed tutelary role in Latin America as it tries vainly to police other, more distant regions; but also Latin America’s traditional importance as the source of the most pressing nationalist challenges to the State Department, despite the latter’s depressing short-term memory. As Reid’s book reminds us, Latin America is home to half a billion people, the world’s largest reserves of arable land and 8.5 per cent of global oil. The US, and the West in general, ignores it at its peril.

Kinzer’s observations about Iraq are also relevant for other reasons, perhaps less germane to Reid’s book but nonetheless important for highlighting those dimensions of the unhappy relationship between weak states and superpowers that so often remain overlooked. Many of the lessons about counter-insurgency and the difficulty of trying to substitute an insurgent nationalism with an ideological import that are now being revisited by the US in Iraq were first learned in Latin America, as were some of the harsher lessons about the failure of the policies that had made them necessary. Decapitation, for example, was practised by Sandino in Nicaragua long before the term “Islamist” entered the monolingual glossary of our forgetful and obliging media.

Forgotten Continent is an effort to make a case – both heartfelt and eloquent – for democratic capitalism in a stable and dynamic Latin America and against the crude, anti-American nationalism of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The author traces a battle for Latin America’s “soul” – in which competing visions of the future are slugging it out in a globalised economy – through a comprehensive and stylish survey of the evolution of democracy in the region.

Reid’s motives are pure and his ability to convey complex themes in an accessible way unmatched. Yet his narrative is ultimately disappointing, not least because the author is far too kind on Washington – currently distracted, as Kinzer points out, by its ambition to redraw the map of the Middle East, but showing signs of aggressive impatience with Venezuela and Latin America’s leftwing resurgence more generally – while being far too hard on populism, which is depicted as an errant lifestyle and not the outcome of democratic failures. Reid compounds this by hailing a link between free markets and democracy that remains, quite simply, debatable.


As an attempt to scratch beneath the simplistic surface of our understanding of Latin America to reveal a much more complex reality – Reid’s central motive – Forgotten Continent seems, unwittingly or otherwise, to play down the contribution of the US in the construction of that reality. While recording the most significant US interventions in the region, almost unconsciously he leaves the reader with the sense that he seeks to absolve Washington of any meaningful responsibility for Latin America’s condition; to shift the burden of that responsibility for the region’s many ills firmly on to the shoulders of its long-suffering peoples; and to tread a careful diplomatic path that soft-pedals on US interference as if this were part of a natural order of things, and hence to engage, and not enrage, his US audience. Indeed, we might go so far as to say the US is the “forgotten superpower” in this narrative, and its unremitting interventions are largely absent from the very reasonable panoply of factors Reid otherwise cites for Latin America’s failures.

In his journey, Reid constantly evokes some of the usual suspects, while pointing his barrel at some other, unlikely ones: the deeply conservative Octavio Paz is cited for his observations about the place of the fiesta in Latin American life, while the leftwing Eduardo Galeano is attacked as a propagandist and magical realism is accused of burnishing the mythology of dependency theory. Gabriel García Márquez, for example, is accused of exaggerating the death toll of a massacre of strikers in Colombia by government forces to protect American banana plantations in 1928. Reid writes: “Historians estimate that no more than 75 people were killed… Of course, the massacre was reprehensible, as was much else in the record of the United Fruit Company elsewhere in Latin America. But by exaggerating its scale, García Márquez distorted its historical import.” [p.38] In fact, by far the most comprehensive history of the United Fruit Company in Latin America, Peter Chapman’s Jungle Capitalists, notes that the US embassy itself reported in a despatch in mid-January 1929 that the number of strikers killed exceeded 1,000: a headcount that came from no other source than the United Fruit Company.

Reid’s survey of the US role in Latin America during the Cold War begins well, pointing clearly that in Guatemala, the US crushed democracy not communism when it toppled Arbenz, but he again then fails to explore in anything like sufficient detail unavoidable subsequent themes, such as later US aid to the Guatemalan army as it was unleashing genocide against the Mayan Indians. The positions he takes on some of the central questions of Cold War history also lay bare the way he interprets events firmly according to his narrative: he suggests that Castro had already decided that the Cuban revolution should lead to the establishment of socialism by 1958 and that – despite a full-blown strategy by the CIA of sabotage and destabilisation, Cuba was not pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union by the US trade embargo but made the decision of its own volition. Both of these issues have exercised academics for generations and remain open to debate: Castro, it must be remembered, did not declare Cuba a socialist state until May 1961.

The Mitrokhin Archive

As if to qualify US behaviour, Reid implies that the Soviet Union was intervening almost to an equal extent in Latin America, but offers as evidence for this the Mitrokhin Archive, whose contents cannot be independently verified. Based on this source, the KGB is given a role in Chile’s 1970 electoral drama – that would ultimately result in the coup against Salvador Allende – as compelling as that of the CIA. Yet there are real questions about this archive, which contained no original KGB documents or copies of original documents, not least about the highly controlled manner of its publication. As Jack Straw himself said about it when Britain’s interior minister: “Allegations, or even good intelligence, are not proof of criminal activity.” Apparently, the sky falls in on anyone who dares question its claims.

The (invariably illegal) role played by the US in the savage Central American civil wars is signed off as “…American pressure [that] helped in the end to democratise Central America…” US covert activities in contemporary Cuba and the equally valid claim that Havana has, under international law, against Washington for restitution after 46 years of the embargo are ignored; and Cuba under Raúl Castro is portrayed merely as a recalcitrant Caribbean backwater facing tough choices, and not the forcibly starved neighbour of a superpower bent not only on regime change but on the destruction of the state itself.

Reid’s position is most transparent when dealing with the president of Venezuela, a man who engenders powerful emotions, not least within the US. Hugo Chávez is depicted, in essence, as unhinged – but calculating, gifted with a natural ability to communicate… and lucky. Reid writes: “Whatever the defects of the prior regime in Venezuela – and there were many – Chávez’s rule is less democratic, open and pluralist…” There is no investigation of the alleged relationship between supporters of Pedro Carmona – the business leader who proclaimed himself president following the coup against Chávez in April 2002 – and the US government, merely more absolution for Washington as a clumsy outsider who failed to condemn the coup. That the US has been trying to meddle in Venezuelan affairs by reportedly pumping millions of dollars into the Venezuelan opposition is ignored. Oil is described only as Venezuela’s blessing and curse – not the raw meat of geopolitics attracting powerful predators and determining the country’s place in a hierarchy shaped outside its borders. There is no effort to fit Venezuela into the global supply chain dominated so skilfully for so long by the US state and Big Oil, the US oil majors. Indeed, Reid’s description of Chávez as “arrogant, prickly and paranoid”, had it been applied to a state, not a person, might just call to mind the US.

In neighbouring Colombia, by contrast, Reid depicts Álvaro Uribe as a level-headed legalist dedicated solely to bolstering democracy in a country once perilously close to collapse. While the author does refer to links between the military, some government officials and paramilitaries, he does not explore the breathtaking impunity that the latter enjoyed until well into Uribe’s assault on FARC, or Washington’s financial and material support for his militarisation of the country. Alleged links between US corporations and paramilitaries that Uribe’s government have reportedly tried to suppress go unmentioned. Reid discusses allegations of paramilitary links with legislators by saying merely that these “… seemed to echo the claim made by some of Uribe’s critics on the left that the president was himself in league with the paramilitaries. There was no evidence of any personal link. However, he was sometimes guilty of poor judgment in his choice of friends and collaborators.” [p. 263] And yet, while the author confines himself to suggesting that criticism of Uribe is confined to the left, he also makes reference to the snowballing unease about Uribe’s government among Democrats in the US Congress as they set to discussing a free-trade agreement being aggressively promoted by the White House.

While Reid does address the US-Latin American relationship in more detail in his final chapter, this is largely in the context of a discussion on globalisation in which complaints directed at the North are treated as the gripes of a resentful region. Although it is fair to say that Latin Americans have a complex view of the US that incorporates both anger and admiration, to dismiss Washington’s attitude towards its southern neighbours as “a certain arrogance” must surely be something of an understatement. The Bush government’s policy towards the region is described merely as pragmatic, and Reid makes reference to Thomas Shannon, the senior State Department official for Latin America, insisting that he would work with leftwing leaders in the region. Shannon, it must be remembered, was later given the unenviable task by his esteemed employer – alongside that of the so-called “Cuba Transition Co-ordinator” Caleb McCarry – of filling the coffers of a multi-billion dollar “Freedom Fund for Cuba” to speed up the country’s political “transition”. One of the great malapropisms of our era is what President George W. Bush has called his “freedom agenda”.

The lessons Reid draws from history in the closing paragraphs of his book reject any notion of dependence, apply to Latin America alone, and make no effort to lecture the US about how to transform its engagement with the forgotten continent into the constructive partnership based upon mutual respect that the former can still, sadly, only dream of.

Democracy and free markets

In his discussion of democracy, Reid’s makes some promising observations about its troubled relationship with capitalism in Latin America, despite his well-honed instinct to promote the merits of the latter and the demerits of what he attacks spontaneously as populism. So, while reinforcing the mantra of policymakers complacently seated upon the highest perches of the canopy in the global financial jungle that “…democracy and market economies are mutually reinforcing…”, the author boxes clever by adding the inevitable observation that this conceals the great paradox of inequality, fostering “egegiously unequal societies”.

The argument that certain preconditions are necessary for democracy to flourish – and in particular free, open markets – emerged from the assumptions underpinning the framework of modernisation theory in US social science from the 1950s. These assumptions, in turn, departed from the perspective that democratic forms of rule resulted from the processes of political and economic evolution experienced by Western industrial nations, whose systems had emerged triumphant from a devastating world war. In a manner of speaking, modernisation theory was the ideological red carpet rolled out by the Western powers of the late 1940s. From such a perspective came the enduring notion that cultural factors obstruct large swathes of the developing world from achieving the great consumer glories of the developed North – an argument Reid himself dismisses in the context of Latin America. Projected forwards, in Latin America the argument that free markets and democracy may be joined at the hip was given great force by the coexistence of political transitions that buried mainly military regimes with the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s – reforms, it must be said, that Reid’s Economist has done so much to champion. That Latin America had apparently stagnated in the alley of authoritarian statism before its rebirth after 1982 only served to reinforce this posture.

Yet critics of what is in essence more a reflex than an argument need only point to the simultaneous existence of capitalism and authoritarianism – in Latin America and elsewhere – to suffocate at birth any direct, non-anecdotal relationship between democracy and free markets. Such a reflex continues to engender that tendency to blur the causes and conditions of democracy that has coloured so much of the rhetoric used to beat Latin American states into adopting inappropriate economic policies. The capitalist-democratic reflex singularly ignores the fact that the era of most sustained rapid growth in Latin America – the so-called “miracle” in which growth per capita in those countries with an industrial base rose at rates comparable to the growth of modern China – was during that period of economic statism under a nationalist banner in the 1950s and 1960s that the later reformists blamed for every conceivable ill. Indeed, the term “capitalist democracy” was employed throughout the 1980s by US policymakers as they wagged their fingers at their beleaguered southern cousins and told them to tough out reforms championed, unsurprisingly, by autocratic rulers who ignored constitutional norms – the “neo-populists” who adopted political styles akin to their much-maligned predecessors (and, in some cases, successors) and were effusively praised by Washington for doing so. Reid does address the autocrats of this era in his discussion of “delegative democracy” as part of a wider assessment of presidentialism, but does not link the heavy-handed approach taken by leaders such as Alberto Fujimori to their single ambition to transform their countries’ economies, other than by making reference to the Peruvian leader’s aside that he governed according to “technical” rather than “political” criteria. It may be no coincidence that the term “delegative democracy” was established by Guillermo O’Donnell, who had earlier coined the term “bureaucratic authoritarianism”. Although this scholar does not explicitly link delegative democracy with market reform, and sees economic crisis as the more significant criterion in defining this species of democracy, there is no doubt that the countries the phrase has been applied to have shared one thing: their presidents were engaged in processes of neoliberal reform. For Reid to suggest that Venezuela under Chávez is also a form of delegative democracy is, therefore, interesting, because it represents the first time a president pursuing economically nationalist policies has been included in this category but, by implication, puts Chávez into the same hall of fame as those prominent, reforming presidents of the 1990s whose turbulent tenures bequeathed the conditions for Latin America to put down democratic roots.

Reid is forced to argue against the notion that bureaucratic authoritarian regimes sought to impose economically liberal policies, because this does not chime well with the premise that free markets and democracy are natural bedfellows. Yet the similarities of those regimes upon which O’Donnell based his model of bureaucratic authoritarianism included a commitment to restore financial discipline through monetarism – and, implicitly, US support. Nor does the author explore the often negative role played by business elites in weakly democratic countries – from the coup attempt they led in Venezuela, to the separatism they advocate in Bolivia, to the compliance they force upon the mass media across much of the region. Media bias in countries like Brazil is largely dismissed as a problem that originates with Latin American journalists: Reid, perhaps more than anyone, is in a position to know that it doesn’t work like that, and that bias and self-censorship in the mass media is much more about proprietorship, wider commercial interests and relations with government than it is about the editorial failings of individuals.

It is also instructive that Reid examines the reform process whose central tenets became identified as the Washington Consensus in purely economic terms. He does not attempt to explore the political consequences of this process at a time when Latin America was, we are told, emerging politically from a period of authoritarianism into a new democratic era thanks, in part, to that very economic reform process, other than to write: “Another criticism is that the reforms were imposed in a uniform fashion, which took no account of national circumstances, and that they were rammed through undemocratically, A cursory examination shows that these criticisms do not hold up.” [p. 154] Democratic transition was a political process that emerged from within authoritarianism, as regimes that had spent what little political capital they had were forced to bow to the inevitable in a rapidly changing world and, more often than not, in conditions of economic crisis. People power, not purse power, brought democracy to Latin America.

Indeed, the idea that certain preconditions are necessary for the functioning of well-oiled, western-style democratic machinery was rejected long ago by the very scholar out of whose work the notion of “consolidation” that Reid employs evolved, the pioneer of transition theory himself, Dankwart Rustow. While consolidation remains a valuable analytical tool for positioning the condition of a given democracy along a plural-Western, single-party bureaucratic-authoritarian axis, it is still just that, a tool, which remains as blunt as a rusted nail when it comes to dissecting the profound biodiversity that exists within the democratic ecosystem: Cuba calls itself democratic, as did the Peruvian Maoists Sendero Luminoso, as does Chávez. If we can accept that Latin America applied pragmatic and often local solutions to the problems unearthed by the Washington Consensus, another of Reid’s underlying arguments, then we can also accept that Latin America’s sui generis democracy cannot be calibrated by our own, flawed standards.

Reid is a brilliant man with unrivalled first-hand knowledge of Latin America from his many years spent reporting on the ground. Forgotten Continent is clearly written to be an undergraduate-level primer and, as such, is one of the most readable and comprehensive introductions to Latin America available. There is no doubt that it should be high on the reading list of every course convenor in the field of Latin American politics, economics and society. His chapters on the rise and fall of the Washington consensus, flawed democracies and changing societies, in particular, will be of much value both to teachers and students debating this complex theme.

But readers should be aware of what the narrative is – and that it is open to scrutiny. It is entirely reasonable to make a case for a stable, largely social-democratic future in Latin America; it is not reasonable to let the US off the hook so casually and to skirt over the political consequences of economic restructuring. The current terms of US engagement with Latin America – free trade agreements – are an effort to do precisely that: to “lock-in” economic reforms in Latin America without accepting any of the political or social consequences. If we are to advocate a democratic future, then we must accept that it is also reasonable for the parameters of economic policy to be decided democratically.

That said, criticism of a position that Reid has spent many years constructing should be applied with great care only to the extent that this doyen of foreign correspondents has failed to apply his own rigorous standards of analysis, and should not detract from the great contribution this book makes to the broader debate about democracy in Latin America.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books