- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

The past 50 years of living dangerously in Latin America have left the region ideologically shell-shocked. Conflicting political beliefs have led to devastating strife to the point where ideas themselves are regarded as hazardous. This, of course, is hardly the best environment for political and economic innovation.

In "Latin America at the End of Politics," Forrest Colburn illustrates just how bankrupt the region is of new ideas and how vainly Latin Americans conform to the status quo. This aversion to change and progress, the author says, is problematic, because liberalism which Mr. Colburn defines as the combination of democratic and free-market reform has failed to catapult the region into the coveted ranks of the developed world. "The considerable promises of democracy have yet to be fulfilled in Latin America," Mr. Colburn writes. A second generation of reform is sorely needed, but visionaries aren't enlisting.

Latin Americans' reform fatigue is due in part to the global failure of communism, says the author. This model has been so roundly delegitimized that its political antithesis, liberalism, has become the unquestioned victor. And while liberalism has brought the region many dividends, including bolstering rates of economic growth, it has failed to better substantively the lot of the region's poorest or close the inequality gap, Mr. Colburn correctly states. "An impoverished peasant in the northeast of Brazil does not console himself by reflecting on the disasters of the collectivization of agriculture in Cambodia; a poor unemployed woman in Mexico City does not pause to think of the shortcomings of state enterprises in Poland," says Mr. Colburn so poignantly.

Sooner or later, that impoverished peasant will realize she is up against a corrupt, crony-capitalist state that is rigged to benefit the privileged. This kind of awakening could bring the region, not to mention the elites, considerable trouble. Which is why equal opportunity must be liberalism's handmaiden. Without it, the region descends into a Darwinian perversion, where only the dreadfully corrupt prevail.

Routine democratic elections (except in Cuba) are generally upheld as proof positive of democracy. But going through the motions of these elections, and giving the market freer reign, has failed to counteract the impunity of the powerful and lack of true political representation in Latin America. And this is where the author is especially prescient. Although Mr. Colburn wrote the book before the crisis in Argentina crescendoed, he outlines the very pitfalls into which Argentina dove headlong.

Argentina was the star pupil of free-market technicians. It dutifully privatized its state companies, dollarized its economy and welcomed foreign investment in the 1990s. But these technicians fatally misunderstood the forces they were putting in motion. While the liberalization of an economy is an awe-inspiring catalyst for growth as Argentina's go-go years in the earlier part of the decade attest to it also exposes a country's vulnerabilities with a ferocity that is difficult to temper.

Curiously, these very technicians are still busily drawing up new economic prescriptions for Argentina, while they snidely characterize the desperate protests of the middle class as mob rule. They fail to understand that Argentina's financial woes are symptoms of institutional weaknesses. The country's political mafia has simply sucked the country dry. And the technicians were willing to believe the politicians were entitled to their booty. They greased the wheels of capitalism with financing from the International Monetary Fund, as long as the economic reforms kept pace. They have succeeded in causing lasting damage to the global image of free markets.

Unfortunately, Argentina hasn't been the only country in Latin America to substitute democratic reform with economic liberalization. Mr. Colburn warns against this approach. But the popularity of laissez-faire economics has mutated into a devil-may-care apathy about the poor in the region. Surely, 150 million impoverished people represent quite a sizable group. If they aren't given fair opportunities, their festering discontent could certainly become "profoundly threatening" to the region's privileged minority. If the "mob rule" that has struck Argentina were to spread, crony-capitalism would suddenly look less enticing to elites.

Over the years in Latin America, concern for the poor has been equated with political models that blight economic and personal freedoms. This needn't be so. The exchange of ideas, which has come to be regarded as potentially inflammatory, is the region's best hope for long-term stability. Reaching an "end of politics" would be truly disastrous for Latin America.

Ximena Ortiz is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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