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Latin America: The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’ Left



Taking Sides on Latin America: The ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Left*

by Julia Buxton**

Review of “Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul” by Michael Reid

New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2009 (new edition). 384 pages

Paperback: US $22


According to the reviews on the back of this hefty tome, the reader has picked up an “annotated work of scholarship”, a “scholarly, sweeping narrative”, a book that is “brilliantly researched”, “not likely to be superseded”, a “must-read” that is “probably the best general book available on Latin America”—high praise indeed. 

It is consequently disappointing to find that this offering from the Economist’s Latin America editor is instead a dull polemic framed around the neo-conservative schema of a “good” and “bad” left. The complex and dynamic process of change that has swept and is still sweeping the continent of Latin America is reduced by Reid to a simplified Manichaean struggle, a crude reductionism that undermines any pretence to scholarship. 

Reid views developments in contemporary Latin America as a cosmic clash between democratic reformists and autocratic populists. While the former are exemplified by leaders in the stable Southern Cone states of Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, the latter include politicians in the volatile Andean region of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Enormous intellectual effort is subsequently expended arguing that the “reformists” are advancing democracy, peace and economic progress (admittedly with some setbacks), while the “populists” are reckless and authoritarian, none more so than Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who emerges as something of an obsession for Reid. 

Each of Reid’s twelve chapters begins with a scene-setting anecdote, transporting the reader to a busy commercial street in Rio, the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, the El Alto airport in Bolivia or the Economist’s London offices—where we find Hugo Chávez easting biscuits and chatting up the receptionists. The book is chronologically framed, contextualising the current ideological battle in the wider protracted struggle to achieve viable states and economic development following independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century. 

The first few chapters of the book, which is to say those that focus on Latin American history up until the Cold War, are generally interesting and relatively insightful. Here, Reid has little space to attack those left-wing ideas and ideologies that he himself espoused in the 1970s. Thereafter (chapter 4 onwards), events such as the Cuban revolution, the rise of left-wing movements and the ascendancy of dependency school theory provide Reid with a platform to demonise rather than analyse key moments in the region’s political, social and intellectual evolution. On page 86 we are told that Che Guevara’s analysis was “flawed”, that his revolutionary quest in Latin America was characterised by “arrogant futility” (p. 100) and that the ideas of Peru’s Communist Party–founder, José Carlos Mariátegui, were based on a “myth” (p. 97) that is perpetuated to this day by Bolivia’s indigenous president, Evo Morales. Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in 1973, was “recklessly populist” (p. 111) and invited his own removal in a US-backed coup by engendering economic chaos and political intransigence. 

Space spent criticising the Latin American left and the Cuban revolution’s “foreign defenders” (p. 102) might have been better spent contextualising the revolution and its profound influence on hemispheric relations. Here, a major omission on Reid’s part is any substantive analysis of the role of the United States in Latin America’s tortured historical development. As Greg Grandin notes, in what is arguably the best current book on Latin America, 

“by 1930, Washington had sent gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again), Guatemala and Honduras, fought protracted guerrilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal.” (1)

Reid has nothing to say about the 1823 Monroe Doctrine that held Latin America to be part of the US sphere of influence, or the subsequent Roosevelt Corollary of 1904 that asserted the right of the United States to intervene in the region in the event of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing” by a Latin American state. 

More distasteful than his selective historical narrative is Reid’s defiant apologia for US foreign policy in the region, even for Washington’s actions during the darkest and most brutal days of the right-wing dictatorships that took power across the hemisphere during the Cold War. On page 116, the focus of Reid’s criticism is “the left”, which has “pinned the blame on the United States” for the deaths, disappearances and terrors that followed from the US training of Latin American militaries in anti-communist warfare and Washington’s encouragement and endorsement of their subsequent seizures of power. In similar vein, Reid dismisses critics of the International Monetary Fund’s policies and influence in the region. According to Reid, the IMF had far less capacity to impose its policy preferences than was necessary for meaningful economic growth and poverty reduction. 

Ultimately, this book is devoid of any serious effort to look at the political right in Latin America. The left’s alleged “turning against democracy” is extensively discussed, but there is nothing on the economic and political influence of the wealthiest social sectors in the most unequal region in the world, nothing on how the political right has historically blocked and to this day continues to impede democracy and development. Without explaining all this, it is impossible to understand the strategy and direction of Reid’s “bad” left: Hugo Chávez, for example, espoused “third way” socialism when first elected in 1999 and held up Tony Blair as a role model. A coup attempt, a politically motivated general strike, an opposition boycott of the electoral process, sabotage of the oil industry and a vicious private-sector media campaign against his government prompted a radical left-wing shift on Chávez’s part. 

A related failing is that in skipping over the causes of anti-Americanism and the subsequent tragedy endured by the Latin American left during dictatorship, Reid is inadequately positioned to capture the distinctions between the “good” and “bad” left that he advances. For example, the left?of?centre administrations that were elected in Chile after democratisation—which emerge as Reid’s most favoured example of democratic reformism—were moderate unavoidably, because of their horrific experience during dictatorship and as a result of the terms of democratisation imposed on Chile by the outgoing dictator, General Pinochet. But again, there is no assessment of these processes. Democratic reformists apparently fall from the sky in selected lucky countries. 

The intellectual wheels of Reid’s enterprise inevitably fall off when he arrives at the current period. Having set out the case for democratic reformism, defined essentially as liberal democracy, economic orthodoxy and targeted poverty-reduction measures, the book proceeds by contrasting “the populist challenge” (chapter 7) with “the reformist response” (chapter 8) of the responsible centre-left. The quality of these two chapters differs significantly. The Economist editor is on comfortable analytical ground when discussing the technical nuances of the economic reformist governments. By contrast, the account of populism is theoretically weak, heavily narrative and shrouded in a barely concealed contempt for Chávez and his “acolytes”. Two recent books on Chávez’s populist characteristics, by Barry Cannon and Kirk A. Hawkins, deconstruct the meaning of “populism” and the applicability of this sweeping term to Chávez.(2) Suffice it to say that the notion of populism has moved on from the balcony speeches, irrational voters and de-institutionalisation that Reid toys with. (Interestingly, both Cannon and Hawkins criticise the Economist for blind overuse of the term in its articles on Venezuela.) 

From his right-of-centre perspective, Reid can conceive of no other form of democracy than the limited, liberal-democratic version. The problem here is that for significant sections of the Latin American electorate the procedural model much vaunted by Reid and epitomised by, for example, the US system has either been discredited as elitist or rejected in favour of a deeper, more inclusivist social-democratic-oriented model (as in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador). Reid is so overwhelmingly preoccupied with the dangers of mass politics and populism that he is blind to the demands for meaningful citizenship that have arisen in recent decades and provides no assessment of the new forms of representation, organisation and political participation that have emerged on the continent. 

The “elected dictatorship” of Hugo Chávez is a particular target of Reid’s ire, but the Economist journalist is selective in the information he brings to his analysis of developments in Venezuela over the last twelve years of the Chávez government. Chapter 7, “The Populist Challenge”, is an unsophisticated narrative that fails to engage with the reasons for Chávez’s popularity, the evolution of his administration or the constraints on his authority. Reid frequently resorts to hyperbole in attempting to substantiate his claim that Chávez is a danger to regional democratic progress. For example, in his preface, Reid claims that had Chávez’s proposals for constitutional reform been approved by the electorate in 2007, “Venezuela would have moved towards a quasi-totalitarian political order, in which Chávez would have become president for life”. Reid fails to add that Chávez as “president for life” would have been possible only if the electorate had continued to vote him back into office every six years. The very fact that the electorate rejected this constitutional change is not addressed by Reid, no doubt because it demonstrates that political limitations exist for a president who Reid is determined be understood as a dictator. 

Had Reid spent more time interviewing domestic supporters of Chávez rather than the president’s opponents, and been less preoccupied with attacking Chávez’s “foreign propagandists”, this book could have presented a more rounded analysis of the dynamic transformations in motion in Latin America. But objectivity would undermine the theoretical framework of a “good” and “bad” left that structures Reid’s discussion. 

The final section of the book comprises three chapters that explore the changing nature of Latin American society and the policy impediments of weak state capacity, before arriving at the concluding chapter: “The Loneliness of Latin America”. Having hauled the reader through centuries of Latin American history, Reid in his penultimate eleventh chapter, “The Stubborn Resilience of Flawed Democracies”, recapitulates his contention that two “sharply different ‘lefts’ have emerged in Latin America … One is social-democratic and pragmatic … The other left is one of radical populists and socialists” (p. 279). By this point, the reader is left in no doubt as to which of these two options should triumph in the “battle for Latin America’s soul”. That is, of course, if you have read only this book. 

Reid declares that his is “not a typical journalist’s book” and that in trying “to explain why things are as they are in Latin America, I have occasionally trespassed on academic territory. Like all trespassers, I have done so in a spirit of defiance of prohibition and in expectation of a clip round the ear from the proprietors of the territory infringed” (p. xiii). This review is delivered in the spirit of the expected “clip”. Those who have moved on from the polarised world order posited by former US president George W. Bush and neo-conservative apologists may find the persistence of Manichaean schemas deeply tedious and an inadequate lens through which to understand complex social and political change. If that is the case, then this is not the book to read on Latin America. 


1. Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Holt, 2006), p. 3. 

2. Barry Cannon, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution: Populism and Democracy in a Globalised Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); Kirk A. Hawkins, Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

* This book review is published in GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 12 ? Number 2 ? Summer/Autumn 2010—Race and Racisms

** Julia Buxton is senior research fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK.