Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America/Introduction to Latin America/Contemporary Latin America/The Soul of Latin America: The Cultural and Political Tradition/An Introduction to Latin American Politics and Development

Article excerpt

Review Article

John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, New York & London 2001

Peadar Kirby, Introduction to Latin America, London 2003

Ronaldo Munck, Contemporary Latin America, Basingstoke 2003

Howard J Wiarda, The Soul of Latin America: The Cultural and Political Tradition, New Haven & London 2001

Howard J Wiarda & Harvey F Kline, An Introduction to Latin American Politics and Development, Boulder 2001

As the 1990s came to a close, a whole host of new introductory books on Latin America seemed to signal the time for yet another assessment of the continent's development. Latin America's history so far has been a complex story of half-successes and half-failures. In particular, a major breakthrough on the socioeconomic front is still to occur. One recalls the bitter verdict once passed on the French King Louis XIV: "He possesses all the virtues and talents a man can possess, except one - the talent to make use of them". Latin America, endowed with all thinkable material and human resources, seems to parallel the unfortunate 17th century king, lacking this crucial capacity - to take advantage of its advantages.

An excellent starting-point is Peadar Kirby's Introduction to Latin America where first the two major theoretical frameworks, for long the main intellectual structures for interpretation and understanding of the continent - dependency theory and modernization theory - are outlined. Inevitable themes in Kirby's book, as indeed in all attempts to introduce this large continent to a broader public, are heterogeneity, contrasts and paradoxes. Drawing on a vast amount of academic literature, Kirby repeatedly points to the variety and complexity - both in conditioning factors, chosen strategies for development and actual achievements - as main explanation factors. He argues that modernization through globalization exacerbates existing inequalities on the continent, and shows that although the percentage of poor has remained stable or only slightly risen over the 1990s, the absolute number of poor persons has risen considerably due to population increase (pp 108f). Other indicators, such as per capita income, health indicators, infant mortality, education and literacy rates, show very much the same picture. Similarly, income inequalities have only decreased in Colombia, Honduras and Uruguay, and remain great across the continent (p 109). Recognizing the weakness of inequality measurements such as the Gini coefficient, Kirby argues that even assessing the quality of life in other, though somewhat vague, terms of vulnerability and powerlessness neoliberalism is "on balance exacerbating rather than resolving poverty" (p 124).

After a presentation of Latin America's diversity and the historical background, Kirby dedicates four chapters to the nature and impact of the neoliberal policies on the market, the state, regionalization and social conditions. Against the background of the current market failure and the recent historical failure of the state and the consequent challenge to its regulatory role in the new economy, Kirby turns to a third element, civil society. Although there are examples of successful party-based alternative policies - most notably on local or municipal level, such as the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) of Brazil or Frente Amplio of Uruguay - Kirby concludes that the overall picture remains heterogeneous. For him, manifestations of a latent vigorous civil society - whether the indigenous movement of Ecuador, the cocaleros of Bolivia, the labour and landless peasants' movements of Brazil, and perhaps the Zapatistas of Mexico - cannot conceal the fact that the potential of civil society has been underestimated while its real achievements have been overestimated, quantitatively as well as qualitatively; they are far between and has conformed to rather than challenged the neoliberal hegemony (p 181). …