Latin America’s IMF Era

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2010), Kindle pp. 576-577:

Essentially, Latin America faced an acute problem of governance after the debt crisis of the 1980s. The IMF had defined the main objectives of policy, which were to curb inflation, deregulate and privatize the economy, and service the foreign debt. But if the goals were clear, the means of achieving them were not. The crux of the problem was finding effective authority to see through the IMF reforms, but effective authority depends on legitimacy, which rests, in turn, on a consensus as to the founding principles of the state. And, as we have seen in this book, the inherent weakness of the state in Latin America lay precisely in a chronic inability since Independence to establish a lasting national consensus of this kind (see Chapter 9, pp. 374–7). All the same, the IMF required governments in these weakly based states to slash public spending and lay off huge numbers of workers in societies that were already the most unequal in the world. Even so, where one might have expected a return to the kind of revolutionary struggles or military dictatorships that marked the 1960s and 1970s, democratic politics endured in virtually all the republics throughout the 1990s and beyond.

The persistence of democracy was due more than anything to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989–90, and then in the Soviet Union itself in 1991, bringing to an end the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. As a result of this collapse, Marxism lost its ideological force – Cuba was not regarded as a viable model in the 1980s and 1990s – but it also weakened the extreme right, which could no longer block social reform by inviting the US government to intervene in order to prevent Soviet infiltration into its ‘backyard’. Internal and external events thus drove Latin American politics towards a vaguely defined centre ground, but if the result was democracy, this was democracy that rested on a consensus of despair, for there was nowhere either for the left or the right to go but to the ballot box in order to try to fix the problems of the wrecked economies.

The question was how to induce electorates to swallow the medicine prescribed by the IMF. Governments had to consult the people to win some measure of consent, and electorates grown weary of inflation, violence and disorder did tend to consent to free-market reform in the 1990s. Voters were fed up with the empty promises and corrupt deals associated with traditional parties, so they tended to elect new or independent candidates to the presidency, as in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even in Mexico after the ruling party had been forced to give up rigging elections. Many countries reformed their constitutions. In a few cases, such as Colombia or Chile, it was to strengthen democratic institutions by improving representation and accountability. In most others it was to maintain continuity of reform by allowing a president to serve additional consecutive terms. In others, notably in Peru (1993), it was to move towards authoritarianism, or even veiled dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ was still a fairly malleable concept in Latin America, too often permeated by more traditional practices such as patronage and clientship, caudillo-style personalism and electoral manipulation (see Chapter 9, pp. 346–9). Thus, in a few republics such as Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, there emerged what has been termed ‘delegative democracy’, a new version of the old tradition of caudillo populism, whereby executive power was ‘delegated’ to a charismatic leader via the ballot box, giving him a mandate to override the institutional checks and balances represented by the legislature or judiciary.

The quest for effective authority was shaped by the complexion and recent history of individual republics, but problems of governance were critically affected also by the ebb and flow of the globalized economy, over which nation states had little control. During the years of international expansion – roughly from 1992 to 1998 – governments were able to carry out liberalizing reforms with considerable public backing, but the Thai devaluation crisis of 1997, followed by Russia’s default in 1998, created a backwash that spread unrest through Latin America until about 2002, cutting growth and overwhelming governments, some of which fell to furious protestors. (The period 1998–2002 became known as ‘the lost half-decade’.) However, when world trade expanded from 2002, most Latin American countries experienced an extraordinary boom in exports of oil, minerals and agricultural goods to the developed world, and especially to China, so problems of economic management tended to ease once again. Then in late 2008, the globalized economy lurched into recession once more after a massive banking crash in Wall Street and London, with consequences for political stability and liberal democracy that were hard to foresee.

2 Comments

Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, Latin America, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR

2 responses to “Latin America’s IMF Era

  1. I’m confused. If the book was published in 2003, how can it be discussing a crisis in late 2008?

    • On Amazon, publication details are inconsistent: hardcover 1992, paperback 2010, Kindle 2003. But the blurb for the Kindle edition begins “Now fully updated to 2009” so the Kindle edition must also have been produced from the 2010 paperback edition, but without updating Amazon metadata. I finally finished it yesterday, and the final chapter was all about the 2003 to 2009 period. I’d better change the pub details in my last blogpost.

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