One-Third of the West

14 December 2002

One-Third of the West

By Gwynne Dyer

Thirty people are injured by a bomb in Bogota, in an incident that will become commonplace as Colombia’s seemingly endless guerilla war moves into the cities. (Thanks, Irish Republican Army, for showing us how the pros do it. Before, we just used to massacre peasants in villages.)

Two-thirds of Argentina’s population live in abject poverty a century after it was the world’s most popular destination for emigrants hoping to better their lives. Then, per capita income in Argentina was $2,800 a year, among the highest in the world; now, it is down to $2,500, just ahead of Bulgaria. It is a reasonably safe bet that in twenty years’ time Bulgaria, scheduled to join the European Union in 2007, will have three times Argentina’s average income.

Venezuela is entering its third week of confrontation between the populist president, Hugo Chavez, re-elected by a landslide majority less than three years ago, and the strikers in the state oil industry. The strikers have the backing of the old political elite and desperate middle-class Venezuelans who fear that Chavez’s erratic attempts to do something for the poor majority will ruin what little is left of their own prosperity, and the battle may end up in the streets. No other oil-rich country except Nigeria contrives to have such a huge gap between rich and poor.

Fidel Castro’s worn-out dictatorship is still hanging on in Cuba after more than four decades in power. Lucio Gutierrez, jailed after a failed coup two years ago, was elected president of Ecuador last month. The crusading priest-politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide, overthrown by brutal generals in Haiti and then restored to the presidency after a long campaign by North American sympathisers, turns out to be just as incompetent and thuggish as his opponents always claimed. What is wrong with Latin America?

Most Latin Americans at the moment place the blame on neo-liberal economic policies imposed by Washington and the International Monetary Fund, but Latin America’s backwardness and political failure long predate the latest economic fashion. In fact, those neo-liberal policies did actually produce crude economic growth, which was quite high in the region during the 90s.

The problem is rather that this is the region with the highest income disparities in the world: per capita income of the top fifth of Brazilian households is more than thirty times greater than the bottom fifth. Poverty is so widespread that even if Latin American economies grew by 4 percent a year for the next decade, according to the World Bank, only half of the region’s people would be lifted out of extreme poverty.

That is longer than most people are willing to wait, so there is a region-wide revolt against the neo-liberal orthodoxy, with populist politicians offering vaguely socialist nostrums winning power in one country after another. Some, like Brazil’s president-elect Luis Inacio da Silva (‘Lula’), are serious and legitimate figures. Others, like Hugo Chavez, are charismatic charlatans. But the whole region is clearly changing course yet again, in another flailing, desperate attempt to escape its fate as the ne’er-do-well country cousin of the West.

Latin America IS part of the West, despite the ‘Third World’ rhetoric that has tended to obscure that fact for the past half-century. By history, language, ethnicity and religion, it is just as much a part of the West as the United States or Italy. Its half-billion people account for fully a third of the total population of the West; they just happen to be the poor third. Why?

It cannot be the particular part of Europe from which they take their languages and political traditions. Spain and Portugal, Europe’s richest countries four hundred years ago, went through a long and painful decline as their empires withered, but today they are prosperous and democratic countries. Nor can it be Latin America’s Catholic religious traditions: there is no longer any significant gap in prosperity and political stability between the Catholic south and the Protestant north of Germany, or between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England.

It can’t be the ethnic mix, either. A number of Latin American countries are almost entirely European in population, but the most successful ones, at least half of all Mexicans are part-Indian, and 40 percent of Brazilians are part-African.

Most of these countries made their first attempts at democratic revolution in the early nineteenth century, no later than most other parts of the West. They have never been cut off from the intellectual and political trends that swept the rest of the West. And you really can’t blame the Americans for it all. “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States,” said Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz a century ago, but Mexico is now enjoying a pattern of growth that will make it a serious rival to Germany in less than a generation.

So what is the real reason that Latin America doesn’t work like the rest of the West? I’m afraid I have no idea. Tell me it’s corruption, military coups, poor education, and I’ll just ask you why they persisted in Latin America long after they declined elsewhere in the West. The one consoling thought is that Brazil and Mexico, the countries that seem likeliest to escape from the pattern, make up over half the total population of Latin America.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“That is…West”; and “It can’t…part-African”)