Iin his head As he writes, Bello’s eyes can see the boundless Pacific Ocean in Lima, with small fishing boats crossing the bay in search of Corvina and Chita, pelicans skimmed inches above the waves, and bald eagles circled the clifftops. He can also catch glimpses of the winding roads struggling to connect Andean towns as landslides allow, snaking beside heartrending abysses.He can feel the heat and humidity of the dark ground of the Amazon rainforest and the arid undergrowth of the Brazilian wasteland Seltang.he could see the flat emptiness of the Argentinian pampas and their solitude ombú trees, and soaring volcanoes in Mexico and Central America. Latin America has always been, first and foremost, geography—amazing, rich, impossible and dangerous.
Books that offer a single explanation for Latin America’s relative failures—dependence, colonialism, Iberian culture, or institutions—are always wrong. Its difficulty stems from the interplay of all these factors and more. But, as the Argentinian political scientist Sebastián Mazzuca explains in a 2021 book, geography, which is often overlooked, is one of them. It conspires against the powerful states that control its territories, forcing governments to come to terms with local establishments at the expense of rule-of-law and fair administration.
Latin America’s abundance of natural resources fuels booms and busts, attracts greedy foreigners and provides the broth for populist red meat — a blame game about why people are poor if the planet is so rich. Another geographical factor, remote from the world’s major economic centers, hurts trade and investment.
When this column began about nine years ago, Latin America was making progress. Poverty is falling steadily, as is income inequality (still large). The lower middle class is expanding, and democracy seems to be taking root.
But that progress has been buoyed by a commodities boom. It wanes quickly.The area has not grown in the past nine years gross domestic product per person. Investment fell, productivity fell, and poverty rose again. Discontent has erupted. Political instability is growing, while seemingly unshakable dictators rule Venezuela, Nicaragua and now El Salvador. Organized crime has spread its bloody tentacles from Mexico to Chile and Paraguay.
In the long run, not everything is so gloomy. Your columnist started living in Latin America exactly 40 years ago and has lived in Latin America almost half that time since. During these decades, society in the region became in some ways more equal. Nowhere else in the developing world is the concept of human rights so widely shared.
Latin America is thriving culturally. The whole world is rocking for Latin music. Latin American literature has entered the mainstream, led by a group of young writers, many of them women.Latin American food, from Peru Ceviche Mexican tacosAlready popping up on menus around the world.
The region is more resilient than headline writers would allow. In society, this is due in large part to the strength of family networks and the informal economy, although this can be a drag on productivity. Macroeconomically, the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s produced lasting benefits. Inflation targeting and independent central banks have proven their worth. Even if social scars remain, the region has recovered from the pandemic’s downturn faster than regions such as Europe.
As always, the prospect is alluring, shimmering like a mirage on the salt flats of the Bolivian Altiplano. Latin America, so vulnerable to natural disasters, will be one of the main battlegrounds in the fight against climate change. It will be a major supplier to the green economy, with two-thirds of the world’s lithium reserves and 40% of its copper reserves. It is a rich source of food and fresh water. The nearshoring of supply chains offers numerous opportunities. Some geographic barriers can now be overcome digitally. Those majestic vistas form the identity and attract visitors.
Still, Latin America remains the developing region where democracy is most prevalent. What is still missing are the virtues of geography that hinder and that Andrés Bello represents: the rule of law, better public education, openness and regional cooperation. This is where the battle is. Bello was in a heavier mood than when he picked it up, and he was changing the pen in the inkwell.
Correction: (December 15, 2022): Sorry, an earlier version of this article misspelled Sebastián Mazzuca’s last name.
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Recent left-wing victories in Latin America may prove short-lived (Dec. 1)
Great musician and critic of the Cuban regime Pablo Milanés dies (November 24)
The race to become Latin America’s next top development banker (November 10)