Could Ugly Betty Be Getting Prettier?
A former wallflower, Latin America is undergoing a stunning transformation.

Reviewed by Moises Naim
Sunday, March 23, 2008


The Battle for Latin America's Soul

By Michael Reid

Yale Univ. 384 pp. $30

Betty Suarez's dream is to make it in the publishing world. But even though she is "smart, hard working, and productive," she has "always been shadowed by the fact that she isn't the best looking young woman." This is how describes the story of "Ugly Betty," an ABC sitcom adapted from a Colombian telenovela that has been a smashing worldwide success. In the original version, the longsuffering Betty gets a makeover that allows her real beauty to shine, her many talents finally are recognized, and her dreams all come true.

Michael Reid, a British journalist who has covered Latin America for 25 years for the Economist and other publications, does not mention "Ugly Betty" in Forgotten Continent, his comprehensive and erudite assessment of the region. But his story line is similar: Latin America, which has long suffered from economic and social ugliness, is getting prettier. Although "cold economic numbers" do not fully capture the improvement and "many academics, journalists and politicians" persistently deny it, Reid writes, "Latin America has made much progress in the last few decades." Sure, problems persist, but "it is time to liberate Latin America from some of the more defeatist and whimsical readings of its own history, time to look more to the future with at least cautious optimism."

Reid is correct in observing that Latin America has undergone an economic makeover in the last two decades, and he is also right in saying that its progress is not well known outside the region or sufficiently acknowledged by Latins themselves. The inflation that once ravaged the region has been largely tamed, as have the massive budgetary imbalances produced by profligate government spending. Today, Latin America is more fiscally disciplined than the United States. The enormous foreign debt that precipitated a global debt crisis in the 1980s has been curtailed and, after more than two decades of anemic growth, the region's economy has been expanding at about 5 percent annually for the past four years.

Even more important, Reid documents how this growth, combined with newfound price stability and innovative social programs, has significantly reduced poverty. The portion of the continent's population living under the poverty line dropped from 42 percent to 35 percent in the last four years alone. Even in Mexico, which has had paltry economic growth, poverty dropped from 37 percent to 14 percent since 1996. As Forgotten Continent persuasively shows, Latin America is witnessing the rapid emergence of a substantial middle class, which few countries there have ever had.

Unfortunately, foreigners and the local intelligentsia are not the only ones who dismiss this progress. The Latin American people, too, are increasingly impatient. Yes, things are getting better, but for large segments of the population life is either still dire or not improving fast enough. According to Gallup polls conducted in 140 countries in 2006-07, Latin America leads the world in terms of people's expectations for how quickly their personal situations will improve. One reason for this optimism is that in relatively new or revitalized democracies (another insufficiently recognized success) politicians find it all too easy to rise to power on grandiose promises; thus, Bolivia's President Evo Morales pledges full equality to his country's indigenous population in a short time, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez promises complete self-sufficiency in food production.

Among voters, high expectations can quickly give way to frustration or even cynicism. Latin Americans get saturation coverage of corruption scandals both real and fabricated: One minute it's a suitcase stuffed with cash in Argentina; the next, it's Mexico's interior minister accused of influence peddling. Economic progress has yet to appease a population that has grown both wildly hopeful and deeply distrustful.

This is the paradox at the core of Reid's book: While the social and economic face of Latin America is becoming more attractive, political life remains ugly and, in some countries, is getting even uglier. The politics of race, rage and revenge embodied by Venezuela's Hugo Ch¿vez and Mexico's opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been widely exported and can now be found, with varying degrees of influence, in most other Latin countries.

Though Reid acknowledges the rise of these leftist populist leaders, he does not believe that their ideology, politics and public policies will prevail. He is convinced instead that democratic politics and liberal economic reforms are here to stay in many countries. This proposition will be severely tested in the years ahead. While Latin America's recent progress has been driven by sound economic policies at home, it has also been aided by favorable conditions abroad: booming prices for oil, copper, soybeans and other commodities that the region exports; low interest rates for the foreign credits on which it depends; and ample funds from very liquid global financial markets.

Unfortunately, some of these conditions are becoming less favorable as the U.S. economic slowdown affects other economies. Latin America has indeed become stronger, but it will inevitably feel the impact of a deteriorating world economy. Will Betty's worsening economic environment drag her back to ugliness? Or will her newly acquired beauty save her? For the answer to this, we will need to wait for the next episode. *

Moises Naim is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy."

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