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From issue: The New Brazil and the Changing Hemisphere (Spring 2011)

AQ Feature

Puncturing the 4 Myths about Latin America

Raúl Rivera

Why everything we believed about Latin America before is wrong.

Most people have grown used to thinking about Latin America as a region of marginal global importance: painfully poor, violent, politically and economically unstable and, to top it all, fragmented into some 20-odd countries, each one different from the other.

So when Jerry Wind, founding editor of Wharton School Publishing, invited me to speak on Latin America at a Wharton conference aimed at senior U.S. executives, I wondered what a group of U.S. businesspeople would be interested to hear about the region. Who, after all, would want to do business in a place like that?

But how accurate are those perceptions? As I prepared for my talk, my conclusion was: not much. Let’s address the four principal myths about the region one by one.

Myth 1: Latin America Really Does not Matter Economically

To start, the territory of continental Latin America is larger than the U.S. and China combined, four times larger than the European Union, and seven times larger than India—a country roughly the size of Argentina.

With almost every ecosystem represented, it is in fact the world’s most biodiverse region, containing five of the world’s ten most biodiverse countries. The region’s bio-capacity (the biological productivity of the land measured in hectares per capita) is also larger than any other’s. Witness the region’s role in the global food chain: it is the largest producer of soybeans, coffee, sugar, bananas, orange juice, a leading fishmeal producer, and a major grain and meat exporter.

Its mineral riches keep world industry running: silver, gold, copper, zinc, lead, tin, bismuth, molybdenum, rhenium, telurium, borium, strontium—you name it. And it produces one out of every six barrels of oil. In fact, much of the global community depends on Latin America’s vast riches for its prosperity—indeed, for its survival. To that point: the Amazon basin plays a crucial role in the recycling of atmospheric carbon, absorbing one fourth of all global emissions.

Latin America’s population, now approaching 600 million, is twice that of the U.S. and significantly larger than the combined population of the European Union. Those numbers do not include some 50 million U.S. permanent residents and citizens who trace their origins back to the region (and keep close ties with it). By 2050, the region’s population will have risen to an estimated 800 million.

Latin America is not poor either. It boasts a per-capita GDP similar to the global average: $10,000. It is no richer or poorer than the rest of the world. In fact, 400 million people, or two-thirds of all Latin Americans, already belong to the global middle class, with their purchasing power fueling much of Latin America’s growth.

With some 200 million people still living in poverty, Latin America’s poor are still numerous. But their ranks are declining fast, at a rate of 5 million a year over the past decade. As a result, its Gini coefficient improved by 10 percent between 2002 and 2008. In brief: the world’s poor are now elsewhere—mainly in Asia and Africa.

A population this large combined with average income levels have turned Latin America into the fourth largest economy in the world, with a regional GDP of some $6 trillion (purchasing power parity). That is larger than that of Russia and India’s combined—larger, in fact, than that of any country or region other than the U.S., the EU and China. Not bad for a “region of marginal importance.”

You could argue that Latin America’s fragmentation into small, separate markets makes all the difference. But you would be wrong.

As a result of the free-market reforms of the past decades, Latin America’s economy is now the most open to trade in the developing world, with average tariffs down to 10 percent or less. Intraregional trade is booming. Most significantly, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have signed bilateral free-trade agreements (with both the EU and the U.S., though Colombia’s is waiting for the U.S. Congress’ approval). These agreements are giving rise to a free-trade zone of some 200 million consumers, larger than Brazil and fully open to global trade. Surprisingly, it does not yet have a name—or a space among the BRICs. It will, though. Let’s name these four countries the L-4 for now...

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