Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Commentary on Chilean democracy has evolved from praise to concern since conservative President Sebastián Piñera moved into La Moneda Palace in 2010, bringing the Right to power for the first time in over 50 years. The praise was well-earned. Piñera’s victory not only showed the Right’s vote-getting ability; the peaceful alternation of power in Chile offered conclusive demonstration of one of the continent’s most successful democratic transitions.
Nevertheless, the Right’s victory, which ended 20 years of government by the center-left Concertación, also coincided with a challenge to perceptions about Chile as a paragon of fiscal discipline and political stability. Contemporary Chile is convulsed by social mobilization, and by demands for redistribution and deep reforms to the economic and social model that was once heralded across the region.
In the period leading up to the election, groups across society challenged a market model that privileged growth over equity, as well as a political system that was perceived as unrepresentative and lacking in competition. Increasingly, in the eyes of the public, academics and the press, Chile is no longer a political “model” to boast about; rather, it is seen as a democracy weakened by the rotation of elites who are out of touch with the needs of ordinary Chileans.
In this context, Piñera’s 3 percent margin of victory represents more of a defeat for the Concertación than a definitive triumph of the Right. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by Carlos Ominami in his analysis of Chile’s perplexing political trajectory in Secretos de la Concertación: Recuerdos para el futuro (Secrets of the Concertación: Memories for the Future).
The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed some remarkable developments: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rise of China, the 2008–2009 financial crisis, and the Arab Spring, just to name a few. South America’s commodity and natural resource boom should be added to that list. The buoyant market for soy beans from Argentina, oil and natural gas from Bolivia, iron ore from Brazil, copper from Chile, and fishmeal from Peru, among other examples, has not occurred in the region for nearly a century. Prices and demand have held steady as emerging market countries like China and India have voraciously consumed these exports in their pursuit of economic growth.
The Developmental Challenges of Mining and Oil: Lessons from Africa and Latin America comes at the right time to understand the implications of this boom. The five authors—Rosemary Thorp of St Antony’s College at University of Oxford; Stefania Battistelli of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; Yvan Guichaoua of the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia; and José Carlos Orihuela and Maritza Paredes of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies—consider six country cases, three from Africa (Botswana, Nigeria and Niger) and three from South America (Bolivia, Chile and Peru).
Unfortunately, the authors employ a rather busy analytical framework in writing their case studies. Each seeks to explain the interplay between resource abundance and development through the lens of “historical institutionalism.” This term is expanded, perhaps too flexibly, to encompass everything from colonial legacies to political and economic institutions, leadership, state–society relations, and the influence of external actors and multinational corporations. The result is that so much old ground is covered in these chapters that more recent trends of the current commodity bonanza are barely addressed. Inexplicably, the chapter on Bolivia does not go beyond the 1950s.
From the Occupy movement to the demonstrations at the G20 Summit in June, frustration over longstanding and deepening inequality is boiling over. This makes a volume exploring the politics of persistent inequality in Latin America—long the world’s most unequal region—very timely.
In The Great Gap: Inequality and the Politics of Redistribution in Latin America, University of Miami political scientist Merike Blofield assembles a distinguished group of social scientists to look at why democracies tolerate high inequality. Blofield concludes that a “window of opportunity” may be opening for more redistributive policies as populist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia offer a wake-up call to the region’s elite about the perils of not acting. This may help persuade the middle and upper classes to invest in a new social contract where more public expenditures target the “unincorporated” poor.