Anniversaries offer a good opportunity for measuring a country’s relative progress. This year, Latin America is marking a host of major decadal anniversaries stretching back half a century. These anniversaries signify both how far many nations have come and how far others still must travel. Here’s a partial list:
(1). In 1962, there was a military coup in Argentina; Jamaica formally won its independence from Great Britain; and Fidel Castro conspired with his Soviet patrons to trigger the single most dangerous crisis of the Cold War, which brought us to the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Fifty years later, Argentina’s president is a quasi-autocratic leftist who has curbed press freedom and seems intent on repeating the inflationary mistakes of previous governments. The Castro brothers are still alive, and Cubans are still languishing under the jackboot of their brutal Communist dictatorship. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the island back in March, a senior Cuban official defiantly declared, “We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform.” Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Jamaica has been suffering for decades from the toxic combination of excessive bureaucracy, violent crime, and political corruption. “In real terms,” says The Economist, “Jamaicans are no richer today than they were in the early 1970s.”
(2). In 1972, there was a military coup in Ecuador; future dictator Juan María Bordaberry took office in Uruguay, a country that would soon be called “the torture chamber of Latin America”; and a series of strikes erupted in Chile to protest the disastrous economic policies of Salvador Allende.
Forty years later, the presidential palace in Quito is home to a Hugo Chávez disciple with autocratic ambitions and a record of persecuting opposition journalists. Uruguay, by contrast, is a model of democratic stability and economic success: It was the top-scoring Latin American country in the 2011 Legatum Prosperity Index. As for Chile, its democracy is now more than two decades old, and the country remains an economic superstar: No Latin American nation ranks higher in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index or the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
(3). In 1982, Honduras adopted its current democratic constitution; there was a military coup in Guatemala; Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, only to be repelled in a brief but bloody war; Bolivia returned to democracy; and Latin America plunged into a debt crisis following Mexico’s default.
Thirty years later, Honduras and Guatemala are both fragile democracies facing rampant drug violence that has sent their murder rates soaring. The Argentine government is once again rattling sabers over the Falklands to distract public attention from domestic economic problems. And Bolivian democracy has been systemically weakened by Chávez protégé Evo Morales. The good news is that, apart from Bolivia, Argentina, and a few other countries, Latin America — including the region’s two most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico — has achieved a level of economic stability that would have seemed totally implausible when the debt crisis was unfolding back in 1982. As Latin America expert Michael Reid noted in 2010, “A region which had become a byword for financial instability mostly sailed through the recent recession.”