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.”
(4). In 1992, participants in the long Salvadoran civil war signed a final peace accord; Hugo Chávez led a failed coup attempt in Venezuela; Iranian agents bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people; and Peru experienced a constitutional crisis when President Alberto Fujimori initiated an “auto-coup.”
Twenty years later, El Salvador is beset with violent crime, and it is now embroiled in a serious constitutional crisis. On the other hand, a recent gang truce has slashed the homicide rate considerably, and Salvadoran democracy should be strong enough to overcome the current power struggle between the supreme court and the national assembly. While Hugo Chávez has failed in his bid to create a friendly autocracy in El Salvador, he continues to fortify his oil-driven autocracy in Venezuela, where the election rules are rigged in his favor and opposition media have been virtually abolished. In Peru, the story is quite different: Democracy has been consolidated, and economic growth is now the fastest in Latin America. Unfortunately, neighboring Ecuador is helping the Iranians to withstand the pain of Western sanctions and expand their strategic footprint in South America. Tehran also enjoys a close alliance with the Chávez regime.
(5). In 2002, Argentina formally defaulted on its debt, sparking an economic crisis throughout South America’s southern cone; Chávez survived a coup attempt in Venezuela; the conservative Álvaro Uribe was elected president of Colombia, amid a grave security crisis; and the leftist Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil, much to the dismay of business leaders (“Investors,” the BBC reported in August 2002, “dislike Lula intensely”).
Ten years later, Argentina is once again headed for an economic disaster, and Venezuela is effectively living under a dictatorship (one that is protected by both drug-trafficking generals and civilian paramilitaries). But Colombia is a relatively stable democracy with a much better security climate and a much stronger economy than it had in 2002. Uribe deserves enormous credit for transforming Colombia, just as Lula does for rejecting Chávez-style socialism and keeping Brazil on the path of economic stability. Indeed, Uribe and Lula were arguably Latin America’s two most consequential democratic leaders of the past decade.
(You can read this article in Spanish here.)