Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Filling the Empty Box?: Equitable Growth and Latin America Today

This post is part two of a two-part essay on equitable growth in Latin America. For part one, click hereThe combined piece has been featured by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In spite of the many obstacles, there have been signs of hope in Latin America for equitable growth in the last decade. The region’s economy has grown at about 4% annually over the last ten years, and, in several high profile cases, also managed to reduce measured inequality. So is Fajnzylber’s box still empty? His original table was calculated in a rather crude way. High growth was considered anything over a 2.4% annual increase in GDP, the developed world average over the previous two decades at the time of his writing. His measurement of inequality was based on the ratio of the income share of the poorest 40% of the population to the richest 10%—a calculation that did not account for relative increases or decreases in inequality. At the time, the developed world average was 0.8 – that is, the lower 40% had combined income equal to 80% of the richest 10%. Fajnzylber’s standard for Latin American inequality was, arbitrarily, half of that measure: a ratio of 0.4. His results in 1990 were as follows:

Fajnzylber’s original “empty box” table, 1990

High growth
Low growth
High equity

Argentina, Uruguay
Low equity
Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, Dominican Republic
Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Haiti, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua

Using data from the World Bank, I recreated Fajnzylber’s table, using the most current statistics available and the same criteria that he established. Given the reputation that the Latin American economies have had over the last few years, the results are perhaps surprising:

Updating Fajnzylber’s table, with current data

High growth
Low growth
High equity

Low equity
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela

El Salvador

Every country with available data in the region has grown by more than a 2.4% annual rate over the last decade with the exception of El Salvador. But there are no countries that meet Fajnzylber’s standard for relative equality left in Latin America. Indeed, to re-run his numbers is to confront a world changed by inequality, for there are few countries in the world left that meet the standard he established twenty-five years ago. His developed world average had been a ratio of 0.8; now the world’s best performers on that metric are the Scandinavian countries and a few places in Eastern Europe, hovering around 0.6. Canada and France today barely meet his lowered-expectations standard for Latin America in 1990, at 0.4. The United States has a ratio of 0.23, and the Latin American countries are terrible performers: Uruguay and Nicaragua are the only countries over 0.2; Mexico’s ratio is 0.184, Argentina’s is 0.156, Venezuela’s is 0.152, Chile’s is 0.140 and many are below 0.1, including Brazil at 0.093, Guatemala at 0.089, and Bolivia at 0.046.
Plainly, by using an absolute standard of inequality rather than one that measures the rate of change, this data does not register the progress that some Latin American countries have made in reducing equality over the last decade. To address this, I’ve produced a modified table, using the same growth standard but looking at change in the countries’ Gini indexes over time. Most Latin American countries had a local maximum in their Gini index between 1998 and 2002, and almost all have reached a local minimum in the last year or two. If we take a significant decline in inequality to be a peak to trough reduction in Gini index of 4 points over those ten years, this is the table that results.[1]

A rate-of-change accounting of growth and inequality fills the empty box

High growth
Low growth
Significant decline in inequality (>4 points)
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru

El Salvador
Small decline in inequality
Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay

The story embedded in the data is clear: working from an extremely poor starting point, the experience of most of Latin America has been one of strong and equitable growth over the last decade. The principal reasons that this has been possible are clear enough. Rapid growth in Asia has kept commodity prices high, and Latin America, though now also the producer of many types of sophisticated manufactured goods, remains a major exporter of raw and semi-finished goods. At the same time, most of the region has been ruled by left and center-left governments that have made improving the lives of the poor among their highest priorities. This has taken many forms. Venezuela’s has been the most polarizing: both nationally and internationally, judgments on the effectiveness of the social missions and the economic management of Venezuela’s government allow for little middle ground. In the last decade or so, the poverty rate has been cut in half, from more than 60% of the population to around 30%. But excessive oil dependence, shortages of basic goods, increasing violence, and the recent imposition of price controls suggest that, at best, Venezuela’s economy could have been managed much better than it has been, and, at worst, may be following a classic pattern of populist spending that may be lead to future adjustment that will come at a high cost, both politically and economically.[2]
            Most of the region, however, has used more conventional macroeconomic management, and, somewhat in the manner that President Obama did with the health care industry, compromised with powerful economic interests in the pursuit of broader goals. Brazil’s ascent, under its charming president Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Roussef, has been so spectacular that the old joke that “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be,” no longer seems to hold. But other countries have had even more impressive statistical progress. Ecuador has knocked more than ten points off its Gini index, while Panama has grown at more than 8% annually over the last decade.
            How then should progress be maintained and extended? There are already some signs of trouble. In Brazil, for example, once-rapid growth has slowed to a trickle; Mexico, frequently championed as one of the world’s great emerging economies, is on the verge of outright recession. And though much of the region has been governed by the left in the last decade, significant redistribution remains rare. There are signature anti-poverty programs, like Oportunidades in Mexico and Bolsa Família in Brazil, that give conditional cash grants in exchange for behaviors like children’s school attendance. But these progressive policies are mixed in with a huge amount of regressive government spending. The budget for Oportunidades in Mexico, for example, is dwarfed by the cost of regressive energy subsidies.[3] Tax collection as a percentage of GDP has increased modestly, but remains meager. As a result, major Latin American economies do almost nothing to reduce their levels of measured inequality through taxes and transfers. European countries knock 19 points off their Gini indexes through taxation and redistribution; Latin America only 2 points. Pre- and post-tax Gini indexes are virtually identical for the region’s major economies.[4]

The hopeful reading of that situation is that there are huge benefits to be gained from relatively straightforward welfare-enhancing programs and the elimination of regressive subsidies, and there is ample room for both growth and the reduction in poverty to follow. The pessimistic reading of the situation is that the last ten years have been among the most propitious in Latin American history for equitable growth, and much more probably should have been delivered. It remains to be seen whether the political systems of societies that remain grossly unequal will be able to make further progress in the decades to come.

[1] In a few cases, there is insufficient data to make a clear determination. Guatemala’s most recent year is 2006; Venezuela peaked in 2005 and troughed in 2006 and lacks subsequent data. The CIA Gini index, which is considered less reliable than the World Bank’s, now has Venezuela’s Gini as the lowest of measurable Latin American countries, so it would probably belong in the high growth, significant decline box as well.
[2] See Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, eds., The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
[3] John Scott Andretta, “¿Quién se beneficia de los subsidies energéticos en México?” in Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra and Ana Laura Magaloni Kerpel (eds.), Uso y abuso de los recursos públicos, Mexico, CIDE, 2012.
[4] The data is from 2008. The chart comes from the OECD report, “Latin American Economic Outlook 2012,” http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/latin-american-economic-outlook-2012_leo-2011-en

What should the United States learn from the lack of equitable growth in Latin America?

This post is part one of a two-part essay on equitable growth in Latin America. For part two, click here. The combined piece has been featured by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

When the improbably-named Fernando Fajnzylber published the unappealingly-titled Unavoidable Industrial Restructuring in Latin America in 1990, it hardly had the makings of a classic. But Fajnzylber had identified a problem so fundamental to the region’s economies that it became exactly that. At the beginning of the book, he made a two-by-two grid, labeling the rows by high and low equity and the columns by high and low growth. Looking at the period from 1965 to 1984, Fajnzylber found Latin American countries that had managed high growth, countries that had high equity, and some that had neither. But one box was conspicuously empty: the one showing simultaneous high equity and high growth.[1] Fajnzylber’s work helped make filling his “empty box”—getting to growth with equity—a policy goal of most economists and governments in the region ever since.
            To be sure, the period from 1965 to 1984 that Fajnzylber analyzed was not just any time in the history of Latin America. A wave of military dictatorships had taken power in the major economies of South America. They blamed high inflation and economic turmoil on the left and sometimes on powerful unions. To combat those problems they turned to the recipes of the Chicago school: “shock therapy” that involved ending price and wage controls, privatizing state-owned businesses, and reducing tariffs to very low levels. Terror ensured that people could not effectively organize to protest their lost wages. After initial economic contraction, some countries experienced strong growth. The fact that this growth was coupled with major reductions in real purchasing power for workers and hence with widening inequality was not the sign of a process gone wrong: it was the intended policy outcome. Debt crises in the 1980s led to a lost decade for growth and further “neoliberal” reforms, as state monopolies were sold off—mostly to be replaced by private near-monopolies that created enormous fortunes for those connected to the state (for example, Mexico’s Carlos Slim, who eventually became the world’s richest man).
            Of course, inequality—Latin America’s original economic sin, more so than poverty itself—was hardly new to the region. Class divisions run deep throughout Latin American economies.[2] It would be a mistake to attribute this to immutable and ahistorical national characteristics, but it is a very old phenomenon. The region’s colonial economy was driven primarily by the wealth extracted by mining precious metals and by plantation agriculture. The basic situation for European colonists—after the reduction in the indigenous population due to disease and, later, campaigns of removal—was that land was cheap but labor was scarce, and the best way to resolve that problem was through a variety of forms of coerced labor, in particular the enslavement of Africans and the indigenous people who remained. The resulting gaps between those with political and economic power and those without were enormous.
            The reforms that liberal and positivist elites enacted in the early nineteenth century, after independence was achieved in the most of the region, did little to ease inequality. Liberals believed in free trade and individual landholding: they tried to distribute lands held in common to individual proprietors and reduce the power of the Catholic Church, which had operated as the region’s largest landowner, bank, educator, and welfare institution. Though they succeeded in the latter goal over the course of the century, the states they headed lacked the capacity to replace the church’s functions, and in some ways, they actually exacerbated inequality. Recent work by Moramay López Alonso, for example, on the second half of the nineteenth century in Mexico, shows that even in a period of economic growth and modernization, living standards (as indicated by heights) declined for the majority of the population.[3] In other words, growth without equity is nothing new to Latin America.
            In the twentieth century, Latin America has been practically synonymous with the problem of underdevelopment. There are rival theories about its cause. To reduce things to their most basic, two frameworks have been dominant. The first was the “dependency” school, which placed responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment on its disadvantageous dependence on the advanced economies of Europe and the United States. The basic problem, it was thought, was of Latin America’s insertion into an imperialistic world-system. Some dependency theorists sought solutions in moderate reforms, such as introducing protections for domestic industries. These were sometimes successful, and sometimes led to the creation of uncompetitive businesses that couldn’t survive in the absence of state support. More radical interpretations of dependency also emerged, counseling armed socialist uprising and economic autarky. After its revolution of 1959, Cuba tried a version of this. Inequality fell from the levels of Brazil to levels of Sweden in a few short years, and some forms of extreme poverty were eradicated. But, facing an economic embargo from the United States, it had to rely on the Soviet Union, and its measure of “dependence” increased. To say nothing of the absence of fundamental political freedoms, economic management has careened from one unstable plan to another, and what was once one of Latin America’s richest countries has consistently lost ground.
            Over time, the grounds for belief in strong forms of dependency theory looked increasingly flimsy, and historians began to offer explanations based on a growth-economics tradition.[4] The decline in the terms of trade between raw materials and finished goods that had inspired the original dependency analysis proved cyclical, not secular. Close analysis showed that Latin American economies were not helpless participants in the international economy, but able to influence important commodity prices. And socialist revolution proved either unattainable or economically disastrous. Historians and analysts increasingly explained Latin America’s economic conditions as problems of “institutions” that needed reform, not only its position in the world economy.
            From the point of view of generally left-wing dependency theory, this “institutional” analysis sometimes has the appearance of victim blaming and political conservatism. But it needn’t be understood in those terms. Kenneth Sokoloff and Stanley Engerman, for example, have argued that Latin America’s institutions are precisely the result of colonial inequalities and the largely successful struggle of outnumbered elites to maintain their privileges. Their data shows, for example, a clear inverse relationship between extant inequality and the years that voting rights are extended to cover most of the population.[5] Frightened elites do not invest in, and indeed actively suppress, dangerous forms of human capital formation among the common people. The persistence of inequality is, according to this model, the expected result of elites acting to maintain their privileges over decades and even centuries. That explanation takes a view of things from a very great height, and leaves the details to be worked out elsewhere. But it sounds a powerful warning to the United States as levels of inequality there approach those traditionally associated with the other Americas. If Latin America has a lesson for the United States today, it is that maintaining a relatively egalitarian society is not only important for growth, it is also important for keeping politics balanced within boundaries that can support a healthy and responsive democracy.

[1] Fernando Fajnzylber, Unavoidable Industrial Restructuring in Latin America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), 2. Fajnzylber’s standard for high growth was an average annual growth rate over 2.4%, the industrial world’s average. His measure of equity was the take ratio of the lowest 40% to the highest 10% of 0.4, half that of the developed world average in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
[2] As Branko Milanovic has put it, inequality in Asia is based on location—some countries are much richer than others—while inequality in Latin America is based on class. Branko Milanovic, The Haves and the Have-nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 185.
[3] Moramay López-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).
[4] For a introduction to this debate, see especially Stephen Haber, ed., How Latin America Fell Behind: Essays on the Economic Histories of Brazil and Mexico, 1800-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
[5] Kenneth Sokoloff and Stanley Engerman, “Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 14, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 226.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The CIA and Latin America's Anticommunist Left

My piece on Sacha Volman and Latin America's anticommunist left has finally last appeared in Diplomatic History 37, no. 5, November 2013. Since I submitted the piece a few years ago, I had the opportunity to do some additional research in the Dominican Republic, none of which would not substantially alter the piece or its argument. Nevertheless, I was able to confirm that Juan Bosch was fully aware that Volman represented a link to the CIA. And I was able to learn a bit more about Volman's life after Balaguer returned to power and his subsequent involvement in anti-Castro activities. Those details will get incorporated into some future work I have planned on the subject.

Update, August 2014: Ernesto Semán of the University of Richmond has a review of my article for H-DIPLO, here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Latin American Revolutions syllabus, Fall 2013

Latin American Revolutions: Causes, Consequences, Myths and Memories

Professor Patrick Iber
Fall 2013 / Wed. 10-12AM / 3104 Dwinelle

This course will examine the causes, consequences, and legacies of Latin America’s major revolutions of the twentieth century. It will focus on the violent social revolutions of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, as well as equally important experiments in social change in Guatemala, Chile, and contemporary Venezuela. We will put these revolutions in comparative perspective, and use more personal reflections made through memoirs and film to examine their effects on people who experienced them.  We will try to understand what why these revolutions occurred, what they changed in the societies that experienced them, and in what ways they satisfied and disappointed those who fought for change.

Course requirements

Your grade will be based on the following:

20% participation. Active participation in class is essential; our learning will be richest as more of you become involved in the conversation and debate. You should complete all readings before we meet, attend very week, and be an active participant in discussion. If you know in advance that you will miss a day, you should clear it with the instructor by email. Since we will be a large class, it is important to note that your participation will be esteemed on the basis of its quality, courtesy, and thoughtfulness, not on its quantity.

20% weekly responses. Each week you should bring a brief written response, on the order of 250-350 words, to class. Use that space to reflect on the most significant ideas of the reading, or that which you found most surprising or puzzling. You should end your paragraphs by posing a question that you would like to take up during class. These assignments will be collected and given a credit / no credit mark. You can skip one week without penalty.

20% Short paper. Prompts for a short, 4-5-page paper based on the early readings will be distributed in class on October 2nd. It will be due in class the following week, October 9th.

40% final paper, 8-10 pages. Your final paper will be short research paper, of between 2000 and 2500 words. You should consult books and articles outside of those used in class with the goal of exploring in depth a topic related to the major themes of the class. A brief paragraph explaining your plans for the final are due in class on November 27th. For those students expecting to enroll in a History 101 course this spring or next year, you may choose to write a paper prospectus instead of this research paper. The prospectus should lay out the major question of your research, the primary sources you will consult, and begin to address the historiography on the topic. If you are planning to choose this option instead of the research paper, you should talk directly with the instructor in advance. The final papers are due on December 18th.

Course texts:

John Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, New York, Vintage, 1970, $19.

Gil Joseph and Jürgen Buchenau, Mexico’s Once and Future Revolution: Social Upheaval and the Challenge of Rule since the Late Nineteenth Century, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013, $20. Please note that this book will be published on September 4, 2013.

Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Boston: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2005, $21.

Nick Cullather, Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala 1952-1954, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006, $19.

Aviva Chomsky, A History of the Cuban Revolution, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, $20.

Reynaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls: A Memoir, New York: Penguin, 1994, $16.

Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, $45.

Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, Boston: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2007, $18.

Gioconda Belli, The Country Under my Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, New York: Anchor, 2003, $17.

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Francisco Toro and Juan Cristobal Nagel, Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles and the Hugo Chávez Era, Cognitio, 2013, $25. (I recommend the Kindle edition at $9.)

To get good advice on what I will be looking for from your reading and writing, I recommend the following resources:


Week 1, September 4: Framework and Introduction to the Course

To read and discuss during class:

Alan Knight, “Social Revolution: A Latin American Perspective,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 9, no. 2 (1990): 175-202.

Week 2, September 11: Mexico, Week 1

Womack, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution

Week 3, Sep. 18: Mexico, Week 2

Gil Joseph and Jurgen Buchenau, Mexico’s Once and Future Revolution


Week 4, Sep. 25:

Schlesinger and Kinzer, Bitter Fruit

Week 5, Oct. 2:

Nick Cullather, Secret History

Week 6, Oct. 9: Che:

Short paper due in class. There is no additional reading this week.

Movie in class: The Motorcycle Diaries

Week 7, Oct 16: Cuba, Part I

Aviva Chomsky, A History of the Cuban Revolution

Week 8, Oct 23: Cuba, Part II

Reynaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls

Week 9, Oct 30: Chile

Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution

Week 10, Nov 6: Nicaragua, Part I

Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers

Week 11, Nov 13: Nicaragua, Part II

Giaconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Week 12, Nov. 20: Venezuela, Part I

George Cicchariello-Maher, We Created Chávez

Week 13, Nov. 27: Venezuela, Part I [Wednesday before Thanksgiving]

Frontline Documentary: The Hugo Chávez Show

If you cannot make it to class, you should watch the documentary online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hugochavez/view/

Final paper plans due.

Week 14, Dec. 4: Venezuela, Part II

Jon Lee Anderson, “Slumlord,” New Yorker, 28 January 2013, pp. 40-51.

Francisco Toro and Juan Cristóbal Nagel, Blogging the Revolution, [selections]

Final papers due December 18th.