Bolivar’s Ghosts in Latin America

In May 2008, Ted Piccone joined the Brookings Institution as senior fellow and deputy director of Foreign Policy. Bolivar’s Ghosts was reprinted with permission of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.


Magical realism, in which the beautiful collides with the terrifying and the mundane intersects with the fantastical, is the defining style in Latin American literature. It seems to have a fair hold on the continent’s politics, too. These days, a contentious and at times violent debate is underway from Puerto Vallarta to Puerto Montt over the destiny of a vastly complex, bountiful yet impoverished region of 560 million people. Like a Borges novel, the Latin American electorate resists easy explanation or categorization. Thirteen elections in 2006-2007 failed to answer the simple question: Is Latin America the home of free-market democracy or the bastion of populist autocracy? It is both, of course, and everything in between.

In Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, Michael Reid, the Economist’s editor for the Americas, has amassed an impressive body of statistics, anecdotes, and arguments to help us understand better, if incompletely, the conundrum of Latin America. As a heavy consumer of daily intelligence during my role as a director of the National Security Council in the 1990s, I can appreciate the enormous task the author undertook to piece together nearly two centuries of historical material into a compelling and astute narrative of the roots and prospects of capitalism and self-rule in the Americas. He has done an outstanding job; only a well-seasoned journalist steeped in the drama of the region during these last 25 years could pull off the rich blend of story-telling and rational behind-the-headlines analysis offered here. But despite the wealth of information presented, the book ends up where it began, with more questions than answers about the state of capitalist democracy in a part of the world still largely unknown to outsiders.

But it’s hard to blame him. The reality of the booming Latin America of today is as confounding as the crisis years at the turn of the millennium. What’s different now from the lost years of the 1998—2003 economic downturn, as Reid points out, is a sense of cautious optimism brewing in the hemisphere; according to a new Gallup International poll, Latin Americans were the most optimistic of any regional group in the world about the new year. The same cannot be said, however, about the prospects of improving U.S. relations with the continent, at least while George W. Bush is in the White House. Experts in Washington, quick to lament the harmful missteps of the current administration (especially its first term), are scratching their heads about how the next president should address the real challenges posed by our southern neighbors. But Reid’s history, if unintentionally, makes the course clear: What Washington needs is a raft of new policies that draw on a more dynamic understanding of the hemisphere.