This interview first appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 2 in the Spring of 2013.


John H. Coatsworth, a leading scholar of Latin American economic and international history, explains current trends in Latin America and offers a glimpse into the region’s future trajectory based on its modern history. He identifies certain legacies, such as the European subjugation of indigenous populations to explain Latin America's continuing struggle with inequality and its tendency to support leftist governments. According to Coatsworth, many Latin American countries will continue to follow the promises of left-leaning reformist governments at least until the need to overcome past legacies of failure diminishes. Coatsworth also forecasts a Latin America freer to pursue its own social agendas, as U.S. political influence declines and other international partners gain prominence in the region. In an interview with the Journal's editor in chief, Jon Grosh, Professor Coatsworth offers a broad analysis of Latin America—a neighbor and close partner to the United States and an embodiment of inherited challenges and failed solutions.

Journal of International Affairs:What do you anticipate will be the effect on Venezuelan politics now that Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has passed away? Do you think it will continue along the same course as did Cuba after Fidel Castro stepped down?

John Coatsworth: The differences between Cuba and Venezuela are probably more important than the similarities. Venezuela is not a one-party state. It has open political competition, however much the government under Chavez tried to exploit the advantages of incumbency. Venezuela still has a vibrant press despite constraints the government has sought to impose on it. And perhaps most important of all, Venezuela has immense oil resources, which give whoever leads the country a considerable cushion to fall back on. My guess is that the short-term prospect for a dramatic change in Venezuela is quite minimal.

JournalWill Chavez's death have a significant impact on U.S.-Venezuelan relations?

Coatsworth: Probably not. The United States pursued a sensible policy toward Chavez in the last four years. It did not emphasize points of disagreement. It has not responded to Chavez's frequent criticism of the United States. It avoided denouncing the Chavez government as part of a cabal of left wing regimes that the Bush administration tended to lump together with Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and sometimes others. Instead, the United States attempted to work with the Chavez government pragmatically to find ways of cooperating in areas ofconcern to the United States—for example, on drug smuggling. For these reasons, U.S.-Venezuelan relations are in reasonable shape. Both sides realize that thereis nothing to be gained from confrontation. Venezuela still exports most of its oil to the United States and the United States would like to continue importing it.

JournalIs Latin America entering an era of post-U.S. hegemony?

Coatsworth: That's an interesting question, because if you look at the economic trends of the past two decades, it is becoming increasingly evident that American economic pre-eminence has shrunk a great deal and is now roughly where you might have expected to find it a century ago. The United States is still the principle trading partner and supplier of capital and technology to Mexico, Central America, and most of the Caribbean, but it is far less influential in economic terms than in the past half century in the rest of South America. Country after country has developed trade relationships with Western Europe and East Asia, and the relative weight of the United States as a trading partner and supplier of capital and technology has diminished. Countries such as Chile—that used to export 80 percent of their principle exports to the United States—now export about a third of their products to the United States, a third to East Asia, and a third to Western Europe. The economic influence of the United States has diminished, so the leverage of the United States in those political systems has also diminished. In the next decade or two, one would expect to see these trends continue. The United States is now becoming one partner among many, but one that Latin Americans still value as they balance a traditional friend against new partners to achieve maximum freedom of action in their own policy making.

JournalWhat approach should the United States take toward Brazil? Is it an ally or a challenger?

Coatsworth: Brazil is likely to be the principle geopolitical partner of the United States in Latin America. That was its historic position and I believe, for verygood reasons, this will likely continue into the future. Under President Dilma Rousseff, elected in 2010, the tensions that developed late in the last administration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on foreign policy issues have mainly disappeared. While there are still tensions over trade issues, I think Brazil is likely to be the principle ally of the United States in Latin America and a country with which our relations are going to become increasingly important for a long time to come.

JournalWhat is your perspective on Mexico's incoming government? Does it have a broad mandate for change?

Coatsworth: I think the new government has a broad mandate for change in several dimensions. Though President Enrique Pena Nieto ran as the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he distanced himself from the authoritarian practices of the pre-2000 era when the PRI dominated the country. The new government has been careful to govern democratically. Second, the issue that most concerns Mexicans now is the violence that erupted when former president Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and deployed the national army to prosecute them. The Calderon administration focused on big name cartel bosses. Much of the ensuing violence occurred when the capture or killing of cartel leaders provoked violent territorial struggles between cartels and among the rivals within them. The new government has moved to take a different approach. It is pulling the military out of urban areas and sending the troops back to the barracks and has announced a program to develop a national police force, reform the criminal justice system, and focus on reducing violent crime—not just drug crimes. Third, the new government seems determined to address a series of economic and social ills, from poor education and inadequate infrastructure, to lack of competition and competitiveness in key industries.

JournalMuch of the rest of Latin America has tended to move left. Will this trend continue?

Coatsworth: It is true that most of Latin America is governed by center-left or left-wing governments. It would be surprising if they were not, given the socio economic profile of the region. Latin America is the world's most unequal region in terms of income and wealth distribution. Most countries in the region face huge social problems, including poverty, inadequate education and health services, high crime rates, widespread corruption, ineffective judicial systems, poor environmental protections, and lagging infrastructure. The parties of the left and center left see these issues as their primary responsibility. The United States is likely to find governments of the left or center-left in most of Latin America for some time to come, unless those governments fail to confront these problems with any greater effectiveness than their predecessors.

JournalWhy do many Latin American countries have such deep inequalities despite their growth? Can you suggest areas of opportunity to foster equality?

Coatsworth: There are many sources of inequality in Latin America's past and present. Most of Latin America was either conquered by Europeans who sub jugated the indigenous populations, or it consists of regions into which millions of African slaves were imported following European colonization. So, from the beginning of their modern histories, Latin American societies have been characterized by inequality based on ethnicity. This history helps to explain why Latin America was relatively slow to invest in its own population. It also explains why most Latin America countries restricted the franchise and would not permit more than a tiny minority of its population to vote—even in countries with nominally democratic constitutions—until late in the twentieth century. Brazil, for example, did not permit illiterates to vote until the restoration of democratic rule under a new constitution in 1985.

A second source of inequality in Latin America was a consequence of economic globalization in the late nineteenth century. Though globalization promoted economic growth, it also made Latin American societies more unequal, because the benefits of growth accrued to people with scarce capital or skills. One would have expected this trend towards inequality to reverse itself half a century later, as unskilled labor was absorbed or educated, and as urbanization took place. But during the Cold War, efforts to overcome inequality through government policy did not occur. Elites in the region forged an anti-communist alliance with the U.S. government. Whenever governments committed to social change were elected, local elites and their U.S. allies induced the local military establishments to overthrow them. Democratic rule in the post-Second World War era could have produced greater equality in the region, but that did not happen, because governments that came to power committed to greater equality tended to be overthrown and replaced by military dictatorships. Since the restoration of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a somewhat natural shift in the region toward governments that are significantly more committed to social change.

Democracy has been hugely positive. Left-wing and center-left parties have come to power to address the region’s historic social deficit. Additionally, conservative and right-wing parties that once supported military regimes have now become part of the electoral game and recognize that they cannot win elections unless they develop an interest in social issues as well. So you have a kind of convergence where political parties on the right and left have become more focused on social progress. A good example of this is the National Action Party (PAN), which governed Mexico from 2000 to 2012. The PAN would probably not have been elected had it not developed a social agenda aimed at addressing the country’s social problems.

JournalWhy are some left-leaning countries like Chile stable and others like Bolivia and Venezuela permanently in social, economic, and political turmoil?

Coatsworth: The answer to this question has a lot to do with the institutional legacy bequeathed to left-wing and center-left governments by their more conservative predecessors. In some countries, voters turn to the left because they want a new start, a break with the past, a new and more just institutional order. This happens most often in countries where more conservative or right-wing regimes have been discredited as either corrupt, ineffective, or both.

The left-wing governments that come to power in such circumstances tend to push for change in a more radical way than left-wing or center-left governments, where institutions are stronger, and the past has not provided such a strong legacy of failure. Voters in most countries elect leftists they perceive as appropriate to the circumstances and, for the most part, mobilizational or "populist" left-wing governments are in power because they promised to solve problems that people perceive as important. And when the left in any country fails to perform, it is voted out of office.

In Venezuela for example, Chavez came to power after the previous regime had utterly discredited itself as a result of poor economic performance and because of the unresponsiveness and pervasive corruption of its political leaders. So Chavez'shistorical role was to replace the structures and institutions of the past with something else that worked. And he succeeded in the sense that Venezuelans are now healthier and better educated than before, and there are now programs on a much larger scale to help those who are in need than was the case during previous regimes.

Or take Ecuador, where the leftist president Rafael Correa persuaded voters to adopt a new constitution, one which has made an effective central government possible for the first time in more than half a century. Virtually every president before Correa could not govern because the constitution made it possible for elected presidents to come to power with a majority in the national congress. Most presidents failed, and many were simply expelled by riots or by the military. 

Another case is Bolivia, which has had over 160 governments in less than 200 years of independence, many of them failures. Bolivian governments in the period immediately preceding Evo Morales were particularly unsuccessful in responding to the country’s social and economic problems, and to the demands of its indigenous population for greater representation and respect for its customs and traditions. 

There are other governments, center-left or left, that have come to power in more favourable circumstances, where institutions are stronger and where democratic processes have not been totally discredited. These governments have approaches social problems in a different kind of way. A good example of this is the administration of Lula da Silva in Brazil. There are even cases in which various kinds of left-wing candidates have come to the fore and then changed colors over time. Occasionally, Chavez-type populist politicians evolve into less confrontrational social democrats, as problems are addressed and the need to overcome past legacies diminishes. A good example is the case of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who ran as a left-wing radical the first time around and then, in his second and successful run for the presidency, turned himself into a moderate social democrat governing mostly from the center-left. This, and other similar cases show that electoral politics really do matter, and what people are willing to accept and vote for does provide an important incentive for politicians in Latin America, as it does everywhere else in the world.