After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America
Gustavo A. Flores-Macías
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 261 pages.

On the morning after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected as Brazil’s first socialist president, the country’s stock market fell by four percent. The previous year, Chávez’s government in Venezuela instituted the Hydrocarbons Law, increasing state control over the country’s oil industry. Now Lula was promising to make changes, and investors were wary. Lula and Chávez were only two of a wave of presidential candidates that rose to power on campaigns promising left-leaning reforms at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina could easily be mentioned in the same breath. But, according to After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America, there is little uniformity in the changes these presidents actually effected—or failed to effect—once in office. After Neoliberalism? is one of the first works to devise a system for comparing the radicalism of the various economic policies implemented across the region in the early 2000s. The result is an impressively, and at times cumbersomely, thorough survey of the Latin America that has risen from the ashes of neoliberalism.

In the context of the economic movements that have cycled through Latin America, the period of neoliberalism is comparatively short: twenty years of pro-market policies sandwiched between decades of popular support for leftist initiatives. From the 1930s to the 1970s, most countries in the region followed a policy of import-substitution industrialization, aiming to jump-start their economies by replacing foreign imports with domestic goods. During this period massive social changes took place across Latin America, notably urbanization and the growth of nascent industries. But the advent of the debt crisis in the 1980s marked an end to import-substitution policies as country after country moved to implement pro-market reforms. It was during this period of neoliberalism that Flores-Macías grew up in Mexico and was intrigued by the rumblings against authoritarianism.

In After Neoliberalism?, Flores-Macías attempts to make sense of what happened across Latin America in his youth following the 1980s and 1990s pro-market reforms. He argues, persuasively, that in spite of the prevailing doctrine that neoliberalism was followed by a region-wide surge of statist reforms, the economic policies instituted across Latin America vary widely. After Neoliberalism? aims both to systematically classify these economic policies and to draw a definitive link between the strength of party systems and the reforms implemented.

Flores-Macías meticulously outlines his research methodology and the system used to compare the economic policies across countries. After a broad qualitative analysis of the policies enacted in ten countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela—he delves into case studies on Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela. In each of these three case studies, Flores-Macías argues that there is a strong relationship between party system institutionalization and the economic reforms that occurred.[i]

He painstakingly explains his method for assigning a value to each country for its policies on a negative to positive scale, corresponding with statist to pro-market shifts.[ii] Somewhat confusingly, the scale is used to measure the extent to which the policies shifted from those of the previous administration, rather than the policies themselves. As a result, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay are all labeled as neutral, though their policies vary widely on the statist to pro-market spectrum.[iii] In this case, a neutral score indicates consistency.

Having created a way to quantify the strength of the reforms enacted in each country, he then contends that those countries with the most extreme reforms, whether pro-market or statist, are those with the least institutionalized party systems. Flores-Macías describes his research and analysis methods with details that might have been better placed in an appendix or footnote. When he is not bogged down in explaining the pros and cons of a qualitative approach for a small sample analysis, Flores-Macías can be quite engaging.

Each of the case studies begins with the voice of a politician involved in that country's reforms, but those voices are quickly silenced by in-depth descriptions of party systems. In these case studies, Flores-Macías fleshes out his thesis, but his survey of economic policies enacted post-neoliberalism is likely the most useful part of After Neoliberalism? for many readers. This is largely because the argument regarding the importance of party institutionalization has an intuitive logic and a surplus of supporting evidence. Flores-Macías posits that there are two key ways that party systems influence reforms: by shaping the type of leader likely to rise to power and by affecting the likelihood that a leader can enact drastic reforms.[iv] It seems inherently obvious that charismatic, outsider figures are more likely to rise to power when strong party systems are absent. Similarly, the presence of multiple long-established and powerful parties necessitates compromise.

Though the case studies present solid evidence for this argument, it begins to feel redundant. Additionally, the differences between the countries are, at times, underemphasized. Venezuela's supply of oil has had a drastic impact on its economy and the type of legislation Chávez was able to implement. The wealth supplied by oil has undeniably influenced the stability of his regime. Though Flores-Macías acknowledges these facts, they are pushed to the periphery.

Though Flores-Macías claims “it is not the objective of this study to evaluate the appropriateness of [economic] policies in general or the suitability of leftist government policies in particular,” it is clear that he prioritizes the continuity of economic policy that comes with a highly institutionalized party system.[v] It is with decided unease that he notes how Chile’s party system is showing signs of deterioration, based on a decrease in voter turnout and popular demonstrations.[vi] After Neoliberalism? repeatedly warns that party institutionalization can devolve and, subsequently, increase the likelihood for drastic reform.

His solution: invest in the institutional development and party structure conducive to gradual economic growth.[vii] Flores-Macías’s discomfort with radicalism is understandable. After all, this is a region where regimes and policies break down so frequently that the culture has a word, fracaso-mania, to describe its own failure complex. With a more discerning editor, After Neoliberalism? could still have made its case and been a more enjoyable read; however, the thesis is still elegant, providing both an explanation and a path for other countries to cultivate sustainable reforms.

 

[i] Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 57-59.
[ii] Ibid., 32.
[iii] Ibid., 32.
[iv] Ibid., 174.
[v] Ibid., 18.
[vi] Ibid., 172.
[vii] Ibid., 193.