Latin America's "Magic Realism" Economics
Leaders in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil refuse to face the reality that the days of easy money are over, and the time is now for real reform.
MIAMI — Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez, who died last month, was one of Latin America's greatest novelists. His writing helped to popularize what became known as "magic realism," which mixes realistic narratives with magical thinking.
Recent events in Latin America make me wonder whether the magic quality is restricted to the continent's novels, or characterizes a vision of both politics and economics espoused by leaders of several crucial Latin American countries.
I am thinking specifically of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. While they are very different places, their governments do not seem to accept the fact that we are coming to the end of both the raw materials boom fueled by China and low interest rates in the United States. This should force them to change the policies they have followed so far. Without the easy money they had been able to access, they will now have to implement the reforms they have postponed, to avoid the political consequences of a slowdown of growth.
The Venezuelan government led by Nicolás Maduro appears to be the one furthest removed from reality. When he took office last year, the billions of U.S. dollars that flowed into Venezuela under his predecessor Hugo Chávez had disappeared. A relatively small portion had been spent to help the poor, and the rest to buy political support for Chávez policies — but also to enrich the new "Bolivarian" elite.
Nicolás Maduro "furthest removed from reality" — Photo: Avn/Xinhua/ZUMA
Despite declining oil production and the absence of new investments and loans, Maduro has maintained his predecessor's generous spending levels, generating an inflation rate of 56% that could reach 75% later this year. Maduro seems to believe that the poor will continue to back him despite a rapid deterioration of their own economic conditions.
Brazil's former president "Lula" da Silva, a friend of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, disagrees, which is why he has edged Maduro toward starting a "dialogue with the opposition." It is unlikely Maduro could survive for long without introducing reforms to stop the Venezuelan economy spiralling into a slump, despite thousands of Cubans helping him maintain order with increasingly repressive methods.
Argentina too appears to have fallen into its own brand of magic realism. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner thought she could keep spending as freely as she did during the raw materials boom, despite steeper inflation, a drastic fall in foreign investment, falling dollar reserves and exacerbated capital flight.
There are signs recently that her government is adjusting itself to reality. It allowed an 18% devaluation of the peso, cut gas subsidies and agreed to pay Spain's Repsol $5 billion as compensation for nationalizing its Argentine subsidiary YPF. Some have noted that Kirchner had no options, as Argentina was running out of money. Whatever the reason, the new policies are once more attracting investment.
Finally we have Brazil, working hard to avoid the reforms needed to generate growth. The economy that grew 7.5% in 2010, grew less than 2% in 2013, and the outlook appears to be similar for the next two years. The country's vast oil reserves have not been efficiently exploited, in part because of protectionist rules imposed that require the use of drills and ships made in Brazil. The country has not significantly reduced the credit boom that stimulated consumer spending during the high-growth years, nor has it rid itself of Mercosur, the dysfunctional trading pact that has discouraged competitiveness among its members.
In contrast with Kirchner, who will not seek another term, President Dilma Rousseff hopes to be reelected this year. She is in a race against time, trying to postpone the necessary reforms until after the elections. But if she wins, it is not clear whether would truly reconsider the ways the state can better encourage growth and development of Brazil's economy.
*Kauffman is director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.