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Liberty for Latin America
How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 288 pages, US$25.00/C$35.00
ISBN: 0-3741-8574-3

The struggle for Latin American liberty

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 4, 2005

Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State OppressionWhen it comes to political reform, Latin America is a study in constant disappointment. For centuries, and some would argue even longer, the region has lurched from one set of authoritarian governments to another. Regardless of in whose name a revolution is declared, the end result usually involves a tiny elite holding the levers of power. The more things change in Latin America, they more they stay the same.

Peruvian journalist and Independent Institute fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa has launched a broadside against Latin American authoritarianism with his provocative and insightful book Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression. Llosa argues that dating back to well before a European presence, Latin America has been in the grips of statism. He builds an impressive case that argues corporatism, state mercantilism, privilege, wealth transfer and political law have been enshrined by Latin American governments for centuries and until they are attacked, little will change.

Regardless of whether the political left or right is in charge, writes Llosa, there is a love of big government that marks Latin American politics. In the belief that the people are unable to chart their own futures, politicians and institutions have concentrated political and economic power to the point that few aspects of a person's life in many Latin American nations are safe from government intervention. That concentration of power has robbed the region of centuries of progress and institutionalized inequality for its people. Reforms have tended to address the symptoms produced by statist and authoritarian government action, and never the underlying problems.

As Llosa shows, there is a long history of reform in Latin America. Those efforts, however, have paradoxically merely tended to reinforce the power of government to intervene in every aspect of political, economic and social life. One such example was the privatization drive of the 1990s. While the selling off of government assets earned worldwide praise, particularly for surpassing the efforts of several ex-communist eastern European nations, Llosa notes that because ownership wasn't widely disseminated and property rights are still weak, the process merely replaced one monopoly with another.

"Although there were successes along the way, they were short-lived and, in the final analysis, unable to produce the desired effects. Inadequate reform has plagued the region no less than its corporatist, state-mercantilist, privilege-ridden, wealth-transferring tradition under political law. Liberal or capitalist reform never managed to produce societies based in liberty or a truly capitalist system of human endeavor."

Although Llosa does a masterful job of carefully analyzing the history of and reasons for Latin America's problems, his solutions seem almost a rushed afterthought. He argues that the judicial system needs to be empowered and independent of government while the law itself must be cleansed of statism and made a higher authority than capricious government dictates. Political reform must be designed to assist the poor in making the transition to a world where the government isn't the all-powerful paternalistic monster it is today and their natural rights must be respected. Given the quality of his work in the preceding sections, the brief finale is a disappointment.

Where many craft their prescriptions to come up with half-hearted reforms in the belief that Latin America is not ready for freedom, Llosa blazes away with calls for free market capitalism, democracy and respect for human rights. Although Liberty for Latin America ends on an unsatisfying note, credit must be given to Llosa's tour de force effort in analyzing why Latin America's efforts to reform have always resulted in little real change. Rarely has such perceptive insight into Latin America's problems appeared particularly one that is so dedicated to meaningful change.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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