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Will 2020 be the year we will see Latin America again?

It's necessary to go beyond the exception theory, which only highlights the worst in headlines. Less depthless futurology, please

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“I’m blind”, thus begins Blindness, the book by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago. In it, a driver is calmly waiting for a green light in a street when a sort of luminous blindness takes over his sight and every other character of the book as well.

I have a mental record of the first paragraphs of every book I love. My intention with this is to know how writers catch their reader’s attention. When it comes to my favorites ones, I know them by heart. And I had been thinking about the first two paragraphs of Saramago’s book when I started writing this article.

The year of 2019 in Latin America was for me marked by a kind of emotional blindness. We voted with hate, went to the streets with bitterness, committed fratricide as we denied ourselves the dialogue. Politics was made with the leaver, and economy with resentment. All these feelings, I believe, caused blindness, which I believe is temporary. For this reason I remembered Saramago’s book. “If you can look, see,” says the book.

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In the story, only a woman is able to see and she doesn’t understand if this is a blessing or a curse, since she sees both beautiful and scatological scenes. Many literary critics point out to the existence of a couple of parables in the book: the inutility of seeing if others doesn’t see, and the responsibility of having sight when everyone else has lost it. To see, in my opinion, will be a great asset in 2020.

The (false) archetypes of Latin America…

In my first column for LABS, I talked about how we usually think about Latin America as a sort of Macondo, the fictional and absurd city of Gabriel García Márquez‘s magical realism. In it, I wrote about my personal experience in Argentina in 2010 when I watched the funeral of the former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner.

Even though the region may repeatedly find itself in situations somewhat bizarre, the truth is that many times Latin America is stigmatized by false archetypes, such as Joe Carioca, a cartoon anthropomorphic parrot created by the Walt Disney Company which represents the typical Brazilian and survives by deceiving people. 

 …And what we really are

But the reality is that by looking at Latin America’s history of more than five hundred years, we find something that is generally overlooked by the global perspective. Admittedly, we go through violent moments and we still have “ridiculous tyrants” out there. However, Latin America is incredibly resilient. A continent that can go through long periods without wars (the last major world conflict in which we participated was 150 years ago, the Paraguayan War), with democracies that are only turning 40, and countries that have supported state policies for decades, even with the in and out of rulers.

This is partly because we are a continent governed by the principle of self-determination, without interfering with the decisions of our neighbors. A government here or there may even criticize one country or another from time to time. However, diplomatically, we do not usually intervene. How many continents can say the same?

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We often face economic crises. But several times we have recovered from them. And this is a historical fact.

Centuries ago, Haiti was one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its sugar production, the most valuable commodity of that time. It did not prosper, because as a colony it was looted. 

In the 1920s, before the Great Depression, Argentina was very rich. So much so that in the world there was the expression “as rich as an Argentine”. The country succumbed to the same economic woes that affected the entire planet at the time. It has never returned to these glorious times, but it is nowhere near the economic disaster that newspapers paint nowadays.

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Just pull the numbers of social inequality in the country, which are much lower than the ones from Brazil, for example. The social abyss, which is a plague in Brazil, is not that a shameful cliff there.

Please, understand that I am not saying that Argentina is the garden of Eden or anything like that, only that the distribution of income is better than the one in other neighboring countries.

In this context, we are always the ones to blame for our mismanagement and corruption, but the headlines of the newspapers constantly overlook the crises caused by foreign issues that we also face, and how we bravely survived them.

The exception theory and what you read about Latin America

The prestigious publication The Economist announced that by 2020, Latin America will remain ‘(mis)governed’. However, the publication stressed something essential: Latin America witnessed “a burst of voting” that saw “15 presidential elections in the two years to November 2019. In 2020 a quieter period looms, Venezuela always excepted,” said the publication.

Personally, I am against futurology in journalism. Obviously one cannot exclude the opinion of a publication such as The Economist, yet I have seen so many predictions fail that I have become skeptical. The truth is that the ‘(mis)governed’ Latin America remains democratic, thank you very much.

This kind of thought, by the way, is one of the theories that most intrigues me in journalism: the art of exception. No one will ever read a headline that says “another day of sunshine, calm and good winds in Brasilia, Buenos Aires or Tokyo.” The emphasis will always be on the exception, the caos.

A heinous crime, for example, is an exception in a society where most people survive without being attacked or quartered by a serial killer. But the mention of a crime, its nuances of terror, and the headlines that follow will give the impression that we live in danger, in a violent society, even if in a given country the criminal statistics do not justify fear. 

This feeling of doom permeates journalism, from the most mundane fact to the economic predictions. This is not to say that we should disregard forecasts made by economists and other specialists in the newspapers, but that we have to take them carefully into account, i.e., we’ve to see them as trends rather than premonitions.

The case of Bolivia

Another important factor regarding this exception theory in journalism is that political upheavals do not always happen because of economic maladies–let me be clear that I am not proposing a defense of the case of Bolivia, and especially of Evo Morales, who apparently committed a series of political mistakes. But looking at that country’s economic index, things are not going that badly.

Bolivia, the same one that we see going downhill in the headlines, will close the year with the highest GDP growth in the region: 4%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In a BBC article (which, you see, evades the journalistic rule and gives good news), this fact is masterfully unveiled.

Since 2006, when Evo took over, Bolivian GDP has grown by an annual average of 5 percentage points, outpacing the economic growth of many countries in the region. While the commodity crisis hit Brazil hard in 2014, in Bolivia, where commodities were used to subsidize social programs, it went almost unnoticed, thanks to the income transfer and expansionary fiscal policies, which reduced poverty in the country almost by half. “The percentage of the population below Bolivia’s poverty line fell from 63% to 35% between 2005 and 2018, according to the World Bank,” the article says.

Evo was also able to control inflation, but not all of Bolivia’s indicators look good, of course. The fiscal deficit is large, over 8%. However, what led the population to the streets would hardly be the awareness of a high fiscal deficit and yes, it is supposed, Morales’s insistence on staying in power.

For those who believe in economic forecasts–I’m not one of them after seeing Chile fall into an unpredictable chaos this year–there are serious institutions such as the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

According to a November ECLAC publication, 2019 was marked by a general economic slowdown, closing Latin America’s seven-year stay on a low growth plateau–which in turn translated into a deterioration in per capita income in the region. In the assessed period, the region’s per capita GDP fell by an average of 0.8 percentage point per year.

For 2020, the entity’s forecast for Latin America is low growth again, with an estimated GDP expansion of 1.4%.

For the entity, the poor growth and retractions happen due to domestic endogenous problems of each country in the region, and due to the fall in world trade. The biggest warning, however, is “the region has underestimated social inequality.”

“It is necessary to grow to match and to match to grow. Overcoming poverty in the region does not only require economic growth; This must be accompanied by redistributive policies and active fiscal policies, ”ECLAC said.

Reading this, it comes to mind the widely used expression “social invisibility”, which refers me to the blindness of Saramago’s book, and to an article I read in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo for over a decade, and never again found it.

In it, the journalist analyzed how a social program X, which granted microcredits and a grant by family, turned the economy of a small village, even if I am not mistaken in the Northeast, showing the importance that BRL 400 had for a family , and how it impacted the entire local economy in chains.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes