Left Behind Latin America and the False Promise of Populism
by Sebastian Edwards
University of Chicago Press, 2010
Cloth: 978-0-226-18478-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-00466-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-18480-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226184807.001.0001


The political and economic history of Latin America has been marked by great hopes and even greater disappointments. Despite abundant resources—and a history of productivity and wealth—in recent decades the region has fallen further and further behind developed nations, surpassed even by other developing economies in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

In Left Behind, Sebastian Edwards explains why the nations of Latin America have failed to share in the fruits of globalization and forcefully highlights the dangers of the recent turn to economic populism in the region. He begins by detailing the many ways Latin American governments have stifled economic development over the years through excessive regulation, currency manipulation, and thoroughgoing corruption. He then turns to the neoliberal reforms of the early 1990s, which called for the elimination of deficits, lowering of trade barriers, and privatization of inefficient public enterprises—and which, Edwards argues, held the promise of freeing Latin America from the burdens of the past. Flawed implementation, however, meant the promised gains of globalization were never felt by the mass of citizens, and growing frustration with stalled progress has led to a resurgence of populism throughout the region, exemplified by the economic policies of Venezuela’sHugo Chávez. But such measures, Edwards warns, are a recipe for disaster; instead, he argues, the way forward for Latin America lies in further market reforms, more honestly pursued and fairly implemented. As an example of the promise of that approach, Edwards points to Latin America's giant, Brazil, which under the successful administration of President Luis Inácio da Silva (Lula) has finally begun to show signs of reaching its true economic potential.

As the global financial crisis has reminded us, the risks posed by failing economies extend far beyond their national borders. Putting Latin America back on a path toward sustained growth is crucial not just for the region but for the world, and Left Behind offers a clear, concise blueprint for the way forward.


Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles.


"A masterly analysis that explains why economic populism in Latin America has been unable to reduce poverty—and never will. A must read for anyone eager to see Latin American countries move towards modern, inclusive and sustainable market economies under a single rule of law."

— Hernando de Soto, author of The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital

“Sebastian Edwards's book is a must read for anyone interested in the economy of Latin America--past, present and future. No one knows Latin America better than Professor Edwards. And the experience of Latin America offers lessons for every developing country about what to do and what to avoid."

— Martin Feldstein

"This is probably the most important book on Latin America of the decade; a masterly and highly readable assessment of the false starts and political failures—and the occasional successes—that have subverted the promise and potential of a continent. One of the outstanding economists of his generation, Sebastian Edwards explains the success of Chile and the disasters of populism in Venezuela and Argentina, while giving the best analysis available anywhere of Brazil's recent surge and its more cloudy prospects. And it is rare as it is refreshing to find a leading Latin American scholar acknowledging that his peoples' problem lies neither in the stars nor in Washington but in themselves."

— Martin Walker, senior director, Global Business Policy Council

"Latin America is always promise, never quite performance. In his ruthlessly intelligent analysis, Sebastian Edwards cuts through the myths and obfuscations that have shielded Latin America from the basic political truths that underlie all economic growth. It is not Yanqui imperialism or global capitalism that holds back the Southern Hemisphere. To vary Bill Clinton: 'It's the politics, stupid' Sustained growth requires the rule of law, property rights, a much smaller, but much more efficient state, an independent judiciary, a competitive market with easy access for new entrants—strong institutions, in short. This book is 'political economy' at its very best—in the tradition of Smith, Ricardo, and Schumpeter."

— Josef Joffe, Stanford University

“[A] brilliant blow-by-blow account of economic policy decisions, and their effects, in each of three key countries: Chile, Argentina, and Mexico."
— Times Literary Supplement

“Edwards is eager for the reader to understand that, despite the shrill populist voices led by Venezuela’s inimitable Hugo Chávez, today’s Latin American leaders are overwhelmingly pragmatic and moderate, which is itself a dramatic improvement over the recent past. Their policies have allowed the region to weather the recent global shock and even to thrive, as in the cases of Brazil and Peru.”

— SurvivalI Global Politics and Strategy



1. Latin America: The Eternal Land of the Future

Part One: A Long Decline: From Independence to the Washington Consensus

2. Latin America’s Decline: A Long Historical View

3. From the Alliance for Progress to the Washington Consensus

Part Two: The Washington Consensus and the Recurrence of Crises, 1989–2002

4. Fractured Liberalism: Latin America’s Incomplete Reforms

5. Chile, Latin America’s Brightest Star

6. So Far from God: Mexico’s Tequila Crisis of 1994

7. The Mother of All Crises: Argentina, 2001–2002

Part Three: The Populist Reaction

8. Populism, Neopopulism, and Inequality in the New Century

9. Chávez’s Challenge and Lula’s Response

Part Four: Challenges for the Future

10. A Three-Speed Latin America for the Twenty-first Century