A good feeling

Oil, gas, soya and socialism - Latin America has many reasons to be cheerful. And not all of them ar

Forgotten Continent: the Battle for Latin America’s Soul

Michael Reid, Yale University Press, 352pp, £19.99

Commentators on Latin America are uncharacteristically cheerful these days. The Latin Americans' message is a joyful one: prospects for the region, now swimming in money after decades of stagnation, are bright; their leaders are dedicated and active; the former captors are confounded; and Latin Americans, millions of them living in economic slavery until recently, can look forward to a much more promising future. As they move into better times, the shine has come back to a region that I first got to know in 1962, before the political horrors of Augusto Pinochet, Jorge Videla and the "national security state", or the economic nonsenses of the late and unlamented "Washington consensus".

Such a change is very welcome to this reviewer, after more than four decades of chronicling coups and bestiality, hunger and humiliating foreign meddling, for a British public which, in the words of the old saying, would do anything for Latin America except read about it. Today, few international topics outside the Middle East are higher on the list than this region.

With prices for crude oil approaching $100 a barrel, oil and natural gas producers, notably the Venezuelans and the Mexicans, are delighted. Ecuador, which was forced to quit the Organi sation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in 1992, is back in again. But the boom extends far beyond Venezuela, Mexico or Ecuador. Hitherto chronically bankrupt Bolivia has a surplus on its budget and on its foreign trade thanks to natural gas. Brazil has found big new reserves of oil offshore and it should soon join Opec. Copper, which has quadrupled in price in four years, has brought better times for Chile and Peru (though the government of neither country has yet worked out a way of making the new money benefit the poorest). Both Argentina and Brazil are selling the Chinese every last soybean they can produce as the economic weight of Beijing grows in Latin America. It took the Chinese, who want easier access to Venezuela's oil and the others' soya, to push the Panamanians to widen their canal and free up a global bottleneck.

The governments of the region are collaborating more closely than ever. Brazil in particular is becoming a serious contender for a seat on any new Security Council of the United Nations. It has also become a darling of the world's stock exchanges, joining Russia, India and China in Wall Street's buzzword the "Brics". At the humblest level, I have watched old grannies and grandads in Bolivia, who had walked miles to a draughty schoolroom late at night, learning to read and write with textbooks provided by the Cubans and from teachers paid by the Venezuelans.

At the same time, the authority of the United States - whose governments have never welcomed any outbreak of democracy that would disturb relations such as with the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua or assorted right-wing generals whom they and their companies have supported from the Caribbean to the Antarctic - is fast waning under President George W Bush.

It will certainly take more than the vote on constitutional reforms that President Hugo Chávez and his supporters narrowly lost on 2 December, for instance, to dissipate the hope and optimism of Venezuelans, and millions of others in the region.

Latinobarómetro, the Chilean-based public opinion survey and a good, honest guide to how Latin Americans feel, has recently issued new findings on the region. These show that Vene zuelans are enormously optimistic about the present and the immediate future, a feeling no doubt sustained by the price of oil and the benefits it brings, now that Chávez has got a better deal from the country's commercial oil companies and hydrocarbons are back in public hands.

While only 21 per cent of Latin Americans, on average, feel that their countries' economic situation is "good" or "very good", 52 per cent of Venezuelans have that opinion about Venezuela. What is more, 60 per cent of Venezuelans feel that 2008 will be a better year than 2007. They are also generally happy with their government. The large fly in the Venezuelan ointment - the one clearly responsible for Chávez's failure to win his December referendum - is crime. Forty-six per cent of Venezuelans feel their main worry is delinquency, a figure way above that of any other country in the region, even Guatemala and El Salvador, where government terrorism and gangsters have made ordinary people's lives very cheap indeed. Chávez must spend more to get a grip on crime, and do so in short order.

Into this conjuncture comes Michael Reid's Forgotten Continent: the Battle for Latin America's Soul. The author edits the Americas section of the Economist and has accumulated a vast store of knowledge about the region since 1982. His work has given him a level of political experience not granted to many in his position.

Reid punctures some well-aired myths about Latin America. He is justly forceful about the disasters that have resulted from the "war on drugs", realising that this venture of Washington's has pulled into a symphony of futility the waste of enormous sums of US taxpayers' money, the further impoverishment of millions of already indigent peasants, an ineffective worldwide drive against "money laundering", and an inability to reduce consumption of narcotics. Cocaine and the like remain a danger to public health similar to - though much less serious than - those arising from alcohol and tobacco.

Understandably, however, Reid also hews to the Economist line. The magazine is understandably proud of John F Kennedy's remark to a questioner who asked how he knew what was going on in Washington: "I read the Economist," the president replied laconically. Conscious, too, of American readers' tendency to dismiss foreigners' criticisms of US institutions and actions, it avoids excessive frankness. That is a pity, as the US would be more comfortable with itself and the rest of the world if it were given the oppor tunity of understanding what others thought of its policies. The Iraq cataclysm, to some extent, happened because a British prime minister felt there was no alternative to colluding with the US president in an illegal invasion.

Reid naturally shares in the general optimism about the region's future, suggesting that a better life for Latin Americans is "within closer reach today than at any time in their history". At the same time, the shadow of the Economist causes blind spots - or at least prevails on him not to formulate political ideas that he might have, but which might also get up the noses of mandarins on Wall Street, in Foggy Bottom and at the University of Chicago.

He is particularly opposed to Chávez and refuses to acknowledge the progress the Venezuelan leader has made in narrowing the gap between rich and poor, facts well documented by the UN. To Reid, Chávez is a "populist", the word US intellectuals use to designate those whom Hollywood and the Pentagon call "the bad guys". A "populist" is the sort of person who dares to encourage his people to challenge a north Atlantic view of things. Chávez the populist, for instance, rates 128 references, most of them hostile. On the other hand, Pinochet rates 17 references and the author treats his bloody tyranny gently. "Despite that trauma - some would say because of it - Chile has become the big success story of Latin America," claims Reid. His clever, well-written book will doubtless sell well in the United States.