What If Latin America Ruled the World?

By the 1880s, most of Latin America had secured independence from Spain. The new republics had established diplomatic missions in London, though their social events were not patronised by the wife of the new Conservative prime minister, Lord Salisbury. Indeed, condescension has often warped the transatlantic view of Latin America, safely written off as a palimpsest of Europe, albeit a more exotic one, with its coups, dictatorships and revolutions.

It is time, however, to acknowledge that this picture is out of date. Brazil is a rising world power. In Bolivia, the rights of the indigenous majority have been vindicated in a constitutional revolution. And, from Chile to Mexico, Latin American countries are surging out of recession as Europe and the US fret about the threat of a "double dip".

This renaissance coincides with a geopolitical shift - it now seems possible for Latin America to ignore the United States in a way that was not possible during the cold war - and the demographic transformation of the imperial power to the north. By 2005, Hispanics had become the largest ethnic minority in the US, approaching 50 million people. And in Los Angeles, the south-western states, where Mexicans have a historic presence, and Miami, revived by the Cuban influx in the 1960s, Latinos have taken political power.

To connect the rise of the south with the growing Latino influence in the north, and to balance the usually superficial press coverage of the region with fresh insights, is a considerable challenge. Unfortunately, this book is not up to the job. Nonetheless, there are some interesting angles here. For example, Guardiola-Rivera notes of the Spanish conquest that the indigenous people saw Francisco Pizarro and his acolytes as gods with an insatiable appetite for gold. And he places that conquest in a global context, showing how slavery and the extraction of bullion powered world trade. He also tries to connect the ethos of the Amerindians before the conquest with the economic models of present-day Brazil and Bolivia.

To this end, the author draws on history, anthropology, political science and economics, though he doesn't wear all this apparent erudition especially lightly. My suspicions about his authority were aroused when I read that St Patrick's Day is the day when the abolition of slavery is celebrated in Ireland - this was not a feature of the many St Patrick's Days I enjoyed as a schoolboy in Tipperary. Much of the research is undigested. Take his account of Che Guevara's ideas about the economy, borrowed from a book by the economic historian Helen Yaffe. Guardiola-Rivera has changed a few words of Yaffe's original précis without trying to make Che's elusive ideas any clearer.

The writing is often clotted and abstruse, and there are several errors of usage as well as long, repetitive sentences punctuated by lengthy footnotes that call to mind de Selby, the fictitious philosopher/scientist in Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman. The cumulative effect of Guardiola-Rivera's digressions and interpolations is irritating, and one wonders how he could possibly have imagined that these showy parentheses were relevant. When I turned to another pointless footnote beginning "To wit . . .", I also began to wonder: to whom?

Certainly not readers who may be attracted by the promise of the book's title. Guardiola-Rivera is forever losing his way. He proposes, for instance, that the story of a row over a slice of watermelon in 19th-century Panama is a perfect metaphor for US-Latin relations, but then doesn't mention it again for another ten pages. Later he introduces a little-known Chilean economist, Fernando Fajnzylber, but before we learn anything about him, he disappears; the next, cursory mention of him occurs 27 pages later.

Most frustrating of all is Guardiola-Rivera's failure to redeem any of the numerous promissory notes that litter the book. He tells us that he travelled extensively in the south-western and north-eastern United States at the time of the mass marches in support of undocumented immigrants in 2006. We don't get a proper account of these demonstrations, however - just a couple of quotations from two academic researchers and CNN.

The author tells us that he travelled throughout Latin America in order to discover the new mood, but he writes virtually nothing about that journey. And remarkably, for a book that decries the way the Amerindians were written out of history, the ordinary people occasionally pitched into the narrative are little more than ciphers - such as Natalia, who appears briefly to illustrate the seamy side of Miami and is eulogised for her perfectly shaped breasts and generous lips. Because of such distractions, Guardiola-Rivera never gets around to explaining how the south will drag the north into the 22nd century. And his epilogue, for all its elliptical portentousness, is essentially a rehash of post-recession conventional wisdom. Consequently, the real story of the Latin American renaissance remains untold.

What If Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North Into the 22nd Century
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera
Bloomsbury, 472pp, £20

Maurice Walsh's documentary about Latino Catholics in New York will be broadcast next month on the BBC World Service

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party