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Volume 61 / Social Sciences

POLITICAL ECONOMY: GENERAL


JONATHAN HISKEY, Associate Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University


THE COLLECTION OF WORKS reviewed for this chapter, though only a small slice of recent research on the political economy of Latin America during the neoliberal era, represents well many of the emerging trends. As the region's "dual transition" is now in its third decade, with many countries still mired in a vicious cycle of "reform-growth-crisis-reform," many political economy scholars have begun to move beyond the initial, high-profile issues of why and how countries across the region adopted market reforms during a period of political opening. While several important works reviewed here address the politics behind market-based reforms (items #bi2004002173# and #bi2004001012#), new issues are being explored in large part due to the growing availability of data on the outcomes of market and political reforms in the region. Virtually every country in the region has suffered through multiple rounds of economic reform and crisis, with nearly as many experiencing varying degrees of political crises, as well. In short, results from the neoliberal experiment are now available for analysis, and scholars are pursuing ways to explain the dramatic variations in reform outcomes across the region.

Most notable among these trends is a shift in focus from the political determinants of reform to the political and economic aftermath of the region's dual transition. From Snyder's work (item #bi 00006823#) on the importance of subnational variations in political institutions for understanding the outcomes of market-based reforms to Ffrench-Davis' edited volume (item #bi2004001891#) on variations in responses to the multiple economic crises that have afflicted the region over the past 20 years, many of these contributions bring to the fore the role that existing political institutions play in shaping the economic and political consequences of the neoliberal reform agenda. Rather than seeing politics as receding under the onslaught of a market-based economic development paradigm, much of the current political economy research finds that political factors have become even more essential to understanding the long-term consequences of the region's "dual transition" (item #bi2002006269#).

Among the themes addressed that encapsulate this emerging approach to the study of neoliberal reform are the role of politics in the implementation of social policies designed to ameliorate the most pernicious consequences of economic reforms (items #bi2004002154#, #bi2002006284#, and #bi2002006279#); the increasing importance of subnational political institutions and actors in determining the outcomes of a neoliberal agenda (item #bi2004001893#); and the tremendous variations in economic and political outcomes of specific neoliberal reforms that were implemented during the early years of the transition era (items #bi2004002599#, #bi 00007253#, #bi2004002179#, #bi2004002178#, and #bi2004002169#). Most encouraging is a move away from treating causes and consequences of economic and political reforms as uniform across a country, and instead treating them as highly contingent on pre-existing subnational political and socioeconomic characteristics (items #bi2003002032#, #bi 00006823#, and #bi2002001585#).

A more fundamental issue addressed in various forms involves the consequences of the growing divide between the rhetoric and reality of democracy and economic reform for citizens of Latin America's young democracies. Numerous authors view this gap as critical to understanding the increasing dissatisfaction with the neoliberal model and its social consequences, which continue to plague the region (items #bi2002006272#, #bi2002006281#, #bi2004002182#, and #bi2004002170#). Interestingly, alongside this research on the growing inequalities and dissatisfaction with reform in Latin America have come analyses that suggest a fairly solid base of support among Latin Americans for at least some elements of the neoliberal reform package (items #bi2003002050# and #bi2002002230#). Taken together, these conflicting findings portend a possibly dangerous growing chasm between the winners and losers of the region's dual transition.

A related, and equally significant, trend in political economy research over the past several years is a focus on the "second wave" of economic and political reforms in the region. Common to both sets of reforms is the decentralization of a wide range of government activities to historically weak subnational levels of government. This reform strategy has received great impetus from the international development community as a means to bring government closer to the people and, in the process, improve its efficiency and levels of citizen support for democratic systems of government. As many of the works reviewed here show, however, the decentralization process raises an entirely new set of issues concerning the benefits and consequences of empowering local governments in the region (items #bi2004001886#, #bi2002006289#, and #bi2004002174#). This area promises to remain a central topic of research and as a consequence should reinforce the growing attention to within-nation variations across critical political, economic, and cultural factors.

As the focus on processes of decentralization and subnational factors has grown in the political economy research, so too has concern with how the "forces of globalization" impinge on domestic patterns of development within Latin America. Elements of globalization are surely critical to understanding recent political and economic development in the region, but the value of research in this area often depends on specifying the mechanisms that emerge from a more interconnected global economy, and their impact on processes of internal political and economic change. While some works tend to overstate the impact of globalization, typically by attributing to it all of the region's ills, a number of works reviewed here offer useful insights into how international actors and less discernable "global forces" either undermine or reinforce political and economic reform efforts taking place within Latin America (items #bi2002005297#; #bi2004002175#, #bi2004002594#, and #bi2002006273#).


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