The Idiots Abroad by John Tierney

November 8, 2005

From the New York Times by paid subscription, full text courtesy of Under the Broom Tree

The Idiots Abroad by John Tierney in the NYT

If President Bush wants to know what went wrong on his trip south, I recommend
a book by three Latin American journalists. Their “Guide to the Perfect
Latin American Idiot,” a best seller when it was published nine years ago,
remains indispensable for understanding phenomena like Diego Maradona.

Maradona, born in a shantytown near Buenos Aires,
became the world’s most famous soccer player in the 1980’s after he left Argentina to play for teams in Spain and Italy. Besides collecting his $5
million salary in Europe, he played exhibition
games in Arab countries at $325,000 per appearance and made $10 million
annually in endorsement contracts with corporations based in at least four
continents, companies like Puma, Fuji-Xerox and Coca-Cola.

And what did he learn from this international rags-to-riches tale? During
Bush’s visit to Argentina,
Maradona took time out from his busy schedule (he now has a television show) to
help rally tens of thousands of people against that horrible modern scourge:
free trade.

He was one of the headliners at the rally along with Hugo Chávez, the socialist
president of Venezuela, who
is determined to prevent a free trade agreement among Latin American countries
and the United States.

“We are going to stand against the human trash known as Bush,”
Maradona told the crowd, between puffs on a cigar given to him by one of his
heroes, Fidel Castro.

To be fair, this sort of thinker exists on other continents, too. But what
distinguishes the Perfect Latin American Idiot is his persistence. No matter
how far the continent falls behind the rest of the world, its populists cling
to the same beliefs in socialism and big government, the same distrust of
capitalism and free trade, the same conviction that Latin American poverty is
the fault of the United

“Maradona embodies the wonderful possibilities of globalization, yet he
does everything in his power to deny people poorer than himself to participate
in that world,” said one of the “Perfect Idiot” authors, Alvaro
Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian journalist (and son of the novelist Mario Vargas
Llosa). “Everything Maradona and Chavez stand for has been tried before.
These populists are repeating the mistakes of the Mexican Revolution, of Brazil in the 30’s, of Argentina in the 50’s, of Peru in the

The new wave of populists is led by Chávez, who’s been using the recent
windfall in oil revenues to expand government and solidify his hold on power.
But even while $100 million in oil money pours into Venezuela
every day ($60 million of that from those terrible gringos north of the Rio Grande), the poverty
rate has risen above 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the poverty rate has declined sharply in Chile, to about 20 percent
(compared with about 50 percent in the rest of the continent). Chile has become South America’s economic
success story by embracing capitalism and making its own free trade agreements
with the United States and
other countries, most recently China.

Bush went to the Latin America summit meeting hoping to persuade the rest of
the continent to follow Chile’s
example – the right message but the wrong messenger and the wrong place. Any
American president, especially one as unpopular as Bush, makes too easy a
target for the populists and rioters who turned the meeting into their own
photo opportunity.

“Nothing has ever emerged from a Latin summit,” said José Pińera, the
Chilean reformer who started the first private-account social-security system,
and then helped introduce similar systems in two dozen other countries.
“Real change blossoms from good internal public policies. President Bush
should not attend and dignify these weapons of mass distraction.”

The best American strategy, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa says, would be to do less in
Latin America. Instead of publicly pressuring
the whole continent to sign a free trade agreement, quietly make deals with the
countries that want one. Instead of denouncing and plotting against Chávez,
ignore him.

And instead of fighting a drug war in South America,
surrender. The war has been utterly ineffectual at stopping the flow of
cocaine, which has actually gotten cheaper on American streets. But by
infuriating communities in the Andes, the war
has created a political base for populists running on anti-American platforms.
They may be economic dunces, but in this case the perfect idiots are the drug
warriors in Washington
helping to elect them.

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