Latin America's unlikely revolutionary folk hero

US economist Joseph Stiglitz's latest book takes the IMF to task – and is rallying the Latin masses.

Step aside, Subcomandante Marcos. Latin America's latest revolutionary folk hero is no longer the masked, gun-toting Zapatista rebel from Mexico. It's a bearded, bespectacled US economics professor from New York's Columbia University.

Joseph Stiglitz makes for an unlikely insurrectionist. Before Columbia, he taught at Princeton and Stanford. During the 1990s, he chaired President Clinton's council of economic advisers and later served as chief economist at the World Bank. And last year he won a Nobel Prize for his analysis of "markets with asymmetric information."

Could he be more establishment?

But through his latest book, this establishmentarian is rallying the Latin masses against one of the world's biggest establishment causes: globalization.

"Globalization and its Discontents," released throughout Latin America in the past two months, has galvanized audiences. It has scaled bestseller lists in Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. It is currently No. 2 in Argentina.

For a continent raised on "magical realism" of novelists such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Marquez (whose much anticipated memoirs were released Tuesday night), Professor Stiglitz's scathing indictment of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) economic policies seems an unlikely chart-topper.

And it isn't just the geeks and graybeards who are reading it, either.

"At first the buyers were mostly professionals – economists, sociologists, political people – who had read the reviews in the newspapers," says Carlos Rossenblum, manager of the Crisol bookstore in Lima's San Isidro district. "But now we're seeing ... common people coming in to ask about it."

Inside the bright orange cover, readers find a detailed examination of the global economic crises of the past decade, spanning Asia, Russia, and Latin America. Stiglitz blames the IMF, the Washington-based lender, for exacerbating these crises by peddling "market fundamentalism" in poor nations with little regard for the social costs. Not exactly light reading.

But it has struck a chord. Stiglitz's critiques jibe with the "sour mood that pervades much of Latin America," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. At a time of severe recession in Argentina, and with Brazil seemingly poised to elect a leftist president later this month, the book's broad appeal reveals the disillusionment of many Latin Americans with the market-oriented reforms of the past decade.

"I am unemployed because of globalization," complains Luis Eduardo Tellez, an out-of-work architect in Bogotá, Colombia. He read the book in four days. "Stiglitz is speaking a great truth."

During the 1980s, Latin America experienced little economic growth, deepening poverty, and hyperinflation. Several countries turned to the "Washington Consensus," a set of free-market reforms that included freer trade, fiscal discipline, and privatization of state companies.

Although such measures often induced short-term pain such as layoffs and budget cuts, political leaders hoped the reforms would eventually bring long-term gain. Though the policies did well to tame inflation, they were less successful at promoting economic growth.

In this environment, Stiligtz's arguments find fertile ground. "I'm not surprised by the resonance of the book in Latin America," he said to the Monitor by telephone. "These are debates they've been having for a long time. I simply provide a logical structure for explaining why things have been as bad as they've been."

Some analysts say that the IMF is simply a convenient scapegoat. "Stiglitz is popular here because he has made his own the voice of an Argentina that seeks external demons for its problems," says Nicolás Ducote, executive director of CIPPEC, a public policy think tank in Buenos Aires. Mr. Ducote adds that the IMF is responsible for lending poorly and excessively, but points out that "our leaders were the ones who became indebted."

In the end, Stiglitz's appeal in the region likely will track Latin America's fickle financial fortunes. "If there is a serious economic crisis in the country caused by globalization, the book might become even more trendy," says Mr. Rossenblum, the Lima bookstore manager. "Unless, of course, no one has any money left to buy it."

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