Review: Forgotten Continent, Michael Reid

Rating: 4 out of 5

The worst part about this book — which I begin with so I can praise it later — is that it is so current, which means that coming to it a few years after it was published, the book is extremely out of date. This is a clear problem when describing current affairs, and while I never minded it happening (while reading), it irked me that I didn’t know what happened between where the book draws to a close, sometime in mid-2017, and today (know easily; of course I could have looked up the answer to every question I had). This only became such a problem because the author conveyed the past excellently. For many of the countries, the place and time where the book ended seemed to be moments where anything could happen, all dependent on the next person in line.

This is a history of South America — or, rather, the Americas excepting the US and Canada as much of geographical North America is also covered via Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and other places in the region. This is good — and it was enough to make me abandon my usual caution for general histories, because this continent is generally ill treated in most literature. Mr Reid’s look into the region is insightful, often first hearkening back to the independence-period conflicts during which large countries, remnants of old viceroyalties, broke up into several smaller ones. It is also very interesting to observe how the autocratic tendencies of many of the founders progressed after the death of the original figures (including how many of the original founders (Dom Pedro, Bolivar, San Martin, etc) managed to maintain power). In many cases, the old system was a funnel into a new semi-democractic, oligarchical system. What the author doesn’t clearly mention is that this is not far off the progress in the old “mother country” where the ‘odd’ policy of el turno pacifico was practiced. However, we are straying from the topic…

The structure of this work is not country-by-country which could have worked better in certain cases — and yet possibly made for a more boring work overall. Instead, we jump in the consideration of one topic from Chile to Mexico to Cuba and then back. One such topic may only last for ten or twenty years during which similar considerations (or similar fancies of a single leader) affected these nations. This is more than a history of the countries, because the author seems to have built his own theory of the development of Latin America in this way. It is not a bad choice to structure a book around, but it does mean that the region is treated as a whole: it is much easier to read the whole book than only a section outlining the development of, for example, Brazil. But, overall the way Mr Reid presents his arguments and how he delves into the continent’s changes captivates the reader more than a simple country-by-country overview.

I am going to return to the point I started with. Much of this work relies on comparisons to Trump’s US and Brexit UK. This may have made for a good statement of populism in 2017 & 2018, but developments since then — including the apparent way how Latin America ignored those trends, having undergone them previously — almost require that this work gets updated. If and when it does, I will want to read it again: so much can happen in a short time, and the underlying trends that Mr Reid describes were very promising. Without that update, I would not.

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