Why does media coverage and public discussion on Latin America and the Caribbean, both in the United States and internationally, exhibit such extreme swings? While the behavior of Argentina’s current president or Venezuela’s now-deceased former head of state certainly brings to mind bipolar personality disorder, do U.S. media stories and public debate have to follow the same extremes?
Too often, U.S. and international coverage of the region falls into manic poles when covering the political and economic fortunes of the region. In reality, the developments in Latin America—and U.S. responses to them—are both more granular and more nuanced than the way the region is portrayed, even in respectable media.
The repetition of the same story-which goes back decades often without any sense of historical perspective or studied moderation of all the different factors at play—not only misses the real story, it also distorts the policy debate around and on the region. The media’s coverage of Brazil and Mexico provides a perfect case study of this pattern.
Six years ago, Brazil was the rising power, the new economic and political miracle of the region, with the country’s GDP growth averaging 3.5 percent from 2003 to 2013. Even two years after the Great Recession of 2008, in 2010 the South American giant posted growth of 7.5 percent growth and the media swooned. On a November 2009 cover, The Economist depicted Brazil as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue taking off into orbit—a symbol of the country’s inevitable rise.
At the same time that the media and many in the financial world were caught up in the delirium of Brazil’s arrival, around 2008 Mexico had become the whipping boy in the international media. First came President Felipe Calderón’s (2007-2013) war on narcotics trafficking and crime that brought a rash of violence—mostly among the cartels, as the military took out their leaders—and abuses committed by the military and corrupt local police forces. Then came swine flu in 2009, and, of course, the economic downturn following the Great Recession in the U.S., which, with Mexico’s economy so tightly bound up with the U.S.’s with more than 80 percent of Mexican exports going north,hit the U.S.’s southern neighbor particularly hard.
Rather than depict the complicated reality of a country of more than 100 million people, the media presented Mexico as the sh**storm to the U.S. south, with body counts mounting daily and an economy that was not only doomed by its connections to the U.S. but also watching its global market share being eaten into by manufactured goods coming from China. The Economist argued that the recession revealed deep structural challenges to the Mexican economy, and CNN declared that the drug war was bringing Mexico to the brink of a civil war. In fact, from 2007 to 2010 it was nearly impossible to find even a remotely positive story about Mexico.
If Brazil was the belle of the ball, Mexico was the ugly step sister. (Granted, some sober scholars such as Shannon O’Neil—on Mexico—and Ruchir Sharma—on Brazil—were trying to present more balanced views but it was like swimming upstream against an excessive dose of presentism based on generalities and the daily news.)
Often lost was the fact that while Brazil’s growth had been built on China’s buying its raw materials or that even if China was competing with Mexico it was in manufacturing goods—where developing countries should want to compete. In fact, even by 2006, Mexico was already taking back global market share from the Chinese in that coveted area of manufacturing goods, a result of Mexico’s close ties to the U.S. economy that helped facilitate high-end, technical cross-border production chains.
But that story didn’t fit the predominant narrative. And never mind that the murder rate in Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela was far higher than the U.S.’s southern neighbor. Mexico was a bloodbath.
That exaggeration of the two countries’ fates persisted … until it was replaced by equally extreme views.
By 2013, Brazil was the basket case and Mexico—after newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto tackled a series of long overdue reforms in the energy and telecoms sectors—was the favorite.
Suddenly many of the same media that had heralded Brazil’s arrival piled on in detailing the country’s doom and gloom, with CNN—for one— declaring flatly this year that Brazil had come from boom to bust. With economic growth flatlining, in 2014, The Economist published an update of its cover of the Christ the Redeemer statue, this time with the statue soaring wildly out of control (this time, though, not on the cover but inside the magazine.) The reason, many claimed, was that Brazil had done little to diversify in the good years beyond commodities, with excessive regulation choking off private sector growth, and fiscal profligacy not just busting the budget but crowding out rational private investment and credit.
But all of this was evident before. Wasn’t Brazil’s economy based on commodities during the manic, go-go years? Wasn’t the byzantine regulatory and tax structure always in place? Didn’t everyone already realize that the supposed pump-priming loans of Brazil’s national development bank, BNDES, were unsustainable, crowding out the rational allocation of private credit and raising the specter of corruption?
And never mind the fact that the very same story was repeated thirty years before, when The New York Times lamented the collapse of the Brazilian economic miracle in 1983, with the opening line “Brazil is the country that might have become another Japan. Instead, it is flat broke, with a broken spirit and an empty treasury.”
So, with Brazil crashing and burning it was—briefly—Mexico’s time to bask in media adulation. Suddenly, especially after the inauguration of President Peña Nieto, Mexico had overcome the cascade of darkness and self-doubt that plagued it only a few years earlier. Its economy started to grow again and the benefits of cross-border production and technology transfer with the U.S. that never made their way into the media stories just a few years earlier became a favorite topic now. The Washington Times did an extended story on Mexico’s aeronautics industry and Tom Friedman got into the act publishing an op ed in the The New York Times titled “How Mexico Got Back Into the Game,” extolling the advances and potentials of the country’s economy. President Pena Neito even made it on the cover of Time magazine with the title “Saving Mexico.”
But the media-inspired swoon nosedived when it was revealed that 43 students disappeared in Iguala in the state of Guerrero apparently at the orders of a local mayor in collusion with a drug gang. Suddenly all the old doubts came back, and, in the throes of a full-on depressive attack,the media turned again, this time not stopping at the tragic fate of the students but also adding on the uncertainty of the telecoms reforms, the plunging price of oil and the outpouring of political frustration over the ongoing violence, allegations of corruption and the lack of political change. (Never mind that many of those trends were evident when Mexico was on a high; now they made for an airtight story of the country’s doom by resurrecting them and adding them to the current mix.)
So, now both Mexico and Brazil are on the outs. They are a mess, according to the media. Nothing to believe. Nothing good.
What are we to believe?
In reality, these countries and their economic and political situations are more complicated than they are usually presented in the U.S.—and not just in the past 15 years. We need to understand that Latin America is more than just a problem about to be quickly resolved or a region teetering on the brink of disaster. Rather, it is a diverse region in a process of non-linear development and change. And in that process the region has developed and improved, but those successes have not been shared by all. Regardless of economic swings and the bipolarity that plagues the coverage of the region, there are real stories—human and policy to be told here and real successes—albeit tempered by ongoing challenges. Unfortunately those points of view or nuance rarely make it into U.S. media coverage.
The real problem with this bipolarity in the media’s coverage of the region—and thus the public discussion around it—is that it shortens the time horizon for U.S. policymakers. That’s not to say that U.S. bureaucrats all mindlessly run scurrying off trying to fix the next problem of the country that the media has decided is the proximate sign that all is falling apart. But these trumped-up crises consume an inordinate amount of attention and risk, swaying both policy and public attention away from balanced and genuine political and socioeconomic gains that have occurred in region beyond the headlines.
Worse of all, perhaps, is that it also shapes Americans’ perception of the region. Ever wonder why U.S. citizens care or understand so little about the region? Maybe it has to do with the fact that they’re fed a steady diet of countries that once seemed on a glide path to success but then fail spectacularly.
Quite frankly, the region and those who care about it are far more sophisticated about Latin America. But you wouldn’t know it from the way it’s often presented in the media.