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A hunt for new dictators of growth

Latin America's poor economic performance in the past decade has overturned analysts' judgements that getting rid of the region's dictatorships and introducing free-market reforms would clear the path to sustainable economic growth.

THE LANDSCAPE OF Latin America provides constant reminders of bygone riches. From the grand opera houses of Buenos Aires to the mid-century modernist glories of Caracas or Brasilia, there is barely a city in the region that doesn't look upon its past with nostalgia for the good old days.

In 1950, for instance, Venezuela's GDP per capita, in 1995 dollars, was $6,021: twice that of Spain, three times that of Portugal, and four times that of Taiwan. By 1966, the per capita figure had increased to $9,588, still comfortably ahead of those other countries. By 2000, however, it had dived to $4,911 - a lower level than 50 years before. Spain, Portugal and Taiwan, by contrast, could each boast GDP per capita more than three times Venezuela's.

Although other countries in Latin America might not have suffered quite such dramatic losses, the general trend in the region is unmistakeable - strong growth from the end of World War II to about 1980, and extremely disappointing performance since then.

Sluggish growth

What's more, things haven't been getting better. Though there's no doubt that the 1990s were, in aggregate, less bad than the 1980s, Latin America has been experiencing sluggish growth rates for a very long time.

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