Economists and their Influence on Latin America’s Policies and Social Analysis

October 5, 2016

Starting in the 70s, during the 80s and, more decisively in the 1990s, most Latin American countries implemented reforms conducive to the instauration of neoliberalism, as much in an macroeconomic and institutional frame as in the organization of key social services. This included the privatization of public companies, removing foreign exchange controls, reducing import tariffs, reforming labor law, liberating capital markets, reforming the market for services and goods and negotiating free trade agreements. As for social services, reforms of pension systems, health services and utilities were the most significant ones.

The context in which these reforms took place was the debt crisis experienced by the region during the 1980s, and the crisis of the import substitution model followed by severe structural adjustment measures pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). These loans, as opposed to prior ones, were not intended for specific projects but for adjusting the whole of macroeconomic policy and organization of the State in search of financing stabilization and renegotiating the debt. By the early 1990s, practically all Latin American countries had received one such loan and were following the set of formulas that characterized the Washington Consensus. The set of measures aimed at promoting free trade and applying the Washington Consensus recipes meant a change of paradigm in the region in terms of the economic, social and institutional order. This change in paradigm implied walking away from the then prevalent import substitution model and its stress on development based on state intervention. Twenty five year after the implementation of neoliberalism in the region its achievements in terms of growth, stability and equity have been deceiving.1 Some authors consider that it has been more successful in shifting class power than as an instrument for economic growth.2

In Colombia, as opposed to other countries in the region, neoliberalism arrived relatively late and in a more moderate version than it did elsewhere. Macroeconomic stability reached by a gradual approach to reform, a conservative approach to salary increases, the absence of  military rule but for a short periodor a populist regime, explain a steady course of its economy during the second part of the XXth century. If it did guarantee stability, it did not produce large growth: per capita increase of GDP was slightly lower than 2 percent during the 1980-1990s, whereas population growth was about 2.5 percent. However, GDP growth picked up after the mid-1990s, with an average annual growth of 3.6% during the 1995-2013 period and a lower population growth of 1.4%.

In an article published in the Bulletin of Latin American Research4 I explain how economic rationality in Colombia came to play a growing role in the definition and institutionalization of public policies for fiscal, development and social services matters. In addition to the rise of a technocratic elite, this involved the positioning of economic rationality in controlling strategic institutions and in creating knowledge about society that came to be accepted as original and valid. The ascent of economists as opposed to the then prevalent elite of engineers and lawyers did not involve only economics and policy. In academia and among research centers and think tanks, it meant that economics became hegemonic as the “scientific” way to analyze the social order, via the use of econometric analysis and the neoclassical approach which then became standard for the analysis of a fair good deal of social phenomena. I look into the way in which sociology in Colombia lost almost all of its public prominence while economics, via research centers and think tanks, took over. I explain the mechanisms that enabled economists to occupy these positions, displacing engineers, lawyers and other social scientists such as sociologists. 


[1] Ffrench-Davis, Ricardo. 2003. Entre el neoliberalismo y el crecimiento con equidad: tres décadas de política económica en Chile. En: J.C Sáez (ed.), Santiago: Lom.

[2] Evans, P. & Sewell, H., 2013. “The Neoliberal Era: Ideology, Policy, and Social Effects”, in Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era (Hall, P. & Lamont, M. eds.). Cambridge University Press.

[3] The only exception was the military rule of Rojas Pinilla during 1953 and1957, followed by the National Front, a 16-year period of alternation in power of the conservative and liberal parties.



About Author(s)

Consuelo Uribe
Consuelo is a sociologist from Universidad Santo Tomas in Bogota, with a master's in Public Health from Harvard University and a PH. D. in social anthropology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Sciences Sociales in Paris. Her areas of research include social policy and social stratification and mobility. She is full professor at the Department of Sociology of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.