Brian Winter on Brazil, Argentina, and the Future of Latin America (Ep. 216)

Come for the churrasco. Stay for the economic deep dives across Latin America.

It’s not just the churrasco that made him fall in love with Brazil. Brian Winter has been studying and writing about Latin America for over 20 years. He’s been tracking the struggles and triumphs of the region as it’s dealt with decades of coups, violence, and shifting economics. His work offers a nuanced perspective on Latin America’s persistent challenges and remarkable resilience.

Together Brian and Tyler discuss the politics and economics of nearly every country from the equator down. They cover the future of migration into Brazil, what it’s doing right in agriculture, the cultural shift in race politics, crime in Rio and São Paulo, the effectiveness and future consequences of Bukele’s police state in El Salvador, the economic growth of Colombia despite continued violence, the prevalence of startups and psychoanalysis in Argentina, Uruguay’s reduction in poverty levels, the beautiful ugliness of Sao Paulo, where Brian will explore next, and more.

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Recorded April 15th, 2024

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Thank you to listener Dennis Sheehan for sponsoring this transcript.

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Brian Winter. Let me just give you the introduction from Brian himself. He’s the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a long-standing analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region. He’s lived in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. He was a correspondent for Reuters. He also has been vice president of policy for the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He’s been called the best foreign expert on Brazil of this moment.

He’s the author of several books, including Why Soccer Matters, a New York Times bestseller, co-authored with Brazilian soccer legend Pelé; The Accidental President of Brazil, co-authored with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; and Long After Midnight, a memoir about trying and failing to learn to tango in Argentina. He’s a regular contributor to television and radio, a host of the Americas Quarterly podcast, and a prolific barbecuer and chef. I very much enjoy following him on Twitter @BrazilBrian. Brian, welcome.

BRIAN WINTER: It’s such an honor, Tyler. Thank you for having me.

COWEN: I have so many questions. Let me start with a simple one. Why is Brazil stuck?

WINTER: Oh, my goodness, I take a longer view on Brazil. I’ve been following the country for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen progress. This is a country that has its challenges, but it is one of the hemisphere’s most solid democracies. It is a country that has lifted millions out of poverty over the last 20 years. It’s more of a middle-class country than it used to be.

I know what you mean by stuck. It’s an economy that doesn’t grow nearly enough. It has this political turmoil that makes headlines every now and then. But if you take that longer view, it’s a better place than it was when I first started following it back in the 2000s.

COWEN: Say they just grow at about 2 percent, which has been common lately, now that the China boom, the soya boom are over. Their fertility seems to be about 1.55. What’s the future? Don’t they just shrink and get poorer?

WINTER: We might all shrink, Tyler. This is not a question that Brazil alone is facing. We’re seeing it across the Western world. But the danger here is real, and it’s the same danger that faces China as well. It’s the danger that these countries will get old before they get rich, and this is an issue we’re seeing across much of the developing world.

COWEN: What’s the future of migration into Brazil? The US might be below replacement rates, but we can get a lot of the world’s best immigrants. Brazil doesn’t seem very interested in recreating its early 20th-century traditions when it took in people from across the world. Why not? Is that going to change? Is it just people coming from Paraguay? What’s the future of migration to Brazil?

WINTER: As you rightly point out, Tyler, it’s been a long time since Brazil was a real destination for immigrants. I’m actually working on a book about São Paulo right now and revisiting a lot of this history, when they had what they called the Immigrant Inn. It was in São Paulo, and it received thousands of immigrants at a time, mostly from Italy, also from Spain.

Brazil also has the world’s largest Japanese population outside Japan. So many people came there from the old Ottoman Empire — today Syria and Lebanon — that the mayors of São Paulo over the years have had names like Kassab, Haddad, Malouf.

It does have that tradition of immigration, but that ended really with the Great Depression and the crash in coffee prices back when Brazil was producing as much as three-quarters of the world’s coffee. It was a real blow to them and changed everything. You’re right, it’s not a big receiver of immigrants today, although there are about 500,000 Venezuelans who’ve come there in recent years, fleeing the collapse of the socialist dictatorship there.

It has an equally sized population of people from Bolivia, so it still receives not as much as it otherwise might. I have to say that Portuguese is part of the challenge here. It’s a language that not that many people know. For example, even for the Venezuelans, that’s out of a diaspora of 8 million. Most of them have gone to other Spanish-speaking countries, but the ones that have gone to Brazil have been pretty happy with their decision.

COWEN: Why is Brazilian agriculture not stuck? Productivity there seems to be very high. What’s Brazil doing right in this one area?

WINTER: Having a privileged location in the tropics and being able to have two harvests a year sometimes because of the climate and the soil — that helps.

COWEN: But plenty of countries have that. Brazil’s done something unusual.

WINTER: There’s an old expression — thankfully a bit out of date now — that held that Brazil was the most efficient farming country in the world until goods left the farm. What that was a reference to was the fact that the roads, infrastructure, rail, ports, and so on were not really up to par.

But there has been an improvement. Not enough, but again, this is another area where, over the last 20 years, this soy that used to travel over two-lane or even one-lane mud roads — at least now it’s paved in a lot of places. Some of these rail links are also improving. This is another area where, I think, if you take that longer-term perspective, things are getting a little bit better.

COWEN: What’s the economic geography of Brazil going to look like? All the wealth near Mato Grosso and the north just very, very poor? Or the north empties out? How’s that going to work? There used to be some modest degree of balance.

WINTER: That’s true. Most of the population in Brazil and the economic center, for sure, was in the southeast. That means, really, São Paulo state, which is about a quarter of Brazil’s population but roughly a third of its GDP. Rio as well, and the state of Minas Gerais, which has a name that tells its history. That means “general mines” in Portuguese. That’s the area where a lot of the gold came out of in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s gone now, so it’s not as much of an economic pull.

You’re right, Tyler, though, that a lot of the real boom right now, the action, is in places like Mato Grosso, which is in the region of Brazil called the Central West. That’s soy country. I’m from Texas, and Mato Grosso is virtually indistinguishable from Texas these days. It’s hot. It’s flat. The crop, like I said, is soy. There’s cattle ranching as well.

Even the music — Brazil, as others have noted, has gone from being the country of bossa nova and the samba in the 1970s to being the country of sertanejo today. Sertanejo is a Brazilian cousin of country music with accordions, but it’s sung by people — men mostly — in jeans, big belt buckles, and cowboy hats. They’re importing that — not only that economic model but that lifestyle as well.

COWEN: What is the great Brazilian music of today? MPB is dead, right? So, what should someone listen to?

WINTER: I have a guilty love for sertanejo. Again, I’ve revealed myself as a Texan to your listeners, who likes the classics like George Strait and Clint Black and some of the big names from the ’80s and ’90s. Sertanejo is a bit different. If hip-hop is your thing, Anitta (two t’s) is the big artist of the moment. To the despair of some, that culture today — perhaps because it is somewhat derivative of country music in the United States — is not taking over the world in the same way that Jean Gilberto and Gilberto Gil and so many others did in the 1950s and 1960s.

On Brazil’s dynamism — or lack thereof

COWEN: How do you think that being a Texan makes you more optimistic about Brazil? If you would even accept the claim at all.

WINTER: That’s a really good question. It certainly makes me appreciate the cowboy culture and churrasco, which is the Brazilian barbecue culture, as well. I think both places, in addition to being hot and green, are forward-looking.

I came to Brazil from Argentina. I lived in Argentina first. Argentina is a country that is obsessively focused on its past. That’s a country that 100 years ago, famously, was one of the 10 richest countries in the world and today, has slipped back well into the middle of the pack somewhere in the ’60s, depending on what indicator you’re looking at. Argentina is a tango. It’s nostalgia. It’s melancholy.

Brazil has always been about the future, sometimes to a fault. It’s not a place where people remember precedent, where they remember lessons of history. They’re focused on the future. If you grew up in a place like Dallas — like I did — which was built entirely, for the most part, in the 20th century, I think there’s probably something of that that resonates with me.

COWEN: But is Brazil still looking toward the future? As you know, they built Brasilia in the middle of nowhere. Whatever you think of Brasilia, it was quite an achievement. It’s hard for me to imagine them doing that now. I’ve read that Outback Steakhouse is quite popular in Brazil. You’ve talked about rap music, derivatives of country and Western. Where’s the real future-looking, forward-looking element in Brazil? Where do you see it?

WINTER: I think you see it — and this may sound a bit hokey, Tyler — but you feel it when you talk to people. It’s a country of smiles, of people who sometimes live just incredibly difficult lives. Talking about people who live in the periphery of cities like São Paulo in Brazil who spend five hours a day on a bus commuting in and out of traffic in order to work minimum wage jobs.

These people enjoy life, sometimes more than, I would say, often more than the people that I live among in Westchester County just outside New York, who, I look around sometimes on the commuter train, and nobody looks happy. I don’t want to romanticize things. I think that you find unhappy people in Brazil too, but there’s a joy in life that people manage to seize upon, even when the economy is not doing well, perhaps because they’re accustomed to this kind of slow growth situation that we’ve been talking about.

COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader, and I quote, “Does the change in the style of play of Brazil’s national soccer team over the last 20 years (more disciplined and rigorous with fewer players free to create) a result of a change in the national culture or vibe?”

WINTER: I think that Brazilians would probably tell you that, actually, the soccer team has not evolved enough. I would gently point out — because I know that there are Brazilian listeners here who will recoil when I say this — but it has been 22 years since Brazil won the last World Cup, which is quite serious for a country that has won five World Cups over the years, more than any other country.

There’s a real view that I hear from people in the country that, actually, part of the problem is that improvisation and talent are not enough anymore, and that Brazilian soccer really needs to professionalize. Now, they continue to produce amazing players — Neymar, Vinicius Jr., and others — but they also have another disadvantage, which is that so many more of their players these days play club soccer in Europe.

If you look back at the golden age, the age with Pelé, these were players who played almost entirely on teams within Brazil, who knew each other, and perhaps that was an advantage as well.

COWEN: Do you think there’s something about the Brazilian spirit or national psyche that somehow worked better in the world of the 1950s and ’60s, where improvisation was more relevant, maybe more productive in a lot of areas? Cinema — you have a movie such as Black Orpheus. I’m sure you know it. Is there anything comparable today that has global force? A Brazilian movie, a something. What would it be?

WINTER: That’s a good question, Tyler, and to be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss, and this is something that Brazilian commentators have also seized upon. This idea that the cool Brazil, the one that people of a certain age think of, that comes to mind — samba, the beats of bossa nova, Black Orpheus, to take the example you cited — that’s not present today. There’s been a lot of soul-searching within Brazil as to why that is. They watch, for example, the prominence that South Korea has taken on in shows like — oh gosh, what’s the one on Netflix? The really violent one . . .

COWEN: Squid Game.

WINTER: Squid Game. A lot of Brazilians saw that in the cultural moment of K-pop and everything else, and said, “That used to be us. What has happened to us that we’re no longer on the main stage to the degree that we were in the past?” I think some of it is that others have caught up. Then perhaps there’s a cyclical element to this as well.

I can tell you that Brazil remains a tremendously seductive place to visit. You spend time in places like São Paulo, Rio, Salvador, and you still see echoes of that Brazil that seduced the world once upon a time and continues to do so, not necessarily as part of pop culture, but certainly to people who visit.

On crime in Brazilian cities

COWEN: How is it that you understand the current crime situation in São Paulo? As I’m sure you know, the murder rate has dropped a great deal, but if you actually walk on the streets, it doesn’t feel very good. In some ways, the older, more violent São Paulo seemed cleaner or to have fewer derelicts. What’s the general framework for making sense of what’s gone on there?

WINTER: That’s a really perceptive question, Tyler. São Paulo — the crime situation there is a complex story. Their homicide rate has actually gone down more than 80 percent over the last 25 years. It’s a tremendous achievement. It was one of the world’s most violent — in terms of homicide — cities as recently as the late ’90s. That rate now is only about 5 per 100,000, which is lower than the US national average, and quite a bit lower than many US cities. But, and there is a but here —

COWEN: There is a but.

WINTER: — it is a country, or city rather, where you are still much more likely to be a victim of an armed robbery, of a carjacking, to have your cell phone taken from your hands. A lot of people when they go there, either as visitors or members of the economic elite in São Paulo, choose to have armored cars, choose to not pull out their cell phone when they’re out on the street.

As a matter of fact, with the spread of payment apps and Brazil’s digital currency, which is an amazing story in itself — it’s called Pix — a lot of Brazilian friends I know have stopped taking their cell phone out of the house at all because they’re afraid that either the phone will be stolen or they’ll be the victims of a kidnapping and made to empty their account. That’s a reality. That’s serious. I’ve been very interested in the progress that they have made on the homicide front, but when you talk to ordinary people, regular people in São Paulo, the perception is that violence has not gotten any better.

There’s another issue here, which you made reference to, which is that the street population has, by some measures, tripled in the last 10 years. Some of that is the pandemic, but there seem to be other factors as well.

COWEN: What do you think will happen with crime in Rio de Janeiro, the city? Is that even stable? Can it continue? It seems something has to give.

WINTER: Rio, in some ways, is a repeat of the story that I just told about São Paulo, but without the progress from a security standpoint. It remains very worthwhile to visit. It’s also an economic center, a cultural center of the country. There’s a lot more to these places besides just street crime.

But the fact is, it’s a very complicated situation. You have these groups that Brazilians call milicias, which sounds like militias, but they’re really best thought of as paramilitary groups. These are groups that are often composed of police officers who control organized crime in vast areas of the city. Look, it’s another area where Brazil has work to do. These are challenges that are faced all across Latin America.

One of the big stories happening in Latin America right now is this spread of organized crime, which was already bad. This has always been an issue as long as I’ve been following the region. With the doubling in the production of cocaine that we’ve seen over the last 10 years, and keeping in mind that almost all the world’s cocaine is produced in just three countries — that’s Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia — the smuggling routes lead out of those countries and touch virtually every other country in Latin America. The illegality and organized crime that takes root around that is the source of a lot of these issues.

On Brazilian race relations

COWEN: What do you think is the most significant change of mind or change of opinion you’ve had in the last 10 years about race relations in Brazil? One reads a great deal about this. Obviously, it’s different from America, but since you’ve started, what is it you’ve changed your mind about? What new insights do you have now you didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago?

WINTER: Race is a subject in Brazil that I always approach with humility as an American, because we, of course, have our own amply documented issues. Racism in Brazil is different in some ways but similar in others. There has been a huge debate within Brazil about identity and the nature of Brazilian racism over the last 10 years or so.

One consequence of this, Tyler, is that the percentage of people who identify as Black or mixed race has gone way up in census data in that time. It’s gone from, I believe, somewhere in the upper 40s to about 56 percent today. It’s not because Brazil became more Black or had more mixed-race people, but because people are more inclined to identify themselves with pride as being part of that group.

It’s all a saga that has been going on for hundreds of years that has echoes in the same history that we have here in the US, but in some ways, it happens on a bigger scale in Brazil. Here’s a figure that Americans are always surprised to learn. Brazil imported more than 5 million people from Africa from the 16th century through 1850. That is more than 10 times the number of slaves that were imported into the United States. We’re talking about an issue that has had reverberations that in some ways are far bigger.

At the same time, there was always more mixing of the races in Brazil. Segregation along racial lines was never a thing, in part because it was not feasible because there had been so much mixing. There was a long tradition in Brazil, especially among the elite, of claiming that there was no racism in Brazil. I think that the country has come to grips with the fact that that’s not true, that there was racism. It was different from racism in the United States, but racism nonetheless. People are grappling with that at the same time that they’re more inclined to identify themselves as Black, which is a fascinating thing to watch.

COWEN: For you, which is the most interesting ethnic small town in southern Brazil?

WINTER: Ethnic small town — you’re referring to like the German communities and places?

COWEN: Yes. Pomerode — somewhere like that, which for me was fascinating.

WINTER: I’d like to hear your story of Pomerode. I have to say, my favorite example of an ethnic enclave in Brazil is actually in São Paulo. It’s a neighborhood called Liberdade, which means freedom, means liberty. This was the pull for the Japanese community that came to Brazil starting in the 1900s. As I said earlier, it’s the biggest Japanese community outside Japan. They have integrated themselves exceptionally well into the country. You walk through this neighborhood and you see sushi places, ramen restaurants, and then coconut water and tropical juices.

This neighborhood is also notable for other reasons. Prior to becoming a Japanese neighborhood in the 17th and 18th century, the name tells it all — Liberdade. It was one of the first neighborhoods where freed slaves in São Paulo lived. It has that whole history that is being uncovered as we speak, as part of this moment of racial awakening that I already described.

COWEN: For me, Pomerode was so boring, it was interesting. Incredibly quiet, north German architecture. The dialect maybe almost sounded like Plattdeutsch, I’m not sure. People didn’t believe me when I said I was an American. None of the categories made sense to them. People were friendly; it felt German. This was the 1990s, and it was like a time warp more than anything. Nowhere in Germany would be the way Pomerode was in the 1990s.

WINTER: Brazil has that. There are dishes and dances of the old Japanese community that have been preserved in Brazil in a way that they were not in Japan. It’s a country — in part, because of that rich tradition of immigration that we were discussing earlier — that has all kinds of enclaves like that, that are fascinating to visit.

COWEN: Where’s the best churrasco in Brazil?

WINTER: At somebody’s ranch, if you can manage.

COWEN: But say, in commercial markets. I would say outside of Curitiba in some of the suburbs, but I’m not sure. There are plenty of parts I’ve never been to.

WINTER: It’s hard to go wrong. I’ve had some amazing churrasco in São Paulo, but also up in the new cattle country, up in Mato Grosso. I assume a lot of your audience has been to the all-you-can-eat rodizios of Brazilian barbecue here in the US. It’s basically like that, but what you don’t always get here in the US is these vast buffets of other things, where you can get your picanha, which is the classic. They always translate that as rump steak, which makes it sound terrible, but it’s the best, most classic Brazilian cut. Then line that up with hearts of palm that are sometimes almost the size and diameter of a flagpole.

COWEN: Those are my favorite.

WINTER: That’s a real treat.

COWEN: They’re more memorable than the beef.

WINTER: That’s right.

On Bukele’s influence in the region

COWEN: Awesome. Some questions about other countries. If we look around Latin America, one can see that Nicaragua and Cuba are quite safe. The cost of getting there has been way, way too high. They’re not successful countries. Does that strengthen the case for Bukele, that, in essence, there’s not any simple way to a safe Latin American country if you start out dangerous?

WINTER: What you say is true in the sense that police states can be quite safe, and Nicaragua and Cuba are places where no type of dissent is tolerated today. El Salvador — it’s not there yet. I think it’s fair to wonder whether that is what Nayib Bukele has in mind. Of course, Nayib Bukele — you already named him, the very charismatic millennial El Salvadoran leader with the backwards baseball cap. What he has done is throw more than 1 percent of his country’s population in jail over the course of a year.

El Salvador is not a big country. To put that in proportional terms, to do the equivalent thing in the United States, that would be putting more than 3 million more people in jail in the course of 12 months. That’s how dramatic what Bukele has done. So far, it has met with success in terms of reducing homicide numbers. El Salvador’s official homicide index is now lower than that of the United States. There’s some question about whether those numbers are accurate, but certainly the trend is real, is very clear. The problem, of course, is that he’s done that without, in many cases, due process for the people who he’s put in jail.

COWEN: Is there a better alternative?

WINTER: I think yes, but it takes time. It involves building up your police forces, professionalizing your judiciary, and sending people the old-fashioned way to jail, by putting them on trial first. For societies that are not willing to tolerate that, that don’t have that patience — because they think that they’re going through a crisis, an emergency — I have to say I understand why Bukele has an approval rating upwards of 80 percent, because the results are real.

The history of the world is full of societies, including democratic societies, that have been willing to suspend civil liberties in the name of a national emergency. We did that here in the United States during the Civil War with the suspension of habeas corpus. We did it with the internment camps of the World War II era with the Japanese population. We, as a society, almost always regret these things after the fact, but they’re seen as necessary at the time.

The real debate for me that Bukele awakens is, I may think that what Bukele is doing is anti-democratic, but if he was just voted in a second term as president with a huge mandate, then arguably El Salvador’s society has a democratic sovereign right to make that decision and to sign off on what he’s doing, which is, again, sending a lot of people — including, almost certainly, innocent people — to jail. If that’s a cost that Salvadoran society is willing to take, then perhaps they have a right to do that.

It remains to be seen how exportable that model is to other countries in the region. You hear a lot of politicians saying nice things about Bukele, but no other country really has yet gone down that path.

COWEN: Ecuador and Honduras are trying a bit, but half-heartedly. It may be an all-or-nothing thing if you’re going to make it work. Otherwise, gang members just train other gang members.

WINTER: Look, we do have examples in recent history, imperfect examples of countries that reduced violence and that broke the grip of drug gangs under democracy. I would cite Colombia of the 2000s. This was a period that saw many human rights abuses. A Colombian military that we now know killed thousands of innocent people, but — to the extent that it’s possible to say “but” after a declaration like that — homicide rates did dramatically fall, and it’s a very different-feeling country than it used to be.

Point is, Bukele is not the only route. I agree with you when you say that there is no easy, fast, democratic route to improving security when you’re dealing with cartels and organized crime groups that have the resources that some of these groups do, with their pockets filled with the dollars of customers of cocaine in the United States, Europe, and other countries around Latin America.

On Colombia’s surprisingly smooth growth

COWEN: Speaking of Colombia, I have a question about the country. I’ve never understood this. If I look at the history long term, it seems — not seems, it is quite violent, even by Latin standards. If I look at the history of economic growth in Colombia, it’s actually fairly smooth and steady. Is there any single theory of the country that can account for both of those facts?

WINTER: I’m always skeptical of simple, neat theories, but I would point to geography. Colombia, in a way, is unique. It is a country where the capital is on top of the mountain in Bogotá. Colombia is a country of plateaus. It is a very difficult territory for any central authority to control. Some have compared it — by “some” I mean development agencies at the UN and others — have compared it, in terms of its geography, to Afghanistan with areas that are just completely separated from each other.

The story in Colombia over time has been that of a competent government in Bogotá that does not control all of the national territory. It remains true today. There are vast pockets of the country that federal authority simply does not get to. That has been a big reason why it was one of the very few Latin American countries that never defaulted on its debt in the 1980s. They never had a hyperinflation.

Their economy, Tyler, as you noted, has almost always consistently grown. Yet they’ve had these huge problems with guerilla movements and general lawlessness, partly because of geography and partly because of, let’s say, a lack of political will to go and dominate, subdue, bring rule of law to these parts of the country that were not under the federal umbrella. It’s not just about geography; it’s about political will as well.

COWEN: But a good civil service, right?

WINTER: A breathtakingly competent civil service. A certain consensus around the need for sound fiscal management, which anyone who follows Latin America knows is not something you should ever take for granted. Like a lot of these countries, they have things that they’ve done well and areas where they still need to improve.

COWEN: What’s the most interesting lesser-known part of Colombia to visit?

WINTER: Oh gosh. I’m not sure it’s lesser known. I am quite taken with Cartegena, as many visitors are. Medellín, the land of the eternal spring. Montería is an area I’ve been to that looks a lot like the Mato Grosso and the cattle country in Brazil that we were discussing earlier. It’s a beautiful place. I would say, having stuttered around this a little bit, my favorite place is the Sierra Nevada, which is unique in the global context.

As the name suggests, it’s a snowy range of mountains from which you can see the Caribbean Sea. The fact that there is a mountain range where you can simultaneously see the Caribbean and sometimes there is snow on the ground never ceases to amaze me. It is a beautiful place, one of these troubled parts of the country where, for a long time and intermittently, federal authority comes and goes. If you can ever manage to go and feel safe, there are few places in the world quite like that.

COWEN: I’m bringing my sister for birdwatching to Santa Marta in May, which is not so far from there, right?

WINTER: What are your favorite birds? What are you hoping to see while you’re there?

COWEN: It’s really a trip for my sister. She’s a well-known amateur bird photographer. She’s heavily into birdwatching. I’m not, but I’m heavily into Colombia, and I’ve been to enough places that I feel I can bring her around, and she wouldn’t go on her own, so we’re doing it.

WINTER: Good for you.

On Argentina

COWEN: Argentina — why is the Jockey Club so popular in Buenos Aires? I’m sure you’ve noticed this.

WINTER: I have noticed this. I think two reasons. One is that Argentina is regarded, even today, by many as the heart of polo culture and horse culture globally. People say Florida and Provincia de Buenos Aires are the main places to be. But a lot of this also, Tyler, as I was saying earlier — everything or almost everything in Argentina ends up being about past glory and past wealth. And the Jockey Club is really one of those places still left in the city where you can look around and squint a little bit, imagine it’s 1920 and this is still the “Paris of South America.”

It’s not the only place that’s like that. Actually, the city itself looks good. It looks better than it did when I covered Argentina’s economic meltdown in my first job out of college, more than 20 years ago. But the economy today — speaking of things that are cyclical — you’ve got inflation above 270 percent. It doesn’t take long, even at the Jockey Club, to realize that not all is well in the country right now.

COWEN: I agree with your nostalgia point, but as I’m sure you know, there are so many very good startups from Argentina, though they may leave the country, go to Brazil, go to Mexico. Why is there this mix of creativity and nostalgia?

WINTER: I’m not sure they’re mutually exclusive. I would frame it slightly differently. The intellectual capital and firepower that you see in Argentina is still very strong. I’ve always believed, as someone who’s probably spent too many hours of my life thinking about Argentine decline, cultural and intellectual capital erodes less quickly than economic capital. You still see these amazing centers of excellence in Buenos Aires.

What these entrepreneurs will tell you — the founders of these companies that you mentioned, like Mercado Libre or Globant, that have really become world beaters on the global stage . . . Mercado Libre, at this point, is one of the biggest e-commerce companies in the entire world and competes with Amazon.

What these founders will tell you is that, actually, starting their businesses in such an uncertain macroeconomic environment has made them incredibly lean, disciplined, and ready to go out into the world and dominate. The idea being that if you can make it in Argentina, where conditions can dramatically change from one day to the next, almost like the weather, then you can survive damn near anything. That has been one reason why a lot of these companies have had so much success on the global stage.

You look around Spanish-speaking Latin America, and the big tech giants, the ones that really dominate — with some exceptions — they tend to be Argentine.

COWEN: Why is psychoanalysis still so popular in Buenos Aires?

WINTER: [laughs] A lot of people — it’s a very popular question. It’s not just popular. According to several studies, it has the world’s highest per capita rate of psychoanalysis. Freud was very big there over the years.

Having lived there for four years myself, I never saw one, but virtually every Argentine friend did, and they spoke about it in a way that was very natural. “I went to the gym this morning, and then I went to the supermarket to buy some bread. After that, I went to see my analyst for one and a half hours because we’re reconstructing my personality.” People would say that in the most natural way, as if there was nothing to it.

COWEN: Why has the Uruguay success story so accelerated recently?

WINTER: Uruguay is a fascinating story, Tyler. It’s a country of just 3.3 million people that I think a lot of people, if we’re honest, would struggle to find it on a map. But despite its small size, it has been a real success story. It was always different in a Latin American context. It was Latin America’s first welfare state 100 years ago.

I’ve been a big proponent of the Uruguay story. I wrote an article about it for Americas Quarterly more than a year ago, and a lot of people dismissed it and said, “Oh, well, Uruguay — it’s so small. It’s always been so wealthy that it’s not really an example for the rest of the region.” But that’s not true.

Twenty years ago, when Argentina’s economy melted down the last time, it had a huge contagion effect on Uruguay. Poverty in Uruguay was actually 50 percent. This was a country that was just flat on its back. Today that percentage is in the low double digits. It’s around 10 percent. Back to this discussion we were having about crime and security — there was no silver bullet.

What happened was, they came out of that crisis 20 years ago, and they realized that there were certain things that needed to be done. They needed a consensus around fiscal management, around sound management of the economy. They needed to bring better regulations to their banks. Sadly, but probably correctly, they concluded that they needed to reduce their dependence on their neighbors, that they needed to depend less — namely on Argentina — and diversify.

They’re still undergoing that process today. It’s interesting — this is a country that has been knocking furiously on the door of the White House for several years now, trying to do a trade deal with the US. Met with, for the most part, unreceptive ears in Washington, but that’s what they’re trying to do.

It’s a solid democracy. It does better than the United States in some of these rankings of solid democracies that get put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit and others, and the beaches are beautiful, too. So, one day when I have to go fleeing into exile because of something I’ve said or done, Uruguay is definitely on the top of my list.

On the most livable city in the region

COWEN: Let’s say you’re a 30-year-old couple, husband and wife. You have 2 kids. You all speak Spanish or Portuguese, and you have to relocate somewhere in Latin America. Which city do you choose? Maybe not permanent, but ongoing — not six months — five or ten years.

WINTER: Gosh, what a great question, Tyler. I think, in terms of the best combination of economic opportunity, relative safety, integration with the world, the possibility of upward mobility, I would say São Paulo. I really would, despite everything that we were saying earlier about the security risks, the crime. With Mexico City, those are the two truly international cities in Latin America.

There are other places that are great hubs. I love Buenos Aires. Santiago in Chile has great quality of life. But if you’re a citizen of the world, if you’re trying to do business, the issue that Argentina and Chile have is that they’re far. [laughs] They’re at the very extreme end of the continent. São Paulo is a bit more central. It’s also a place — Brazil writ large, but São Paulo specifically — where it’s very easy to integrate yourself into local society.

I speak Portuguese, but with an accent. It is the only place in Latin America where I can go to the corner bakery and order my favorite juice, which is a suco de mamão com laranja, which is a papaya with orange juice. That identifies me right away as a gringo. Those vowels that I just said — every Brazilian will hear them and say, “This guy is not from here.” But I never felt like a foreigner in São Paulo, in part because it has that tradition of people from all over the world and also all over the country, keeping in mind that Brazil is a country that’s even bigger than the continental United States.

So, if you balance all those things, I would choose São Paulo.

COWEN: I like São Paulo, but doesn’t it worry you? I find almost all of the city ugly.

WINTER: It’s so ugly.

COWEN: Yes, that would get on my nerves. I’m tempted to say Panama City for myself.

WINTER: The name of the book that I’m working on about São Paulo right now, that I mentioned earlier, you’ll appreciate, then. The title is The Ugliest City You’ll Ever Love. It goes through this whole arc that I just spoke about and says why, even though it is a place that sometimes seems to be chasing away visitors — you come out of the international airport in São Paulo, and you immediately pass not one but two high-security prisons and a sewage treatment plant, and then you spend the next 30 minutes driving along an extremely polluted river, which is the Tietê.

Not everybody falls in love with it right away, [laughs] but there’s such a great vibe. You feel so welcome there as a foreigner. This may sound strange, but if you like work — and I like work — São Paulo is a great place to be as well. It’s a place where people take pride in what they do without being totally consumed by it. It is still Brazil, and so people also know how to party and have a good time.

COWEN: I take it you agree with the standard view that most Latin American countries are fairly happy relative to their income levels.

WINTER: That has been borne out by surveys again and again. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about these people who sometimes endure great hardship.

COWEN: Are there exceptions to that? I think there are a few exceptions.

WINTER: Tell me, what are the exceptions?

COWEN: I don’t think Guatemala is very happy, and I think significant parts of Bolivia are not so happy. Again, this is relative to income levels.

WINTER: You’re naming two of the poorest countries in the region. I do think that there’s a point where — and this is something else that has been outside of these happiness surveys that we always see, which I always find funny — the notion that the countries of Scandinavia are the happiest in the world, but maybe so. But as someone who spent 10 years of my life living in Latin America as a reporter, and continues to follow the region as part of my job, just speaking for myself, there are several reasons why I do this. I’m very interested in the question of why nations fail or succeed, but I also love these places.

I love these countries. I love the happiness, the sense of humor, the value that people place upon family and friends. It’s tough sometimes because for my day job, I live now in New York, and I engage with the region so often now through a purely political lens. Sometimes it feels like exactly the wrong lens to be engaging with the region.

During the pandemic in particular, when I was still writing about politics day-to-day but stuck here in New York, it was really tough because I had to keep reminding myself there is so much more to these places than just the dysfunctional politics. Now that I’m able to travel again, I see that every time I go.

COWEN: Do you still read fiction from Latin America?

WINTER: To be honest with you, the truth is, not as much as I should and not as much as I used to. Maybe some of that is age, and some of it is also the need to try to keep up with an extremely varied region of almost 600 million people from New York. Look, I’m in Latin America all the time. I travel several weeks, months out of the year, but that challenge of trying to keep a finger on the pulse means that, unfortunately, I have not read books like Torto Arado. That’s a Brazilian book. It is winning all kinds of prizes on international circuits right now.

COWEN: Most of your time you spend writing, editing, commissioning articles. Assuming you’re not in Latin America, what is your day?

WINTER: I still have the habits of an old wire reporter, Tyler. I’m 46 years old. I started my career very young in Argentina. I was 22 years old. My first job was covering the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001 and 2002. That was a period that saw five presidents in two weeks, a default on the sovereign debt, a 70 percent currency devaluation. It was a baptism by fire. It was really what showed me the importance of politics and of policy. In some respects, that experience has never left me.

Something else that has not left me is that need to begin my day by obsessively reading newspapers in Argentina, in Brazil, Colombia, Chile. Those are the countries that I follow most closely. It’s impossible to follow all of them. Then I make my way to my work next to the miserable-looking commuters [laughs] who I mentioned earlier. We sit in our office here on Park Avenue and do our best to try to make sense of what’s happening in this region. Focus not only on the challenges but talk about some of the successes as well.

COWEN: What’s the hardest thing to teach your writers?

WINTER: Humility. Circumstances have changed so much since I started doing this. I have to say, with a certain degree of embarrassment, that it is partly a function of what’s happened in world history over the last 25 years since I started doing this. Anglo-American correspondents in Latin America 25 years ago wrote with this certitude, this certainty that these countries needed to learn from the example of the United States and/or England.

I worked for Reuters for many years. Not everybody was like that, of course, but that was a prevailing view. Keep in mind we were coming out of the 1990s, which was the peak of the post-Cold War period, the end of history, Washington Consensus, and everything like that.

But everything that’s happened over the last several years, from the Great Recession of 2008 to things like the Iraq War, the problems that the US has had in our own democracy in that time have really, I think, impacted the way that journalists everywhere write about everything, I would hope. But specifically Latin America, which used to be treated — you still see shades of it every now and then — with a finger-wagging paternalism that not only turns people off in the region — there’s no quicker way to shut Latin American readers off than when they sense that happening.

I think it’s important for us to recognize that all of our countries are imperfect and facing some of the same challenges in terms of democratic erosion, rising inequality, addiction to drugs, and all the effects that that has on organized crime. We’re much less different from people in this part of the world than many of us believed 25 years ago.

COWEN: Speaking of humility, is Milei going to succeed or fail?

WINTER: I wish I knew, Tyler. He’s such a fascinating story. I think that Javier Milei has the right ideas. He understands that the essence of Argentina’s problem is fiscal, that it’s a country that spends more than it earns. It has for decades, and it’s part of this whole story of decline. It’s a country where the accounts are always a little bit out of balance, or sometimes a lot out of balance.

It has, over the years, financed that gap through one of two mechanisms: by borrowing, but then when the sources of financing run out — as they periodically do — they print money. That’s the reason that they have one of the world’s highest inflation rates right now, upward of 270 percent. Milei understands the nature of the problem. I think his diagnosis is correct. Most mainstream economists agree with that. The problem is — several problems — one of them is to bring things back into balance under democracy, something that only a few countries have been able to do.

COWEN: Brazil has done it, right?

WINTER: Brazil has done it. Brazil passed the Real Plan back in the 1990s under democracy, and they managed to bring inflation under control.

But you look at the economic stabilization programs elsewhere in Latin America. The one that Mexico had in the ’80s and ’90s — of course, that was still during the period of one-party rule in Mexico. It was not a dictatorship, but it was certainly not a democracy. The stabilization program that we saw in Chile in the 1980s — the first part of that happened under dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet. The second part happened under democracy in the 1990s. Peru, similarly — Fujimori closed the Congress in the ’90s.

Anyway, Argentine democracy is very strong, so Milei has to operate within that system. That’s a good thing. Can he do it? Does he have the temperament to do it? Does he have the political support? These are questions that all of us, including 45 million Argentines, are asking ourselves every day. It’s, in many ways, unprecedented. I’m rooting for Argentina because there would be nothing better and more gratifying for me, given what I lived through 25 years ago, than to see that country succeed.

COWEN: Why do Chileans use so many bad dairy sauces on their seafood? Surely this has occurred to you.

WINTER: [laughs] You know what? What I admire about the Chileans is how they put guacamole on everything. I’m trying to think — the dairy sauces on the seafood. Explain.

COWEN: So often, I’ll be in a Chilean city; I’ll go to a nice restaurant. It’s never what I order, but there’ll be some amazing fish dish where the quality of the natural ingredients is high, and there’ll be some kind of cream-based dairy sauce on it, which ruins it. Now, you can order something else. I like the food in Chile quite a bit, though often the Peruvian restaurants, say, in Santiago are better than the Chilean restaurants. Or you might get something like curanto in the town market just because it’s different, and there’s not going to be a dairy sauce on it.

WINTER: I think, Tyler, what we need to do is go on a culinary tour. I will order for you and make sure you don’t get any of that damn sauce on your sea bass. How’s that?

COWEN: That’s very good. A lot of the best food I’ve had in Chile will just be avocado or strawberries, or the eggs are amazing. It has the best mashed potatoes I’ve eaten anywhere. But there are just these odd mistakes that appear random, but they’re also systematic.

WINTER: Argentina might be the place for you because they are just averse — this has evolved a little bit over the years — but they’re so averse to sauce, specifically spice. I had Argentine friends, when I lived there, who believed that ranch dressing was too spicy. They have a point. They say, “Why would you want to take away the actual taste of the food?”

COWEN: Why is there so much more gnocchi in Argentina than, say, anywhere in Italy? Why is it gnocchi that’s been transferred?

WINTER: There’s a long tradition around gnocchi, which is that people ate it, I believe, it was the 29th of the month. I think that’s right. Because traditionally, in part because of this history of inflation, by the time you got to the end of the month, you didn’t have much money left to feed yourself or your family. And so on that day of the month, you went out and bought gnocchi.

That term is also used — gnocchi — to describe people who are on government payrolls but don’t actually do anything. They’re called that because the only day of the month that they show up to be on the job is at the end of the month, when they’re going to get paid. [laughs] Little stories like that tell you a little bit about the political and gastronomical culture of a place.

COWEN: Very last question. Where in Latin America do you wish to explore and learn about next?

WINTER: Tyler, there is an omission for me, which is indigenous culture. It is partly a function of the places where I’ve lived: Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Mexico City even. This is a little bit different. These are cities, especially the first two, that are not deeply in touch with indigenous culture. We are learning so much, even today, about the wealth and intellectual depth of some of these civilizations that lived in the Amazon.

There was this long-standing view that Brazil in particular was empty when the Portuguese landed there in 1500. Yes, there were some indigenous people, but it was not like the civilizations that the Spanish found in Peru and Mexico — the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayas — that there was no real equivalent in Brazil. We’re now finding out that that was not the case, that there were perhaps as many as six million people at the time of conquest in the Amazon.

That, for me, in a region that has so much depth, so many different cultural strands that you can tap into, that is one that is obvious in some ways. But I’m stimulated and excited by the fact that we continue to discover new things.

COWEN: Brian Winter, thank you very much.

WINTER: Thank you, Tyler. It’s been a real pleasure.