These three volumes by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor of Economics and Latin American Studies, complement each other yet overlap in content. The discussion and analysis found in Changing Social Security in Latin America greatly expands on the material found in La reforma de la seguridad social, while Aspectos económico-financieros de la seguiridad social provides an excellent description of the financing and administration of Latin America’s social security systems. In conclusion, Mesa-Lago asserts that Latin America’s economic crisis of the 1980s further exacerbated an already fragile and incomplete social security system.
The 1980s crisis had the worst impact on Latin America since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It not only halted economic development for the decade but also exacted social costs across society, albeit unequally. As a result, poverty increased and social protectionism declined, particularly among the laboring and lower-income groups. As the recession deepened, governments lost their intake of funds for social security programs, including unemployment, old age and disability insurance, public assistance, public health, and other social services. Further cuts in these programs stemmed from the lending policies of international institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund, which preconditioned loans on additional decreases in government expenditures. By the end of the decade, the need for reforming the social security system had become glaringly apparent.
Mesa-Lago examines the reform processes of eight countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. Attention generally focuses on Chile because of its success in privatizing many social security programs; still, its reforms, carried out during the Pinochet regime, had shortcomings. Representatives of the disenfranchised had little chance to express concern about their constituents’ pain during the transition period; the continuance of military benefits may have been politically expedient but was socially unjust. These errors could not be repeated in today's fragile democracies, where opposition to government policies is freely expressed. Yet governments still need to explore ways to improve and extend coverage and contain costs. The challenge is enormous, and Mesa-Lago calls for a cooperative effort by governments, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.
Mesa-Lago’s expertise on Latin America’s social security spans three-and-a-half decades. His books are important reading as the countries of the Southern Hemisphere attempt to cope with the realities of the world’s new economic order. His work provides a reminder that a good portion of Latin America’s population remains outside the parameters of productive society, and that their situation threatens to worsen as we move toward the twenty-first century.