As a group, the economies of South American countries have changed profoundly since the 1970s. This has come as a result both of external conditions beyond the control of these nations and of internal policy decisions made to produce change. At the most fundamental level, these countries mainly are exporters of relatively low-value primary products and semiprocessed materials and importers of higher-value manufactured goods. Great efforts have been made across the continent to expand the manufacturing sectors and to reduce dependency on imports.
From the 1930s until the late 1980s, the majority of South American countries pursued economic development strategies based on a system of import substitution. National governments used such measures as tariff and price policies to boost domestic industries and protect them from external competition. They also created joint ventures with private capital and established state-owned enterprises, especially in the heavy industries, utilities, and transportation.
They provided high subsidies for social programs in areas such as education and public housing. Furthermore, national spending on armaments and “defense” soared during periods of military rule. South American countries borrowed from foreign private banks and international lending institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, to fund existing programs while also trying to expand their economic productivity through investments in areas such as transportation, energy generation, industrialization, and agricultural modernization.
However, many countries lived well beyond their means through the wholesale borrowing of funds at high interest rates on the world market. Consequently, they were forced to borrow more and more money just to service the interest payments that accumulated annually on their outstanding debt, thus creating the so-called “debt crisis.”
With the debt crisis, insolvency befell many South American countries. After decades of substantial progress in its economic development, the region as a whole regressed significantly in the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1990, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita measured in constant dollars declined for every South American country except Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. For a part of this same period, inflation rates skyrocketed in many countries, exceeding 3,000 percent per year in some instances. Currency devaluation, austerity programs, and governmental disinvestment were the most commonly used remedies to check these problems. The severity of their problems and lender demands prompted most South American countries to initiate fundamental restructurings of their economies.
These reorganizations were made in accord with neoliberal, or "free-market,” economic theory, which came to dominate the region’s economic planning and growth strategies in the 1990s. Emphasis was placed on stimulating economic growth through selling state-owned enterprises to private investors and eliminating or severely curtailing support for social programs. These actions were meant to increase productivity, reduce governmental expenditures, and diversify economic activities.
Regional economic integration also had taken on importance in order to broaden markets. These changes had the greatest impact on those lowest on the socioeconomic ladder. At the turn of the 21st century, the economies of many South American countries started to improve, and some of those countries were able to start paying off their debts. Notably, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2001, provoking protests from indigenous communities and the working poor; however, this conversion, as well as a rise in oil prices, helped stabilize the Ecuadorean economy the same year. Argentina, the victim of an economic crisis in 2001 when it defaulted on its foreign debt, had begun a recovery by 2003. Increasing economic independence sparked a trend of nationalization along with the election of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. "South America" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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