Commentary: Time's influential people list is a joke

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

The fact that Time magazine’s new list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People includes only two Latin Americans raises an interesting question: whether Latin America is totally irrelevant or the 88-year-old magazine — like much of the U.S. media — lives in a New York-centric world of the past.

The magazine’s list is headed by Wael Ghonim, the young Egyptian Google executive who sparked the popular revolt that toppled former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, followed by mostly U.S. business people, inventors, artists and sports personalities.

Among those in the first 10 places are Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Netflix home movie rental company founder Reed Hastings, New York’s Harlem educator Geoffrey Canada and Facebook social network founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But the only two Latin Americans who made the list are Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in 27th place, and Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi, in the 86th spot. By comparison, I counted seven Africans on the magazine’s list, most of them connected to the latest uprisings in Northern Africa.

Has Latin America fallen off the map? I asked several friends who follow the region’s affairs. Most of them chuckled, and said the magazine’s list can’t be taken seriously. It’s hard to explain that it failed to include Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, and owner, among other things, of a good chunk of The New York Times. Or Brazilian mining tycoon Eike Batista, the eighth-richest man on the planet, according to Forbes.

Or Shakira, the Colombian singer who ranks among the world’s best-known and wealthiest singers, and was selected to open the Soccer World Cup tournament in South Africa last year. Or Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, whose writings are read across the world. Or Colombian artist Fernando Botero, one of the world’s most renowned living painters. The list could go on and on.

And when it comes to America’s future, Latin America is becoming increasingly important, not the least because the United States exports more than three times more to Latin America than to China, and depends more on the region’s oil exports than on those of Saudi Arabia’s.

But while Time magazine’s editors have a parochial view of the world, it is also true that Latin America has not done much to overcome its image in some quarters of the developed world as a region that isn’t going anywhere — a sleeping giant that seems to start waking up when world commodity prices rise, only to get back to its sleeping mode when commodity prices fall. Among the facts cited by economists that could back up a hopeless view of the region’s future:

Latin America’s share of the world’s economy has remained fairly stagnant over the past five decades: it has gone from 6 percent to 7 percent of the world’s gross domestic product between 1960 and 2009, according to the World Bank’s “World Development Indicators 2011.” By comparison, China’s share has doubled from 4 percent to 8 percent.

Poverty reduction in Latin America has been marginal over the past three decades. While the percentage of poor — people living on less than $1.25 a day — has dropped from 84 percent to 16 percent of the population in China since 1981, the percentage of Latin America’s poor has only gone down from 12 percent to 8 percent over the same period, according to the World Bank figures.

Latin America’s share of the world’s total investment in research and development (R&D) is dismal. Only 2.3 percent of all world investments in R&D are made in Latin America, compared with 36 percent in the United States and Canada, 31 percent in Europe, and 28 percent in Asia, according to the Ibero-American Network of Science and Technology Indicators (RICYT).

My opinion: Time magazine’s editors are living in a world of the past, where everything that mattered took place in the United States. I can’t believe they seriously think that the mayor of Newark, or the governor of New Jersey — both of whom appear high on the list — are more influential than Slim or Shakira. But the magazine’s blunder could help Latin Americans realize that, contrary to what their leaders often tell them, the region has yet to convince the world that it has become a major global player.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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