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A primer on Latin America

FIRE DOWN BELOW: A JOURNEY OF EXPLORATION FROM MEXICO TO CHILE by Robert Harvey

New York: Simon & Schuster

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304 pp. $19.95

ROBERT HARVEY gives the lay reader a valuable resource: a nation-by-nation primer on Latin American history, economics, politics, and geography.

Readers in the United States will find ``Fire Down Below'' refreshingly different. Harvey brings a European perspective to the material, giving an insightful alternative to the various stock views on Latin America prevalent in the US. A former Latin America correspondent for The Economist, he draws on past interviews and experiences.

The density of the material could bog down a reader, yet Harvey skillfully weaves conversations with prominent Latin American officials and opposition leaders, Western diplomats, fellow journalists, and even cabbies into the fabric of the book, bringing recent history to life.

Be forewarned: The voices shift between past and present so frequently that they are difficult to follow. But perseverance pays off.

Giving a thumbnail sketch of 17 nations in a book of some 300 pages requires condensation. The distillation is reasonably complete, but it is lamentable that such projects as the pioneering Contadora process and the Arias plan (which won Costa Rican President Oscar Arias the Nobel Peace Prize) were not mentioned.

This book will not appeal to Latin America scholars. Nor will it satisfy those looking for a guidebook to Latin America. But the ordinary fellow who can't distinguish between Paraguay and Uruguay and has trouble remembering whether the contras are Nicaraguans based in Honduras or Hondurans based in Nicaragua will find this book informative and interesting. ``Fire Down Below'' makes rudimentary information on an increasingly important region of the world accessible to readers who do not have time to read 17 different books.