Lessons to be learned from Latin America
Jonathan Glennie, The Nation, April 6, 2011
The idea that a successful model for development in one country could sensibly become a blueprint for another is now unfashionable – but important lessons can still be learned by examining other nations’ development paths.
One region is routinely overlooked in international development discussions that tend to contrast Asian success with African stagnation: Latin America.
Life expectancy has risen from 56 in 1960 to 73 today, and primary school completion rates are hovering at near 100%.
But the past decade has been the most dramatic for Latin America as the New Left governments – such as those led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Cristina and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and, of course, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – have swept to power.
After the years of austerity in the 1980s and 1990s, during which income poverty levels increased or stagnated, sustained growth in the past decade accompanied significant poverty reduction. Some 13% of Latin Americans lived in absolute poverty in 1980, and that figure was still 11% in 2002. But just three years later that figure had dropped to 8%, according to the World Bank.
Latin American countries are emerging from the global financial meltdown in good shape, in part because of their apparent familiarity with the rules of counter-cyclical spending, which depends on storing up money in the good times, and in part because their financial sector was less liberalised than in the west.
The region as a whole grew at 6.1% in 2010, prompting Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, to predict that the 2010s will be the “Latin American decade”.
But it is not just in economics that the New Left in Latin America have earned the right to preach to the rest of the world. There are a range of vital development issues about which lessons can be learned.
On regional integration: in the past 10 years regional bodies in Latin America have strengthened, especially Unasur, which brings together the South American countries. When the 2016 Olympic games were awarded to Rio, President Lula hailed the games as for all South America and, in contrast to the petty rivalries between European countries, all South Americans rejoiced.
On climate change: sections of the New Left are leading calls for more fundamental changes in order to achieve long-term planetary sustainability. While only Bolivia voted against the Cancún agreement in 2010, others would have done had Mexico not been hosting the discussions – Latin solidarity prevailed.
On inequality: the lessons are negative as much as positive. Latin America is the most unequal region, according to the World Bank, so it is perhaps not surprising that, starting from a low base, equality is improving slowly. Decades of civil struggle have finally brought leaders to power who are prepared to challenge the status quo, each in different ways.
On democracy and civil society: Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president, in a country where indigenous people make up 55% and mestizos (mixed race), 30%; and indigenous movements are gathering strength in Peru and Ecuador. Lula was the first trade unionist president of Brazil, and even in Venezuela, where Chávez has worryingly authoritarian tendencies +i guess its difficult for some to fully break out of the established narrative -PR+, experiments in local democracy are attracting interest worldwide.
The New Left leaders have defined themselves against previous regimes associated with authoritarianism and, sometimes, fascism. And it is perhaps this determination to stand up against powerful forces that most defines the past 10 years.
One moment that stood out was the Summit of the Americas meeting in Buenos Aires in 2005. George Bush arrived intent on making final the grand plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. But he was sent packing by a newly emboldened group of Latin leaders who had other ideas about how best to represent their interests.
Is this the time for the “Buenos Aires consensus”, now that the “Washington consensus” has finally crumbled, and while some even talk of a new “Beijing consensus”? China is certainly the economic success story of the past decade, and it followed a path very different to that prescribed by Washington zealots.
But how much can the mostly small, poor and aid-dependent countries of Africa really learn from China? The authoritarian model embodied by China is attractive to leaders, but it is accountability that is the brightest hope for the dispossessed and marginalised. For that, Latin America may be the place to turn.
During the next few weeks, I will be looking more closely at some of the countries in the Latin American region to see what is going right, what is going wrong, and what lessons there are for the rest of the world.