A recent article in The Hoover Digest, "Do Latin Americans Want Development?" by William Ratliff, a Hoover Institution research fellow, described the crossroads where Latin America finds itself. It says much about the state of the nations south of the border and something about the Chinese and Indian economic "miracles."
Ratliff describes the Buenos Aires Summit of the Americas in late 2005 which was muddied by Hugo Chavez' attacks on George Bush, the candidacy of President Evo Morales and news in the world of futbol/soccer. The next big conference on the future of Latin American economies was the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) conference in October on the growth of trade relationships between A.L. (America Latina) and the Asian nations. The major issue there was identifying why living standards for so many have improved during the past decades in Asia and "so few" in A.L.
The first question is whether the Latin American peoples really want development and whether they can live with the sacrifices that might be necessary to earn it. Latinos are famous for flowery talk (and political, legalese writing in Spanish is amazingly 18th or 19th century) and grand meetings but, like many of us, short on follow-through. The Hoover Institute conference asked why Asians have been so much more successful over the past forty years. No one showed any evidence that Latinos are less intelligent. But there is evidence that Asians have shown themselves "…more serious, pragmatic, farsighted, and committed."
Whereas Asia was growing steadily for decades, Argentina passed through military dictatorships, incompetent civilian governments, a “dirty war,” the biggest debt default in world history, and the sudden impoverishment of millions. Recent economic growth is on a very shaky foundation of incomplete — and sometimes reversed — reforms.
Today Brazil, at the heart of Latin America, is again in crisis. President Lula da Silva’s term took a very negative turn with one of the biggest corruption scandals of the decade. But as Latin American expert Alvaro Vargas Llosa points out, corruption is the symptom in this crisis, not the cause. The cause is a labyrinthine political system, with deep historical roots, that invites corruption and serves the powerful cliques, not the people.
A.L. remains rife with scandals, tensions and corruption. Hugo Chavez is being… Hugo Chavez. Even Costa Rica, which has been so admired for its democracy, "… is rife with scandal." Latin America accepts the fact of corruption and influence so surprisingly easily. Do they really want change? The 2004 Latinobarametero poll showed that a small majority want democracy, a majority wish for better homes, food, education, and opportunities. It also showed that many are so frustrated with their national systems that non-democratic regimes which can offer the goods might be welcomed.
The New York Times article of 21 August by Simon Romero describes the strengthening of Venezuelan relationships in the Middle East. Venezuela has been related to the OPEC countries since the 1980s but this new turn has made Iran "… Venezuela’s closest ally outside Latin America'." Chavez recently proclaimed, “We stand by Iran at every moment, in any situation,” Mr. Chávez said in Tehran, where he received the golden High Medallion of the Islamic Republic from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Venezuela, Syria, and Cuba were the only countries to oppose referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council at a meeting in February of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Chavez is also courting Syria, China, Malaysia, and Angola. He is also changing the nature of Venezuelan foreign policy to "… distance itself from the United States by reaching out to countries on the margins of American influence, including Belarus, Zimbabwe and Cuba." Chavez has also jumped onto the traditional anti-semitic bandwagon. In Qatar he said on Al Jazeera that "… Israeli military actions in Lebanon" were “being carried out in the style of Hitler, in a fascist fashion.”
Mexico appears to accept Felipè Calderòn for President in the footsteps of globally-conscious Vicente Fox. Harvard educated and moderate, he promises a government of manos limpia — clean hands. The opposition mirrors much of the feeling of Latin America — progress for the poor immediately with little regard for the nature of the governmental system. If Calderòn has six years of policies that try to push Mexico toward more education, modernization and globalization, the future of Mexico may lean toward democratic development.
The question for the industrialized nations, the G8, the powerful nations, is whether Latin America, like China and India, is another sleeping giant waiting for the opportunity to grow a billion person economy and whether the giant will be friendly or not. Asia and India have made themselves known. In spite of the problems of developing societies, they are striding into the future. A.L. now has some serious questions to face and choices to make.
The U.S. has serious issues to face in its relationship with the neighbors who share this hemisphere. It cannot paint a black and white picture of Central America and South America because they are not black and white nor shades of grey. Colors and tempers explode here. This is another world and the U.S. must accept that fact and begin to deal with its diplomatic, economic, and social relations in a way that shows the hemisphere that it is not a swaggering giant to be toppled but a potential friend and ally of those countries that make the transition to democracy.