In the midst of all the turbulence in the Islamic world, of the booming Chinese and Indian economies, and of the troubled Russian federation, the West has lost track of what is happening in Latin America. It is not the first time that Latin America has been so peripheral to the main political and military events that its adventures have been only a footnote to world history. In fact, it seems to be its destiny: Latin America is second only to black Africa in being forgotten by western news media.
Instead, a lot has been happening south of the border. Latin America underwent cycles of stability and instability, democracy and tyranny.
In 1985, the Cold War produced thousands of killings in Argentina and in South America in general. Cuba trained guerrillas, the national army supported by U.S. ideology was attempting to destroy them and this transformed South America in the 1970s and 1980s into a battlefield. In addition, this bloody part of the Cold War affected the already-precarious judicial and police systems in the region. Interestingly, during the 1980s, starting with the military junta trials, this began to change. U.S. scholar Kathryn Sikkink has shown how the process of seeking redress for past human rights abuses spread across the region. As a result, Latin America became a model for the world in terms of how to address past human rights abuses and torture. Then the world changed. The Cold War ended, a new wave of democratization swept through the region, and massive human rights abuses and state-sponsored violence almost ceased to exist. Sure, there are still pockets of problems, and concern that still not clear how to do better, how to translate these gains into a global idea to address ongoing problems.
Each country managed the violence in different ways. Brazil never investigated or prosecuted the military forces for abuses committed during their turn in power. Argentina did. Chile followed. Uruguay decided twice through a referendum that it would not do it. So there are different aspects. Though again, Sikkink argues that these investigations helped to address issues of impunity and improve the conditions for human rights under the new democracies.
The 1990s heralded an age of democracy that blossomed everywhere from Chile to Mexico. The 2000s seem to be a decade of crisis for all those democracies. Chronic problems of Latin American democracies include the usual suspects: corruption, drug trafficking, wealth gap between the rich and the poor (usually divided along racial lines), and violent opposition groups.
The situation today is much better. But it’s just an opportunity to rethink how South America can transform itself as a leading region. When Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela had a conflict in 2009, the region’s leaders jumped in and urged them to step back. And there is a commitment now to control the guerrillas in Colombia. So, it’s a new political scenario where the leaders understand that massive violence cannot be used to gain power, and there is the will to enforce that. This is a good beginning.
Today, most countries in Latin America are enjoying the fruits of their serious economic adjustments and strategies of the past 25 years. Countries such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru are experiencing strong growth and record foreign direct investment. While many countries still need to improve competitiveness through microeconomic reform, the economic policy environment has been bolstered by high commodity prices and greater economic integration in the region.
Latin America has had many advantages over the rest of the world: it was spared most of the colonial wars, it was spared two world wars, it was spared the Cold War, and now it is being spared Islamic terrorism. Latin America is united in speaking mostly the same language and around the same religion. Latin America inherited from Spain and Portugal an intellectual tradition that has yielded Nobel prizes (more than any other developing region of the world).
The reality is that Latin America will not go backwards. It can be a shining star of growth, opportunity and hope in the hemisphere. Some important reasons for this follow:
Over the last 30 years, most Latin American countries have adopted strong, vibrant democracies. Latin America, for the most part, has embraced freedom of the press and transparency, which reinforce democratic practices and principles. At the same time, the lessons of the past remain on the minds of most Latin Americans. As a result, governments understand the cost of bad economic policies and high inflation—as do citizens. A national consensus has developed around sound macroeconomic policies.
In recent decades, Latin America has developed premier social programs. Those programs target the poorest segments of the populations and reward families for sending children to school and ensuring medical care—breaking the cycles of intergenerational poverty that have historically dogged the region.
In Latin America, as in many developing regions, access to information has been confined to the elite. The Internet changed that forever. Today, ordinary citizens have immediate access to information.
Citizens feel empowered and able to control their own destiny. People believe that it is possible to make a better life for their children. There is hope!
Many challenges remain, but Latin America has changed forever. Most important: citizens believe it, too.
There have been a wave of democratization across the region and several Latin American countries profited from the opportunities opened by global economic prosperity, which was halted by the crisis of 2008–2009. Some increased their exports of grains and minerals, and others moved into the manufacturing sector—or did both, as in the case of Brazil. Some Latin American corporations became multinational players. With democratization and economic prosperity governments started to deal seriously with the social questions of inequality and poverty. There is, indeed, a new Latin America.
These changes have certainly been very positive. But the pace of social transformation is still insufficient to reduce the inequalities and even to mitigate poverty. The progress achieved has not yet fully reached, in most countries, the areas of justice and security. The administration of justice is still too slow, crime rates are high, drugs and narco trafficking are rising, and police forces often resort to indiscriminate violence.
The Latin America of today, with a plurality of left wing, democratic governments elected without provoking the hostility of the U.S. government, was unthinkable in the 1980s. At that time, many countries were still ruled by right-wing military governments and by politics framed by the parameters of the Cold War. The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and the parallel process in El Salvador represented an attempt at change in these adverse conditions.
The ultimate outcome of these changes has been the improvement in human dignity through freedom and democracy. Governments are more transparent, there is greater respect for human rights, and democratic values have been strengthened. But socioeconomic improvements have been extremely modest. With the exception of some countries, such as Chile and Brazil, Latin America is far from overcoming its affliction of poverty. Social exclusion, inequality and violence have increased—and this should be a cause for outrage.
There has also been a technological revolution that no one foresaw. Unfortunately, because of its low levels of investment in education, science and technology, Latin America is being left behind.
The changes have been positive—there is no doubt. But the very fact of having transitioned to democracy produces an enormous challenge: how to fortify an authentic and modern rule of law in societies whose political culture and customs were for centuries distant and unconnected to the practice and mindset of liberal democracy.
Latin America has many historical blessings (art, culture, sociability, natural resources, creativity), but it was not predestined for democracy. It is no accident that countries that have established strong, representative democracies, such as Chile, have progressed. Latin America’s first priority is to continue building institutions that reinforce the rule of law, tolerance and democratic culture.