5 things to take away from the Ricardo Lagos lecture

10-7 Lagos quo vadis poster

Former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos came to speak at the Joukowsky Forum at the Watson Institute yesterday. Mr. Lagos is well-known for being the first socialist to take office since Salvador Allende (1966-9), and for standing up to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship–when, following an American-backed coup, between 1974 and 1990, Pinochet’s military government detained 80,000 people and tortured almost 30,000.

Since leaving office in 2006, Lagos has been committed to promoting democracy in Latin America and around the world. The Chilean political rockstar came to the Watson Institute to ask one question, Quo Vadis (Latin for Where are you going), Latin America?

1. Latin America is more politically stable and economically progressive than the rest of the world thinks.

Currently, all Latin American states are considered democracies. Some of them are headed by women, and Brazil, the region’s most powerful nation, is currently led by a trade union advocate.

Even though that positive picture oversimplifies the political climate, above all, it shows that the region that was once plagued by conservative dictatorships is now experiencing a paradigm shift to the political left.

At the same time, the major powers in the region, namely Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Brazil are all projected to have close to $30,000 in GDP per capita within the next 10 years. In short, the region is experiencing converging rates of growth, with some countries seeing double per capita growth rates.

Mr Lagos pointed out that Latin American countries were innocent in the most recent financial recession, but that the region is not estranged from economic crisis. In fact, Latin American nations have experienced so many economic crises that they now have extremely durable systems, which makes growth rates all the more promising.

2. The “new paradigm” in Latin America has resulted in new political demands that call for more comprehensive political institutions making participation more apparent. 

In decades past, the political aspirations of Latin American people were focused on securing democracy. They had endured years of dictatorship, and simply wanted to have the freedom to vote.

However, the younger generation remembers the dictatorships as nothing more than pages in a textbook. As they become more and more accustomed to democracy, their political demands will evolve, and thus arises what Mr Lagos refers to as the “new paradigm.”

In other words, the demand for better representation has transitioned into a call for more participation. With technology facilitating the flow of information, the Latin American people are more aware than ever of their governments’ actions, and they demand more political lucidity.

3. Poverty and inequality are still major problems. Latin Americans want to change that. 

As Latin American countries continue to experience economic growth, the concern is shifting from sustaining that growth to fairly distributing high income. If they continue down the road they’re currently on, they will experience some of the worst levels of income inequality in the world.

Economic inequality is especially apparent in mortality rates. For example, Chile has an average infant mortality rate of 8%, but that figure is 2% in the wealthiest urban neighborhoods and 43% in the poorest rural areas.

Additionally, it’s becoming clear that fighting poverty is ultimately more beneficial than promoting an already emerging middle class. With that said, the middle class has new demands that everyone can benefit from, mostly geared towards improving education and healthcare.

Ideally these would be good things, but Latin American governments have to ask themselves things like whether or not they will provide free universities and whether or not they will offer universal healthcare.

4. Latin American cities need to be aware of the the environmental consequences of growth.

As organization and industrialization continue to grow in Latin America, cities will grow too. The people in those cities will have to ask themselves, “What kinds of cities do we want?” There is a tendency for newer growing urban areas to spread geographically, and these cities require more automotive transportation. A driving city like Atlanta emits twenty times the greenhouse gas that Barcelona, a walking/public transportation city does, even though they have the same population size. These levels of environmental awareness in development have to be considered as Latin America takes a step forward onto the world stage.

5. Latin America will be stronger if countries work together. 

Current hemispherical trade agreements have left a large portion of Latin America out of the picture. While the United States looks to the South on the Pacific coast, it currently sees nowhere but East on the Atlantic side. This has resulted in better trade options for the west coast of the continent.

But the continent is between two great oceans and should put aside its post-Treaty of Tordesillas differences (it was written in 1494, after all), and consider modeling itself after the European Union. Now, this isn’t an all out cry of Nuestra America out to take down el tigre de afuera (the US), but rather a neoliberal call for economic cooperation. This kind of cooperation would hopefully help solve some of the region’s international economic problems, like drug trafficking.

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