In 2010, several Latin American nations – Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Mexico – are commemorating 200 years of Independence from Spanish rule (Paraguay and Venezuela have started the bicentennial celebration of their independence which will take place next year).
It is a very special occasion to honour our liberators and founding fathers, as well as an opportunity to express our gratitude to all the men and women who have led the social, political and economic progress of these countries over the past two centuries.
But in addition to paying a well-deserved tribute to our heroes of the past, I wish to draw attention to what I believe will be the main challenges and opportunities of the future for the region as a whole.
Let´s start by describing the principal challenges facing Latin America today. I believe that the priority – not only for the regional governments but also for society at large – must be the eradication of extreme poverty. Unfortunately, in this part of the world there are more than 73 million people (12.9 per cent of a total population of 570 million) subsisting on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day, which places them in the unacceptable economic category of misery. Putting aside the differences between the diverse political and economic models that exist in the region, the focus should be to ensure that people struggling in undignified conditions should have access to acceptable health, education, housing, public services and income-generating possibilities.
Another key challenge for Latin America is to significantly improve its quality of education. Most of its nations have achieved or are close to achieving full coverage of basic education. However, the quality – as evidenced in international tests – is far from acceptable in almost all of these countries. In a global economy, education of a low standard is a huge obstacle to the competitiveness of any national economy.
In relation to politics, even though democracy has been spreading and consolidating itself throughout the region, populism is still delaying real social and economic progress in some Latin American countries. In some parts of the region, demagogue leaders are damaging institutions, free markets, legal frameworks and freedom of expression in order to gain and retain power. Citizens must be more careful in choosing their leaders and must no longer tolerate totalitarians who are violating political and economic liberty.
Last, but not least, I want to highlight the problem of the excessively individualistic nature of Latin Americans. It is difficult for many people to realise that sometimes it is necessary and even convenient to prioritise collective interests rather than individual desires. And still for many, the idea of public goods – to be created and protected with the support and for the benefit of everybody – is an abstract idea foreign to the mentality of ‘every man for himself’…
Now, let us focus on opportunities. Latin America is blessed by nature. Five of the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity are in this part of the globe (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru).
As scientists have long been saying, in rainforests many discoveries – which will be of benefit to mankind in many ways – are yet to be made. And to win the battle against climate change, it is imperative that deforestation, which releases more carbon dioxide than all means of transport, is stopped.
But alternatives for a sustainable development in key environmental areas of Latin America must be designed by governments, the private sector, NGOs, institutions and the scientific community. They should work not only from within the region but also in the rest of the world, since this is a global issue. The solutions to many of the planet´s environmental problems and scientific quests will be found in Latin American biodiversity. Today, the region has the chance to be a world power in a matter of vital importance.
Certain countries of Central and South America are also rich in another key element – energy. More than 15 per cent of global oil reserves are in this region (second only to the Middle East). In biofuel production, Brazil is – along with the US – a world leader. Colombia is one of the three top nations on the planet in terms of water resources, not only for agricultural uses but also for the generation of electricity.
Another attractive opportunity for Latin America relates to food production. The fact that the world´s population will increase from six billion to nine billion in a few decades generates the need to feed these additional millions (mostly in India and China).
Latin America is already a significant supplier of food products such as meat, sugar, coffee, soy, fruits, beans and many vegetables. According to experts who have recently devised successful food production techniques such as El Cerrado which is used in Brazil, the region has more potential than any other country in the world to increase its food production levels.
For foreign investors looking at emerging markets with an eye to expanding their businesses, Latin America is an excellent option for several reasons: a large young population (230 million inhabitants under the age of 20); a relatively low income per capita (US$7,500 – allowing plenty of room for growth); an infrastructure deficit; a vibrant democracy in the majority of the region; and solid macroeconomics (Latin America has learned from its past mistakes, as proven during the recent global financial crisis in which the region as a whole performed quite well).
Colombian writer Oscar Guardiola has just published an interesting book with a provocative title: What if Latin America ruled the World? (Bloomsbury, £20). The author suggests the task that all of us Latin Americans should undertake:
‘ …The truest form of rule comes not from producing the most cars, selling and consuming the most goods, or harbouring the deadliest military weapons. And it cannot be measured in terms of debt-to- GDP ratios. Rather, it concerns the human capacity to make new history.’
In my opinion, the special human skills needed to innovate can be found in three crucial ingredients that are abundant in Latin America: the wonderful strength of our family ties, our profound love of nature, and the amazing creativity of our culture. Based on these three pillars born of our traditions, I believe we can construct a better future not only for the people of the region but also for the rest of the world. I hope that over the next 200 years, through the proper use of these skills, we will be able to discard the label which journalist Michael Reid today accurately gives to Latin America in the title of his brilliant book – Forgotten Continent (Yale University Press, £10.99).
The time has come when our destiny is finally in our own hands. But this has to be understood as more than independence; it is our opportunity to make a unique contribution to an increasingly interdependent world which must continue to improve the quality of life of all its inhabitants – especially the poorest.
the special human skills needed to innovate can be found in three crucial ingredients that are abundant in Latin America: the wonderful strength of our family ties, our profound love for nature, and the amazing creativity of our culture.