Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin America: Then & Now

Reading Time: 10 minutesReflections on a changing hemisphere.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Luis Moreno Ocampo Answers:

1.  When you were involved in the trials of the military, would you have predicted that Latin America would look as it does today?

In 1985, as a deputy prosecutor in the trials against the military juntas [which governed from 1977 to 1983], I learned how the crimes were committed. I learned how the Cold War produced thousands of killings in Argentina and in South America in general. How Cuba trained guerrillas, how the national army supported by U.S. ideology was attempting to destroy them and how 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. This dramatic improvement stems in large part from the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Human Rights System. Sure, there are still pockets of problems, and my concern is that we haven’t learned how to do better, how to translate these gains into a global idea to address ongoing problems.

2.  How would you describe how your country and Latin America have changed since then?

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.

1. Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive? Predictable? And what would you have hoped to have gone differently?

The situation today is much better. But it’s just an opportunity to rethink how South America can transform itself as a leading region. What I see in international forums and accords is South America’s firm commitment to control massive violence. 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.


Susan Segal Answers:

1.  At the height of the debt crisis of the 1980s, would you have predicted that Latin America would look as it does today?

August 2012 will mark 30 years since the famous call from the Mexican Finance Minister, Jesús Silva Herzog, to then-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker to advise him that Mexico would have to default on its sovereign debt. Since then, so much has changed. We no longer focus on the “lost decade,” when Latin American countries were forced to adjust their economies due to out-of-control public-sector spending, debt (which in some cases was larger than GDP) and runaway inflation. The banking systems in many countries were bankrupt, capital was fleeing countries and confidence in government did not exist.

2.  How would you describe how Latin America has changed since then?

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.

3.  Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive? Predictable? And what would you have hoped to have gone differently?

The reality is that Latin America will not go backwards. It can be a shining star of growth, opportunity and hope in our 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.

Last, political and economic stability have unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit in Latin America. 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.


Fernando Henrique Cardoso Answers:

1.  When you wrote Dependency and Development, would you have predicted that Latin America would look as it does today?

Even though Enzo Faletto and I argued in the book that development would happen despite dependency (contrary to the argument put forth by the “dependentistas”), we never envisioned a change so rapid and so drastic in the international market. When the book was written in the 1960s, we were in the midst of the Cold War—who would have imagined that China would become one of the engines of the global capitalist market?

2.  How would you describe how your country and Latin America have changed since then?

First, there was a wave of democratization across the region. In the 1960s and 1970s, authoritarian regimes still predominated. Second, 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. Finally, with democratization and economic prosperity (even foreign debt ceased to be a constraining factor to growth), governments started to deal seriously with the social questions of inequality and poverty. There is, indeed, a new Latin America.

3.  Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive? Predictable? And what would you have hoped to have gone differently?

These changes have certainly been very positive. I regret that the pace of social transformation is still insufficient to reduce the inequalities and even to mitigate poverty. I also regret that 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 narcotrafficking are rising, and police forces often resort to indiscriminate violence.


Carlos Chamorro Answers:

1.  Back in the 1980s, when you edited Barricada, could you have imagined that Latin America would look as it does today?

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.

Within this bloody climate of war and confrontation, expectations about the future focused on surviving and achieving peace. No one would have imagined, for example, that the FMLN in El Salvador would come to power via the ballot box in 2009, with a government led by Mauricio Funes that now proclaims itself an ally of the United States.

2.  How would you describe how Nicaragua and Latin America have changed since then?

The most important changes in the Americas revolve around the widespread acceptance of market-based economies with representative democratic politics. There are many gray areas and variations, both economically and politically, but undeniably this is now the dominant tendency. It is also true that in the last decade, a populism (of both the Right and the Left) with authoritarian affinities has emerged. But this new breed of populism is sustained exclusively by the price of oil and will eventually collapse.

There has also been an emergence of new, violent criminal phenomena that threaten stability, such as drug trafficking, organized crime and the maras of the northern triangle in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

In Nicaragua, we have had a long and unfinished democratic transition, with advances, setbacks and contradictions. This can be illustrated with an ironic example: in 1990, President Daniel Ortega helped establish electoral democracy by accepting his defeat at the ballot box. Two decades later, after returning to power in 2007, he committed electoral fraud and violated the constitution in his attempt at re-election.

3.  Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive? Predictable? What would you have hoped to have gone differently?

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, more recently, 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.


Enrique Krauze Answers:

1.  When you launched Letras Libres, would you have predicted that Latin America would look as it does today?

When we founded Letras Libres in 1989, we were cautiously optimistic about Latin America. In 1989, the miracle of continent-wide democratization had begun. Cuba was isolated. Fears about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hardly registered. What we did not foresee at all was the phenomenon of drug trafficking.

2.  How would you describe how your country and Latin America have changed since then?

With 12 years of distance, we see that the democratic optimism was justified. Democracy has taken root in our region, which has also achieved sustained economic growth. The revolutionary fever has almost disappeared, as has militarism. What remains is the old populism and anachronistic regime of President Chávez. I do not underestimate the danger that he poses, but I believe that it will be temporary. The real danger is drug trafficking and organized crime. It could push some countries, Mexico in particular, into a Hobbesian state of nature.

3.  Do you think the changes have, on the whole, been positive? Predictable? And what would you have hoped to have gone differently?

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.


Alma Guillermoprieto Answers:

1.  When you wrote The Heart That Bleeds, would you have predicted that Latin America would look as it does today?

In my recollection, the mid-1980s to mid-1990s were all about revolution and financial crises and the collapse of the old dictatorships. Some smart people were thinking about entitlement in the most literal sense of the word—giving poor people legal title to their land—and about related poverty programs like direct subsidies to the poor and microcredit. These programs have had a very significant impact, and health conditions have also improved enormously around Latin America, but that’s not really what I expected or wanted to see 30 years later back then. I wanted democracy and equality; today democracy exists in some form in most countries, while severe inequality remains the region’s universal condition.

2.  How would you describe how your country and Latin America have changed since then?

There was so much we didn’t see coming. I remember spending a jolly evening laughing about some madwoman who was working on an “eco-house” fueled by “biogas.” Hilarious, right? The global environmental crisis we’re facing and its devastating social impact—water shortages, drought, rising food prices, farmers ruined by unpredictable weather, untold thousands left homeless each year because of floods—all of that was not something our imagination could encompass or even focus on.

3.  Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive? Predictable? And what would you have hoped to have gone differently?

There is a defining new reality today that has to do with communication. Not everyone’s on the Internet, but just about everyone owns a cell phone and is sophisticated about using it. For Indigenous communities particularly and for families with relatives working in the United States, this has been literally life-changing. People are much more informed these days. When they’re sick, they look up their condition on their cell phones or at an Internet café. Migrants create websites for their hometowns and write about everything from post-election campaigns to babies’ births. And everyone has an opinion.

That’s new.


Dolores Huerta Answers:

1.  When you cofounded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (which later became the United Farm Workers), would you have predicted the impact it would have on labor rights?

The United Farm Workers (UFW) influenced the labor movement and gave birth to the Chicano Movement by engaging the public in their strikes and boycotts. UFW union agreements that were established with agriculture employers contained health plans, pension plans and procedures for airing and addressing grievances.

In 1975, we secured passage of unemployment insurance for farm workers, allowing them to settle in communities, keep their children in school and become voters. Later, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act gave farm workers the right to organize into unions. (And as a result, farm workers in California today have some of the highest wages in the United States.)

But employers continue to resist unions. To avoid complying with labor laws, agricultural employers are using labor contractors and recruiting undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America. These workers are not covered by unemployment insurance and cannot receive public assistance. They are, however, protected by minimum wage and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards.

2.  How would you describe the current climate of   Mexico’s relationship to the U.S.? Would you have      predicted it would be where it is now?

Immigrants contribute to social security and the economy, pay taxes and work the hardest jobs. The economies in Mexico and Central America add to the “push” factor. We export subsidized corn to Mexico, displacing millions of corn farmers. U.S. megastores in Mexico and Central America displace thousands who then immigrate north to survive. What this does is create a vicious circle—shedding jobs or suppressing wages that create greater pressure for immigration northward.

3.  Do you think the changes have been, on the whole, positive for labor unions? And what do you wish had been different about U.S. immigration policy?

The challenge today is the treatment and resolution of the status of undocumented immigrants. They have become the political scapegoats of the right wing. Immigrant– bashing has states proposing anti-immigrant legislation, including taking away the citizenship of children of undocumented parents.

One million undocumented immigrants have been deported—dividing families. Immigrants have been killed. Thousands have been incarcerated in private prisons; many have died for lack of medical attention. The legalization of our undocumented residents is an imperative. And the DREAM Act allowing qualified undocumented students to attend college should be approved.

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