Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

LATIN AMERICA: Former Leaders Hope to Shape Regional Agenda

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 4 2009 (IPS) - After two years of work, 20 former presidents of Latin American countries have issued policy recommendations that they hope “will greatly improve the lives and social mobility of Latin America’s poor, will produce a new dynamic for economic growth, and will strengthen Latin America’s still-fragile democratic institutions”.

The coalition of former heads of state, as well as academics and professionals from various sectors, hopes their “Social Agenda for Democracy” will solve social and governance problems that, they argue, neither “market fundamentalism” nor “authoritarian populism” have been able to adequately address.

With the current popularity of left-wing leaders in the region, however, it remains to be seen how much influence their recommendations will have when they present them to the current leaders of Latin America at November’s Ibero-American Summit in Portugal.

Speaking at a discussion on the report Tuesday, Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue said, “Hopefully, former presidents will know how to turn ideas into reality.”

Despite that potential difficulty, in the opinions of some, like political economist Francis Fukuyama, who spoke Tuesday, the policy recommendations are “exactly what the region needs”.

“You can grow as an unequal society for a certain number of years, but you inevitably fall back into social conflict. This has been the pattern in much of Latin America,” said Fukuyama, who is on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which helped sponsor the creation of the Social Agenda.

To address this inequality and the unrest it leads to, the report tries to integrate policies meant to decrease the region’s sometimes extreme social inequality with policies mean to strengthen its democratic institutions and economic growth.

Former Mexican president Vincente Fox pointed to the integration of these goals, which the authors hope will be implemented over the next two decades, as the key factor in giving the recommendations relevance and the potential for success.

Former president Alejandro Toledo, of Peru, said, “If we don’t address poverty and social exclusion it could truncate economic growth” because it creates an environment that is not conducive to investment. “Then, with those levels of poverty and social exclusion, democracy is not able to grow.”

One recommendation the report highlights as an example of this synergy between different areas is the expansion of micro-loans available to small businesses. This, it says, “can impact the spread of small-scale alternative energy (such as solar power) to rural villages, food security, decent work, and the empowerment of women and indigenous peoples” as well as increased tax revenue and socioeconomic inclusion.

Other recommendations include greater access to quality education, nutrition, healthcare and energy; decent housing and work; and the reform of fiscal policies and of the regulation of remittances service providers, which they hope would make it less costly for family members abroad to transfer funds to those who need them back home. They also target the responsiveness and transparency of democratic institutions in the region.

It’s not enough to have either poverty reduction or stronger democracy, said former president Ricardo Maduro of Honduras. “They must go hand in hand. Otherwise you just go from the frying pan to the fire.”

The initiative, Toledo said, is trying to walk “two parallel paths”.

It is also trying to walk a narrow path – between the free-market Washington Consensus of the 1980s and 1990s and the recent reemergence of leftist populism.

Tuesday, Brooking Institution senior fellow Mauricio Cárdenas said he hopes these policy recommendations will represent a “new consensus for Latin America” following what he called the “mixed results” of the Washington Consensus.

Toledo, who led the project and whose rise from the poverty in which he grew up has been well-documented, pointed to a current “trend of authoritarian populism that is giving fish away to the poor” rather than teaching them how to fish. “I find that insulting to the dignity of the poor,” he said.

Still, leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and others who have joined him in his Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have their own ideas about how to lift up the poor and their own versions of improved democratic responsiveness. Whether they would be open to the suggestions of these former presidents remains a question.

It should also be noted that last year’s Ibero-American summit, in San Salvador, was not attended by several regional leaders, including Chávez, and several others only stopped by briefly.

Still, Toledo sees the source of these recommendations as key. “We can talk to our friends who are active presidents,” he said, though he was quick to point out “there is no legal binding to this; it’s just a contribution”.

“Politics are essential if any of these reforms are going to take hold,” noted Shifter.

In presenting their report at Tuesday’s discussion, the former presidents felt the backbone of both economic development and effective democratic governance was a reduction of poverty that would lead to greater social cohesiveness and less inequality.

“Thirty-four percent of Latin Americans are poor,” said Nicolás Ardito Barletta, former president of Panama. “Another 20 percent don’t receive basic services in urban centres. As long as this is the case, democracy is unstable.”

According to Toledo, investing in poverty reduction is a great investment. If poor people are brought into the economy, they can buy the goods that are being produced, he said.

He sees improvements in health and education as the best avenues for governments to tackle poverty.

The economies of many Latin American countries have been growing, he said, but “people don’t feel it in their pockets.”

The report says Toledo’s Global Center for Development and Democracy will measure how much progress each country has made toward the goals laid out in the Social Agenda, based on 2008 numbers, over the next 20 years. It did not mention whether governments would have to endorse the reforms first.

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