Get Serious, Amigos

Monday, January 30, 2006

BUENOS AIRES—The Western Hemisphere meeting in Buenos Aires that drew the most attention recently was the Summit of the Americas in November 2005. But any serious discussion of real issues at the summit was blind-sided by the anti–George W. Bush campaign of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales (a candidate at the time of the summit), and the faded soccer idol Diego Maradona.

Of course, a more serious discussion is possible, which was the intent of a conference here in October cosponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). At the IDB conference there was discussion of the growing relations between Latin America and Asia. One important focus of the participants from both regions and beyond was why so many people in Asia and so few in Latin America have improved their living standards over recent decades and what the Latins can learn, if anything, from the Asian experience.

But conferences like this, and other international meetings and development projects, are fated to fail unless the Latin participants ask themselves two critical preliminary questions and answer them both emphatically in the affirmative. The questions are simple but point the way to possible success or certain failure. First, do Latins really want economic development? Second, a critical extension of the first, are they willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get it? Flowery talk, profound pledges, and “do this–do that” advice are easy, but following through has always been hard, anywhere.

Have Asians been more successful over the past 40 years because they are smarter or more virtuous than Latins? There is little evidence of that. But many Asians are certainly more serious, pragmatic, farsighted, and committed.

Climbing up from the rubble of World War II and facing the threat of communist takeovers, some Asian leaders saw the writing on the wall for themselves: either produce for the people as a whole or be dumped and die. So they answered yes to both of the above questions and, with much work, bore the Asian “dragons” and “tigers.” When problems arose, as in 1997–98, they persisted and in most respects got back on track, although many more challenges remain.

Last October the Asians were the IDB professors here in Argentina, and the Latins were the students. But are the students serious? They usually haven’t been in the past, as shown by the situation in Latin America today.

Whereas Asia was growing steadily for decades, Argentina passed through military dictatorships, incompetent civilian governments, a “dirty war,” the biggest debt default in world history, and the sudden impoverishment of millions. Recent economic growth is on a very shaky foundation of incomplete—and sometimes reversed—reforms.

Today Brazil, at the heart of Latin America, is again in crisis. President Lula da Silva’s term took a very negative turn with one of the biggest corruption scandals of the decade. But as Latin American expert Alvaro Vargas Llosa points out, corruption is the symptom in this crisis, not the cause. The cause is a labyrinthine political system, with deep historical roots, that invites corruption and serves the powerful cliques, not the people.

Several Andean governments are virtually nonfunctional. Hugo Chávez is blindly or demagogically polarizing Venezuela and the region. Even Latin America’s most-admired democracy, in Costa Rica, is rife with scandal. Chile is the most “Asian” Latin land in terms of its relative successes, although it, too, has serious troubles.

So how do Latins answer the first question? The 2004 Latinobarometero poll showed that a majority do want more and better homes, food, education, jobs, justice, and opportunity. But despite a marginal preference for democracy, by a large majority they are frustrated with that system’s performance and will settle for nondemocratic regimes if democracies cannot deliver the goods.

But even if the majority of Latins say, “yes, we want development,” their prospects depend on whether they—and their leaders—can follow through on the second commitment. Do they want material benefits enough to give up or drastically modify some of their “development-resistant” (in Argentine Mariano Grondona’s words) ways of thinking and acting? That is, are they really willing to sacrifice some of the traditional Iberian “virtues” lauded so famously in José Enrique Rodó’s classic 1900 work, Ariel, which called on Latins to resist the materialistic culture exported by the United States?

What needs to be done beyond having the will and commitment to change? Asians recently, and the developed world in the past, have shown that there can be varied (although similar) roads to development. But serious reform leaders anywhere must look pragmatically at the present and the future, not wallow in the past, as Latins are inclined to do. And they must work toward national, not just narrow and self-serving, goals. This must include (1) the development of human capital by means of good, modern education through secondary school for all citizens and the improvement of health conditions for all; (2) the creation of real justice systems for all, not just the rich and powerful cliques; and (3) a vastly higher quality of leadership and governance.

In most respects this means getting the state off people’s backs, although it remains to be seen if Latins really want to reduce or eliminate the paternalism of the past. Polls do not show that they do. Even if they are willing to change, do they have broad enough shoulders to carry the load themselves in the long haul? A lot of Asians have shown they can do it.

Kishore Mahbubani, one of Singapore’s foremost diplomats, has compiled a list of “commandments” for countries seeking development, drawn in large part from the experiences of his small and very successful country. The first commandment is, don’t blame others for your past failures. Seeking scapegoats is a cop-out that prevents critical self-examination and thus in the end guarantees continuing failure. And seeking scapegoats is one of Latin Americans’ favorite pastimes.

The central fact is that no good Asian or other ideas or experiences will make any real difference on their own, even if modified to suit the needs of individual Latin countries, as they must be. Rather, Latin Americans at all levels of society must be serious, objectively analytic, and determined to implement reforms no matter what obstacles are thrown up in their way. Otherwise all the conferences and other development advice will just be a hurricane of hot air.