Nearly two centuries after the countries of
Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region's riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on
The truth is that so much time has passed since independence that Latin Americans have lost the right to use others as the excuse for their own failures. Various outside powers have indeed affected the region's fate. But that is true for every region of the world. The countries of
One consequence of
Latin Americans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change. Instead of a culture of improvement, they have promoted a culture of preservation of the status quo. Constant, patient reform -- the only kind of reform compatible with democratic stability -- is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pining for dramatic revolutions that promise abundant treasures only one insurrection away.
Such an attitude would be easier to understand in
To make matters worse, the region's political leaders rarely have the patience or the skill to walk their people carefully through the processes of reform. In a democracy, a leader must be the head teacher, someone eager to respond to doubts and questions and explain the need for and the benefits of a new course. But too often in
This dovetails neatly with the desire to protect established privileges -- a phenomenon visible not only among the rich and powerful but throughout society. Teachers' unions decide for themselves how much teachers should work and what they should teach. Something similar happens with business owners and contractors in the private sector, who have provided low-quality services for decades with no fear of competition, thanks to sinecures and illicit transactions. And public officials are also immobile: the civil services reward those who do no more than sit at their desks and say no.
This attitude has many consequences, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship.
The region's universities, meanwhile, are not turning out the kinds of professionals that development demands.
For development to occur, this has to change. Latin American countries must begin to reward innovators and creators. Their universities must reform their academic offerings and invest in science and technology. They must reduce burdensome regulations, attract investment, and promote the transfer of knowledge. In other words, they must understand that pragmatism is the new universal ideology -- that, as
The second obstacle is the absence of confidence. No development project can prosper in a place where suspicion reigns, the success of others is viewed with misgiving, and creativity and drive are met with wariness. Latin Americans are among the most distrustful people in the world.
Latin Americans doubt the true intentions of all those who cross their paths, from politicians to friends. We believe that everyone has a secret agenda and that it is better not to get too involved in collective efforts. We are captives to a gigantic prisoner's dilemma in which each person contributes as little as possible to the common interest.
In a globalized world, however, trust is indispensable. The countries most ready to trust are the countries most ready to develop, because their citizens can base their actions on a reasonable expectation of how others will behave. Legal insecurity is a special problem. With alarming frequency, citizens of Latin American countries do not know what the legal consequences of their actions will be or how the state will react to their projects. In some countries, businesses are expropriated without any justification, permits are revoked because of political pressure, judicial verdicts fly in the face of the law, and the legal situation is so volatile that it impedes the attainment of long-term goals. As former Ecuadorian President
It has been said that legal security is the protection of trust. For economic development to succeed, Latin Americans must be able to trust their states to act reasonably and predictably. They must be able to anticipate the legal consequences of their actions. And they must be able to trust that others, too, will act in accordance with the rules of the game.
COMMITMENT TO DEMOCRACY
The third obstacle blocking development is the fragility of the Latin American commitment to democracy. To be sure, with the sole exception of
Fidel and Raúl Castro in
If Latin American democracies do not live up to their political and economic promise, if their citizens' hopes remain a dream deferred, then authoritarianism will rise again. The way to prevent that is to show the public that democracy works, that it truly can build more prosperous and equitable societies. Moving beyond political sclerosis, becoming more responsive to citizens' demands, and generating fiscal resources by taxing the wealthy are all essential steps to take in moving toward a true culture of liberty and progress.
A CULTURE OF PEACE
Increasing public income is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Those funds must also be spent wisely, to promote human development. Latin American countries have spent a lot in the past, running up immense debts, but they have often squandered their resources on inappropriate priorities. They have lavished on their armies the money that they should have lavished on their children.
Abandoning this martial culture is also essential because the increased presence of soldiers in our towns and cities promotes a combative attitude that does not favor development. It suggests that problems are best solved by fighting an enemy, rather than building in solidarity with friends and neighbors. It teaches that conquests are attained with weapons, shouts, and threats, as opposed to words, respect, and tolerance. The militarism of the region's culture is a regressive and destructive force, one that needs to be replaced with a culture of peace.
Latin Americans must look in the mirror and confront the reality that many of our problems lie not in our stars but in ourselves. We must lose our fear of change. We must embrace entrepreneurship. We must learn to trust. We must strengthen our commitment to democracy and the rule of law. And we must abandon the military practices that continue to rub salt into the wounds of our past. Only then will the region finally attain the development it has so long sought.
Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011
OSCAR ARIAS served as President of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and 2006 to 2010. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.
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