A Sprawling, Rich Continent, Just Waiting to be Noticed

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which gathered experts last week in the Greek capital to discuss global issues.

Moderator: Serge Schmemann, editorial board, The New York Times

Participants: Natalia Herbst, social impact consultant and Obama Foundation Scholar alumnus; Jorge Fernando Quiroga, former president, Bolivia; and Adriana Mejía Hernández, executive director, Fundación Innovación para el Desarrollo

Excerpts from the panel Disunited States of South America have been edited and condensed.

SERGE SCHMEMANN In my preparatory reading, I found a dual image of the continent. On the one hand we’re talking about one of the most promising regions in the world. There’s no wars. It’s the most democratic region in the developing world. And it’s set to become an economic powerhouse with the green minerals that will be necessary for a green world. At the same time, you read about democratic backsliding, politics that veer from far left to far right and a region plagued by inequality, crime, drug trafficking, social upheavals. And despite similarities of language and history, there has been no successful attempt to bring unity, a European Union type of cohesion to the continent. Having spouted a bunch of stereotypes, I would like to ask you, which stereotypes of your region irritate you the most?

JORGE FERNANDO QUIROGA We in Latin America, without having the frameworks that you have built in Brussels, and the Parliament, and the currency, we do have the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the Inter-American Human Rights System, the Election Observation Mission. And I can tell you from experience having gone to observe elections in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, other places, that is something to be treasured. Is it perfect? No. Do we have exceptions? Certainly. Glaring ones. We had three dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but we do have a framework. And I know when you go to Asia and Africa they don’t have that.

So having those common values leads to the challenge of why do we not do more integration with Europe and South America. Because the trade arrangement discussions between Europe and South America have been going on forever, and ever and ever. It’s a never-ending date, and there’s no marriage. And if Europe is not open for business, and the U.S., by the way, is not open for business, then do not please come preach to us about “get China out of the way.” Because China is actually open for business.

ADRIANA MEJÍA HERNÁNDEZ Thinking of the stereotypes, I would say that maybe a pressing challenge does have to do with criminal activity in the region, the proliferation of criminal economies and the way that in many cases this has captured important parts of the state, especially in those countries where democracy isn’t alive and well. But also in many countries where narco trafficking, human trafficking, arms trafficking make up for a very big proportion of economic activities, especially in those regions that are most vulnerable and poorest. So in that sense, the stereotype would pretty much describe a challenge that we have to confront.

SCHMEMANN Latin America is the most democratic part of the developing world. It’s third only behind North America and Europe. And yet various studies have shown backsliding for the last many years. Is this a problem that can be reversed?

MEJÍA HERNÁNDEZ We were very proud in Colombia to call ourselves the longest-standing democracy in Latin America. We never had a military coup, and we have had very strong institutions, separation of powers and free press despite a longstanding situation of violence and terrorist threats, and different kinds of menaces that come from narco-trafficking organizations, guerrillas, etc. Having said this, we are currently experiencing the first radical leftist presidency in our republican history. So the institutions are really being put to a test. We don’t really know how it’s going to play out.

But this is a challenging situation, and we’ve seen examples of where this can lead in our neighboring Venezuela, for example — more than 24 years of one political party rule with dire consequences that the whole continent is witnessing, such as the massive migration, etc. So I think the real threat to democracy in our continent is radicalism, is extremism, is populism, probably generated by a lot of fear and anger in very big sections of society. And I would not exclude the possibility of also some kind of influence and a lot of misinformation through social media that enrage citizens and make them make decisions not with their head.

Members of The Disunited States of South America panel, from left, Serge Schmemann of The New York Times, moderator; Adriana Mejía Hernández, executive director of Fundación Innovación para el Desarroll; and Natalia Herbst, social impact consultant.Credit…Athens Democracy Forum

NATALIA HERBST Citizens have very low levels of satisfaction with democracy, so they are not happy with how it’s working with the performance of government. But they still show high levels of support to democracy. So what you have is a problem that is more aligned with the performance of government than with the value of citizens. Successful policies that bring prosperities for the majority is combined with a perception from citizens that once in power politicians are way more concerned about their own survival, about remaining in power. And this has progressively created an erosion of trust in government.

SCHMEMANN There’s a very interesting case history right now in Latin America, which has everything to do with the popular perception that autocracies are more efficient at solving major problems. This was in El Salvador, which had an enormous crime problem. And they elected Nayib Bukele. He went and arrested 70,000 people, violated every conceivable human right and is enormously popular. I gather there were statues to him being built in other countries, and he’s become a sort of a hero. What do you do with that when in fact he has solved the problem that he was elected to solve, even though in the process he has seriously damaged democracy?

MEJÍA HERNÁNDEZ As a Colombian, I can also say that Colombian citizens have voted many times in favor of security, security being the most fundamental right of all. However, democracy entails a balance between security and the preservation of human rights. It’s difficult to say how the Bukele project is going to play out. They have elections coming up, so that’s something we should be watching. What I can say is that in Colombia we have regional elections coming up next October, as well as in Argentina, and many candidates are defining themselves like, “I am the Bukele of Colombia.”

HERBST Politicians and candidates, while they’re in office, and while they are campaigning, don’t connect to people’s everyday worries, and everyday problems. And if these people feel like they are being left out, it’s reasonable that they will turn to someone who seems to make promises, even if they are unfeasible, that relate to their everyday life. So we have some reflection to do about how do we better connect through those experiences.

SCHMEMANN Jorge, do you feel that there are times when a democratically elected government is simply incapable any longer of solving a problem, and therefore the public is justified in selecting an autocrat?

QUIROGA No, never. I would never trade democracy for security, even though it may be temporarily popular. But, Serge, on your first question about the stereotypes of South America. I’ll take the other side. What are things about South America that the world does not really know? We have over 60 percent of the world’s lithium in South America. We’re world champions of lithium. And that brings about great opportunities for the world that’s coming, climate change.

But let me tell you — I’ll close with a point that we were making at the beginning. Everybody wants to talk to South America now about the lithium. A lot of preaching, not enough practicing. Now in the U.S., they don’t want our people, they don’t want our products. Europe doesn’t want to trade. China buys the commodities. And we could get to a situation where the future of electric batteries, with South America lithium, the production chain will go across the Pacific with China. I think Europe ought to really wake up and say, “South America’s here. We’re ready.”

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