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State of the Americas

Despite 13 recent successful presidential elections, Latin American democracies still face obstacles to long term stability.

“The current situation of the Americas is democracy and economic growth…We have reason to be optimistic,” OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza boldly stated yesterday at the Center for American Progress.

Insulza gave the keynote address at The State of the Americas, an event by The Americas Project at the Center that brought together distinguished panelists to discuss the United States’ relationship with and place in the Americas amid a wave of democratic elections in Latin America.

Panelists agreed that the positive electoral outcomes were reason for optimism in the Americas, but they also worried that frustration with slower governmental action on pressing issues could lead to instability in fragile democracies.

“We have to strengthen political institutions, the capacity for the government to deliver,” Insulza said. He cited poverty, inequality, and discrimination as a few of the key problems affecting the Americas and the strength of their democracies. “It’s a developing region, but it’s not a poor region,” Insulza explained. “Certainly those that have more reason to disbelieve…are those who wonder whether they will finally get their share of the economic bonanza.”

“There is probably no issue that serves as a better common denominator [than poverty],” Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said. It is economic conflicts like these that invite governmental instability.

Insulza explained that despite the improving situation democracy has allowed, the shortcuts to reform that a concentration of power allows remains preferable to too many—especially with economic disparities still rampant. “It’s a democratic threat in the narrow sense of the word,” he said; as social and economic problems stagnate the danger that the democracy will disintegrate will only increase.

The United States can play a pivotal role in strengthening the democracies by committing more resources and leadership to the region in its fight for broad based economic growth and increased democratic strength. Yet panel members cited the absence of strategic thinking as a central failure in current U.S. policy toward the region. Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, for example, began his participation with the simple and troubling observation that “[t]he problem we face in dealing with Latin America in terms of U.S. foreign policy is we don’t think about the region strategically.” Valenzuela also noted that the corrosive effect of the Iraq War had a spillover effect on U.S. policy toward Latin America. “U.S. moral and political leadership is affected by the war in Iraq,” Valenzuela said. “That’s a reality.”

Marcela Sanchez from The Washington Post noted that the Americas were passing through “interesting times” and underscored the difference in perspective between the United States and Latin American countries as a partial explanation for the different response specific developments were eliciting. “The reason why Latin America does not react perhaps the way the U.S. does…is because they realize they are family, they are neighbors, and once you start getting involved judging what others are doing there is always a concern that someone will come around and judge what they are doing.” She also emphasized ideas emerging from the region that are reacting to inequality like conditional cash transfers, urban renewal, and anti-gang social programs that are having positive impacts without the need for huge external resources.

Although there is certainly much more that needs to be done to strengthen democracy in the region, it is clear that much progress has been made. Despite the fears and continued problems, comparatively and historically Latin America is finds itself in a strong position. Insulza strongly believed that “Undoubtedly democracy is strong in Latin America these days.”

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