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Center for American Progress

: Crisis of Governance: The International Stake in Sustaining Democracy in Latin America
Past Event


Crisis of Governance: The International Stake in Sustaining Democracy in Latin America


12:00 AM - 11:59 PM EST

Crisis of Governance: The International Stake in Sustaining Democracy in Latin America

Security & Peace Initiative / Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung / United Nations Development Programme
February 3, 2006
New York, NY

On February 3, 2006, the Security and Peace Initiative (a joint initiative of the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation), the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), and the United Nations Development Programme hosted a conference entitled, “Crisis of Governance: The International Stake in Sustaining Democracy in Latin America.” This one-day event brought together leading policy practitioners and experts from Latin America, the United States, and Europe for a candid discussion of the challenges to democratic governance in Latin America and approaches to strengthening democratic institutions.

Opening Remarks

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette began the day with an overview of the transition in Latin America from authoritarian to democratic rule during the past 25 years. After noting regional advances in economics, education, and health, she went on to address worrisome trends in Latin America: inequality, poverty, crime, and unemployment. Fréchette mentioned that “Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world” and that “[s]pikes in crime and violence, linked by some observers to increased inequality and the weakness of the State, represent not only a threat to citizens’ lives but also to growth….” Fréchette discussed the citizenry’s frustration with the seeming inability of government to respond to the needs of the people.

Tom Daschle, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress, focused on ideas for improved U.S. involvement in the region. He asserted the United States needs to: 1) use engagement, not “big stick” diplomacy of a prior era; 2) accept the election of leaders whose beliefs do not match its own, as long as those leaders accept the rules of democratic governance; 3) redouble its efforts to combat regional violence; 4) help create more economic opportunity in Latin America, bridge differences on trade, and make it safer and less expensive for Latino immigrant workers to remit money from the United States; and 5) reform immigration laws. Daschle also noted that “[t]here will not be one silver bullet to resolve the crisis of governance that is threatening countries throughout the region. But there will be a long, never-ending fight, waged by the region’s citizens with our help, to keep what they have gained.”

Panel I – What Crisis?

Moderator: Jeffrey Laurenti: Senior Fellow, The Security and Peace Initiative and The Century Foundation

Presenters: Andre Vitor Singer: Spokesperson, Presidency of Brazil

Gustavo Fernandez: Foreign Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bolivia

Robert Pastor: Vice-President of International Affairs, American University

The first panel explored whether there really is a crisis of democracy in Latin America and the strengths and weaknesses of Latin American states in tackling challenges. Looking strictly at the state of democracy in Latin America, many participants noted that there was no crisis; on the contrary, they were optimistic about democracy’s future. In particular, they pointed to the competitive nature of political races in the region and the ability of opposition parties to win power. One presenter warned, however, that a lack of a crisis is no reason for complacency. He referenced New Orleans and stated that it is important to reinforce the levees before they break. A participant from Ecuador was skeptical, asking if eight changes in government in ten years isn’t a crisis, what is?

Participants agreed that democracy means different things to different people: for some it means political liberty, for others it means free trade agreements, and for still others it means food on the table. The state of democracy may look different when evaluated against social and economic considerations. Concerning social divides, one presenter suggested that if there is a cultural clash in Bolivia, it is not between Indian and mestizo populations, but instead fueled by migration from rural to urban centers and the resulting loss in cultural identity.

Participants addressed the difference between the performance of democracy and the performance of governments. They discussed how weak democracies and ineffective governments have created a crisis of credibility and legitimacy; one participant suggested that Latin Americans are looking for something between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. There was general consensus that political parties have not adjusted to meet new democratic realities or incorporate new people.

Around the table, participants insisted that the movement to the left in the region does not reflect a failure of democracy. In fact, it could actually reflect a surge in democracy, as it signals that the political process is becoming more inclusive. (The election of a woman and an indigenous person to lead Chile and Bolivia, respectively, is evidence of this growing inclusiveness.) Alarms about the “movement to the left” across the region may reveal an antiquated Cold War worldview. One presenter noted that U.S. concern about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is misplaced, as he is not a real threat to the U.S. The danger is the possibility that Chávez may eliminate political competition.

Panel II – Is it the Economy?

Moderator: Albert Fishlow: Director, Latin American Studies, Columbia University

Presenters: Mirna Lievano de Marques: Advisor, External Relations, Inter-American Development Bank

Cecilia López Montaño: President, Agenda Colombia Foundation

Félix Peña: Director, Institute for International Trade, BankBoston

The second panel examined the linkage between political upheavals in the region and failures of policy to remedy persistent inequality and the economic conditions of the traditionally dispossessed. Why, the moderator asked, when economic policies are so successful, do candidates who approve the “Washington Consensus” win elections?

Participants acknowledged the numerous signs of economic progress in the region, such as low inflation, increased privatization, and expansion of international trade, but asserted that the true crisis is the inability to resolve poverty and inequality. One participant posed the question: “How much poverty can democracy withstand?” Participants frequently noted that policies must address social issues, including the problems of those excluded from the system, as well as promote economic competitiveness.

Chile was cited as a success story due to strong leadership and consistent efforts to reduce poverty. But participants also acknowledged that Chile’s high commodity prices, especially copper, have been a prime driver of its economic growth, and that the new Latin America should be more economically diverse and less dependent on commodities. It was also noted that despite its efforts to reduce poverty, even Chile has barely managed to move the needle on closing the profound economic inequalities that characterize all Latin American economies.

Participants also discussed the dynamics between politicians and technocrats, and argued that government by technocrats is the unwanted legacy of military regimes.

Lunch Speaker

H.E. José Miguel Insulza: Secretary General of the Organization of American States

Insulza stressed the connection between economic growth and social ills. He compared Latin America favorably with China and India in terms of economic growth, but also noted that the world often overlooks the social challenges faced by those countries. He argued that Latin America has come a long way in terms of liberties and is poised for growth, but identified poverty and violence as major threats to stability in the region. He discussed the need to increase government capacity to solve these problems and create confidence.

Panel III – What Media Stake in Latin America?

Moderator: Tina Rosenberg: Member of the Editorial Board, The New York Times

Presenters: Rafael Santos: Director, El Tiempo, Colombia

Paulo Sotero: Washington Correspondent, O Estado de São Paulo

The third panel looked at the role and effectiveness of the media in Latin America. Participants stressed that it takes time to create a free and responsible press, particularly in countries emerging from military dictatorships. Pressures on the media come less from governments and more from other forces like corruption, politicians, and narcotraffickers.

While good examples of journalism exist in Latin America, it was suggested that the profession remains hampered by a lack of good sources, single-sourced stories, and owners whose other business interests affect the neutrality of reporting. One participant argued that the regulation of journalists – that is, requiring a journalism degree to report – is a way for governments to control the message.

Participants addressed a “crisis of readership” in the region, with newspapers reaching only a tiny minority of the public, and widespread functional illiteracy. Participants also discussed how the business and social roles of the media intersect increasingly in the political realm, especially during elections.

Panel IV – What Can Outsiders Do?

Moderator: Antonio Aranibar: Secretary-General, Andean Community

Presenters: Fernando Valenzuela: Permanent Representative of the European Union to the United Nations

Arturo Valenzuela: Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Georgetown University

The fourth panel examined the impact of outside influences on sustaining democracy in the region. Participants stressed the critical role of the international community in preventing democratic upheaval and supporting the development of democracy. Some noted that democracy cannot be strengthened when constantly interrupted and that we should not confuse the establishment of democracy with its consolidation. Consolidating democracy requires patience.

Some participants noted a loss of U.S. credibility on democracy promotion in the region and pointed to the tacit U.S. support for the coup in Venezuela in 2002 as a case in point. They argued that it is important for the Organization of American States and other actors to intervene decisively when there is an interruption of democracy in the region. Although any country that backslides democratically will encounter a more negative reaction from other countries than it would have in years past, participants noted that a lack of inter-American consensus on the defining elements of democracy makes effective peer pressure more difficult to achieve.

One presenter acknowledged that Latin America is hardly present on the agenda of the European Union, since agendas are usually made in times of crisis, but that the European Union is, however, one of the major investors and donors in the region.

Participants agreed that democracy is linked to social cohesion, and that trade alone is not the only solution. Participants singled out the drug problem as a major obstacle to democracy, development, and social cohesion. Above all, participants emphasized that the major actor in consolidating democracy is the region itself.

Looking Ahead

U.N. Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Jose Antonio Ocampo gave the closing remarks. Ocampo identified one of the most positive developments regarding the role of the international community in promoting democracy: a country’s own neighbors becoming the judges. He stressed the need for the United Nations to be firmly committed to democracy in the region and for international organizations to support diverse national solutions to problems. The era of military governments, which once were actively promoted from abroad, is over; the United States now has less influence over the region than a few decades ago. He also pointed out the need for democracy to be responsive and carefully cultivated.