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It is time to develop new narratives for Latin America

Published onJun 27, 2022
It is time to develop new narratives for Latin America

Latin America is often portrayed as a continent of political instability, economic mismanagement and social inequalities. If all this can be true, it is even more important to remember it is arguably the most stable region in the 20th century: If compared to other regions, the number of wars, the changes of borders, the numbers of victims of dictatorships or wars in Latin America is by far the lowest in the world.

Some believe that the focus on the negative agenda of Latin America is an exercise in diverting the attention from the the fact that Europe was the most dangerous place in the world in the same century (by the same standards: number of wars, changes of borders, numbers of victims of dictatorships or wars). Others point to the fact that many in Latin America have accepted the negative narrative for ideological reasons, since it helped condemn the established order and stress the necessity of significant - or even radical - political, economic and social changes. 

Latin America may not be considered part of the West by a large number of authors or analysts, but it is undeniable that it has embraced to a large extent what could be characterized as “Western values”. That is why most statistics and stories from the region are not the object of relativization when discussed in Western countries. Many analysts, when debating Latin American problems, are influenced by the fact that it is the last area of the globe where “western developing countries” can be found (with the notable exception of the Phillipines). Latin America is, as Alain Rouquié brilliantly defines, “L’Extrème Occident”.

Whatever the debate on what would be the right way to explain or understand Latin America in the 20th century, the 21st century offers a series of opportunities to build a new narrative. First, it is widely recognized that, among developing countries, Latin America has achieved significant social progress: the final results of the Millenniun Devevelopment Goals (MDGs) and the progress reports on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) confirm this tendency. Even though COVID had a very negative impact, the levels of extreme poverty in Latin America are much lower than in Asia and Africa. This has been possible thanks to effective policies aimed at reduction of inequalities (income increase and access to opportunities) and the significant strengthening of civil society.

This consolidated - even if still incomplete - progress should remind any observer that a region often portrayed as the champion of inequalities is in fact changing. Latin America can also increasingly benefit from structural changes in the contemporary world. Assets such as its distance from geopolitical “hot zones” and the significance that sustainability and the fight against climate change have acquired for trade and investment can be, if appropriately tackled, important bases for further progress. 

These advances, nevertheless, maybe overshadowed by two worrying phenomena. The first concern is violence (often connected to drugs - trafficking and consumption – and to a perception of ineffectiveness on the part of police and justice). The second concern arises from the indicators suggesting that most of the region has wasted a large portion of ite demographic dividend, after which, as it is widely agreed, important economic and social progress become extremely difficult.

In view of the objectives of the online conference and, specifically, of Panel 3, I propose five issues for debate in the context of “the challenges, opportunities and possible solutions arising from cooperation within Latin America”: 1) regional initiatives with global impact; 2) facing “deglobalization”; 3) Latin America as SDGs champion; 4) the Amazon (and other environmental treasures) as an asset; and 5) evolving CBDR.

Regional initiatives with global impact

Latin America was the one of the boldest regions in the negotiations of the Law of the Sea. In fact, the first countries to propose the ‘two hundred miles exclusive economic zone’, were Latin American (Chile and Peru); and Latin America’s regional efforts contributed enormously to the shaping of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Can Latin America, once again, instead of reacting to international initiatives, pro-actively advance initiatives in other areas that can also have an international impact, such as environmentally related themes or the design of urban settlements?

Facing “deglobalization”

Latin America is one of the regions that according to many authors has been quite reluctant to embrace globalisation, including in relation to global supply chains (with some exceptions, naturally). New circumstances, strengthened by war in Europe, may provoke geopolitical changes that can stimulate a kind of deglobalization. Is Latin America better prepared than others for this new economic and strategic challenge?

Latin America as SDGs champion

Some countries in Latin America are closer to achieving the SDGs before developed countries. Among the 17 SDGs, the region’s positive examples and interesting answers are often mentioned in the context of: 1- no poverty; 2- zero hunger; 5- gender equality; 7- affordable and clean energy; 11- sustainable cities and communities; 12- responsible consumption and production. Can the region’s successes increasingly become international reference-points?

The Amazon (and other environmental treasures) as an asset

Latin America still has some of the best-preserved ecological sites in the world, from forests to rivers. But the region is more recognised for their destruction than for their preservation. 

The region has the greatest ecological asset in the world: the Amazon. Few people know of the existance of The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), created in 1978, which has 8 country members that cooperate in the promotion of sustainable development in the region. It has been quite forgotten in recent years; but could it become an effective instrument showing the world the value of cooperation amongst countries that share exceptional ecological sites? 

Can Latin America become a paradigm of large-scale environmental conservation - beyond efforts such as Costa Rica’s - and become central as a source of ideas and solutions that promote sustainable development, balancing environmental, social and economic ambitions?

Evolving CBDR

Latin America has been extremely important for the development of the concept of “common but  differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), a principle that is central to climate change and sustainable development negotiations and implementation; (indeed, the expression, CBDR, was originaly proposed by a Brazilian Ambassador, Vera Pedrosa). Some analysts believe CBDR ends up favouring the higher income segments of developing countries, since it can be abused to delay necessary changes in their behaviour instead of supporting advances towards sustainability. Can the region lead the way towards an evolution of the application of the principle to produce programmes that truly have an impact on the lower income segments of Latin American society?

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