To the Editor:
Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias ("Culture Matters," January/February 2011) accurately pinpoints the most vexing questions about Latin America: Why has the region not progressed more steadily and quickly over the years, and what has held it back? But the president's answers are a generation out of date.
His notion that Latin Americans resist change because they "glorify their past" has not applied to Brazil for half a century. Nor is it true for Chile, Colombia, or Mexico -- or even for Cuba or Venezuela. Sure, Mexico honors its Aztec ancestors. But China, Israel, and the United States also exalt their pasts. Venerating history is not the same as preserving the status quo.
Although he offers no causal connection, Arias could be right in fingering "absence of confidence" as an impediment to progress. Surveys suggest that personal trust is in short supply in Latin America. But although many in the region are deeply unhappy with their governments, that hardly justifies Arias' assertion that Latin Americans are "disillusioned with politics." Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office this January with an approval rating above 85 percent. He was able to handpick his successor precisely because Brazilians trusted him. Similarly, the presidents of Chile and Colombia left office last year with 70 percent support. Arias himself ended his presidency in 2010 with an approval rating of almost 60 percent.
And a lack of "commitment to democracy"? "A soft spot for authoritarianism"? Latin America's political deficits are huge, but no other developing region is more democratic. Virtually all of the region's 50 presidential elections since 2000 were free and fair, and most were highly competitive. Yes, Cuba remains a dictatorship, fraud tainted Haiti's recent election, Honduras suffered a military coup, democracy is nearly extinguished in Venezuela, and the rule of law is withering in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. However, these are mostly small, desperately poor countries, long governed incompetently. Democracy is hardly robust in the region, but it has made enormous strides in most places. A centrist pragmatism has now become the ideological norm. More and more Latin Americans are rejecting the populist temptation and voting for what they think works.
Arias is right that the region's mounting military outlays are not good news. But Latin America's expenditures today are modest compared to those of other regions and those of its own past. Two of the biggest spenders -- Brazil and Chile -- are universally applauded for their notable economic and social advances and are reliable democracies. Although Arias acknowledges that Latin America is a region largely at peace, he goes on, incongruously, to censure its culture of militarism. I am not sure what he would say about the bloody battles against organized crime in so many Latin American nations, since he hardly mentions crime, despite the fact that many think organized crime is the area's most intractable problem.
Latin Americans are mostly following Arias' good advice -- to recognize that their problems lie in themselves. Two decades of progress in most of the region and its rising prospects for the future attest to that.
President Emeritus and Senior Fellow, Inter-American Dialogue