BUENOS AIRES The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) co-sponsored a conference here in mid-October to discuss growing relations between Latin America and Asia. One important focus of the participants from both areas and beyond was why so many people in Asia and so few in Latin America have really improved their living standards over recent decades, and what the Latins can learn from the Asian experience of recent decades.
But conferences like this and other international conferences and development plans in general, accomplish little in Latin America unless the Latin participants ask themselves two critical preliminary questions and answer them both emphatically in the affirmative. And then stick to their word.
The two questions are simple but point the way to possible success or certain failure. First, do Latins really want economic development, and second, the critical extension of the first, are they willing to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed? There is a lot of do this and do that advice these days in Buenos Aires, but without long term commitment it is all just hot air.
Have Asians been more successful over the past forty years because they are smarter or more virtuous than Latins? There is no evidence of that. But they certainly are more serious, pragmatic, far-sighted and committed.
Climbing up from the rubble of World War II, facing the threat of communist take-overs, some Asian leaders saw the writing on the wall for themselves: either produce for the people as a whole or die. So they answered yes, yes and, with much work, bore the Asian dragons and tigers. When problems arose, as in 1997, they persisted and got back on track, though still more challenges remain.
Now the Asians are the IDB professors here in Argentina and the Latins are the students. But are the students serious? They seldom have been in the past and are still unproven today.
While Asia was growing steadily for decades, the host country of the IDB conference passed through military dictatorships, mostly short, incompetent civilian governments, a dirty war, the biggest debt default in world history and the sudden impoverishment millions.
Today Brazil, at the heart of Latin America, is again in crisis. President Lula da Silvas term has taken a very negative turn with one of the biggest corruption scandals of the decade. But as Latin American expert Alvaro Vargas Llosa points out, corruption is the symptom in this crisis, not the cause. The cause is a labyrinthine political system, with deep historical roots, that invites corruption and serves the powerful cliques, not the people.
Several Andean governments are virtually non-functional. Hugo Chavez is recklessly polarizing Venezuela and the region. Even Latin Americas most-admired democracy in Costa Rica is rife with scandal. Chile is the most Asian Latin land in its relative successes.
So, how do Latins answer the first question? The 2004 Latinobarometero poll showed that a majority of Latins do want more and better homes, food, education, jobs, justice, and opportunity. And despite a marginal preference for democracy, by a large majority they are frustrated with that systems performance and will settle for non-democratic regimes if those are needed to deliver the goods.
But even if Latins say, yes, we want development, their prospects depend on their following through on the second commitment. Do they want this materialism enough to give up or drastically modify some of those development-resistant (as Argentine analyst Mariano Grondona puts it) virtues Rodo associated with Ariel?
What needs to be done beyond having the will and commitment to change? Asians and others have shown there are options. But at least reforming leaders must look pragmatically to the future, not the past, with national, not narrow self-serving, goals; strive for good, modern education through secondary schools for all citizens; improve health standards; cultivate real justice systems for all, not just the rich and powerful cliques; and vastly improve the quality of leadership and governance.
In most respects this means getting the state off peoples backs, though it remains to be seen if Latins have broad enough shoulders to carry the load. A lot of Asians do.
Singapore will doubtless be represented in the IDB discussions. One of the foremost diplomats of that small and incredibly successful country, Kishore Mahbubani, once drew up an incisive list of commandments he said should be followed by countries seeking development. The first is, dont blame others for your past failures.
Seeking scapegoats is the cop-out of the perfect Latin American idiot since it puts off self-examination and in the end guarantees continuing failure.
The central fact is that no good Asian or other ideas or experiences will make any real difference on their own. Latin Americans at all levels of society must be serious, objectively analytical and determined to implement reforms no matter what obstacles are thrown up in their way. Otherwise all conferences and other plans will just be a hurricane of hot air for the Latin American people.