Once a fertile ground for creative governing ideas, Latin American now lags behind

By Dawisson Belem Lopes

Atacama is a cool and arid region that occupies a continuous strip for about 1,000km along the coast of the northern third of Chile, reaching as far as the Peruvian border in the north. As the driest desert zone on Earth, it is a good metaphor to describe Latin America’s current dry spell of influential ideas and political appeal.

What do the two dozen countries which make up Latin America have in common? Arguably, they have been the vanguard of different historic movements at various moments of their 200-year histories as national units.

Latin America experienced a unique process of liberation from its colonial masters – Spain and Portugal – early in the 19th century. While most African and Asian nations gained national independence only from the 1950s onwards, one can truthfully claim that countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Brazil were leading the Global South’s anti-colonial struggle. Latin American revolutionary movements fought and won against colonialism starting back in the 1850s. Afterwards the region became the centre of innovative ideas in politics, economics and the arts.

But these creative revolutionary times are now gone.

Vanguard of diplomacy, economy and literature

Many of the practices now associated with modern-day diplomacy and international law were pioneered and put into practice in Latin America already in the second half of the 1800s.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Take the concept of multilateralism, which soon became a fundamental principle for each and every diplomatic corps from the region. The full mastery of legal techniques and codes was then perceived to be one of the strengths of Latin American representatives, especially when they joined high-profile international conferences.

The principle of “diplomatic asylum”, for example, has found a fertile ground in Latin America, having been transformed into one of our proudest traditions.

Yet Latin American thought would actually come of age in the course of the 20th century. An exquisite group of economic thinkers – from Argentine Raul Prebisch to Brazilians Celso Furtado and Fernando Cardoso and Chilean Enzo Faletto – has been responsible for crafting the theory of dependency and most of its intellectual derivatives.

As a school of thought, it has revolutionised the field known today as developmental economics and highly influenced the doctrines applied by a diversity of presidents and ministers, bankers and chief economists. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America is still dominated by such thinking.

In 20th-century literature, the magical realism genre was dominated by Latin American literary giants such as Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, Mexico’s Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Uruguay’s Horacio Quiroga, and Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, among others. Beside being awarded Nobel and other literary prizes, this group of literary stars dictated the tendencies in the world of arts and culture. For some time, they were the ones to be watched, followed and liked.
Latin America had a lot to contribute to some negative political trends, too. A recent column in The Economist magazine went as far as drawing a link between US President Donald Trump and Argentina’s late President Juan Domingo Peron.

However problematic this kind of exercise might be from a historian’s viewpoint, it recognises that populism as a political mode of action has roots between the Rio Bravo and the Patagonian Pampas.

One cannot but recognise the creative capacity of Latin American political leaders of the 1900s.

Recycling of old ideas

Unfortunately, today, all we see is the recycling of old ideas.

In the realm of economics, the experts of neo-developmentalism engage in fierce battles against neoliberal enthusiasts in the pursuit of ascendancy.

In electoral competitions all across the region, neo-populists and neoliberals keep attacking each other, as if they have the infallible formula for generating social welfare and political stability. Not to mention other softer forms of power – cinema, the fine arts, literature, etc – where Latin America’s leverage is far below the curve and it can no longer claim to be part of the vanguard. In a nutshell, contemporary Latin America is definitely not an artistic, economic and/or political trendsetter
Diplomacy, a historical reservoir of political acumen and national pride in Latin America, is hardly able to save us from humiliation and oblivion.

Donald Trump presses forward with his anti-Latino migration policies and does not get any significant or articulate response or any sign of resistance from our leaders. To say the least, it is sad and shameful to witness the self-helping behaviour of Brazil’s and Argentina’s presidents in their relations to the US and their refusal to denounce the outrageous proposal to erect a wall between Mexico and the US. Latin American states are engaged in a “race to the bottom” on who will be America’s new pet. And the worst of all is that they are not paying attention to China and India rising.

Indeed, Latin America has contributed an innovative set of social policies to fight illiteracy, bad healthcare, chronic hunger and extreme poverty lately. But even these successful moves are now under jeopardy, since the political mood in the region is presently averse to investments aimed at rescuing the most impoverished and vulnerable ones from marginalisation.

In the name of fiscal austerity and other ideas which used to be fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s, many good administrative practices are being abandoned.

As a consequence, the region is lagging behind the rest of the world. Whatever international political or economic forum you take as a reference – whether hosted in Halifax, New Delhi, Davos, Shanghai or Munich – scanning its program would inevitably lead you to the same conclusion: No one cares about Latin America now.


Dawisson Belem Lopes is a professor of international and comparative politics at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Chile, and a researcher of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in Brazil. Article originally appeared in Al Jazeera.

  • baba free

    That’s an easy discussion to say there are no new ideas coming from Latin America. And it’s easy to be appalled at Trump’s immigration stance. Actually the first world, in general, has an “immigration problem”. Better to ask yourself as a historian why that is so…..

    • Jason Faulkner

      Late stage capitalism always looking for a way to cut costs. It’s all that’s left now that the race to the bottom is almost over. US immigration policies are really just a cat and mouse game to keep the unwashed masses placated. If they really wanted to do something about illegal immigration, they’d start arresting the people who hire them.

  • Lourdes Mordini

    The university mentioned, as well as the State of Minas Gerais are in Brazil, not Chile.

  • Judi

    I’m curious why the presidents of Latin American countries are not appalled at the rate with which their country’s people struggle to get to the USA border and many times, risk their and their children’s lives to enter, illegally, a country that feels it is overburdened by their presence. Why don’t the Latin American leaders look within their own countries and determine a way to keep their people safe and content to remain in their home countries? If Latin America is failing it’s people, it is not Donald Trump’s fault – he has only been POTUS for less than 100 days.

    • StillWatching

      Hmmmm… that seems like a pretty rational observation that I hadn’t considered before. Thank you.

    • Jason Faulkner

      They’re not appalled because it isn’t happening. Net immigration from Mexico to the US has been flat for 5 years. The only thing that wall is going to do is keep gringos in. Emigration from Ecuador is currently negative as more Ecuadorians are coming back than leaving. With the exception of violence-riddled Honduras and El Salvador, people aren’t struggling to get to the the USA border very much these days. At the same time, the US has the largest ex-pat population on the planet. (things that make you go hmmmmmm)

      Nobody is blaming Donald Trump for Latin America’s problems. Why do Trumpster divers get so bent out of shape whenever his name is mentioned. It’s like you people are in love or something. He’s a reality show star who convinced about a quarter of the most gullible mouth breathers in the US population to vote for him, nothing else. He won’t finish his term. Better prepare yourselves emotionally while you can and get ready for President Pence.

      • Judi

        I am not bent out of shape nor am I in love with Donald Trump so just put your sarcasm and anger aside. If immigration is down, it is because the USA economy has been flat for the last 8 years. However, immigration being down and illegal immigrants entering the USA are two different subjects. Obviously, immigrants are still crossing the border illegally or else the USA would have no need of border agents, surveillance, or a wall. And as for the violent-ridden Honduras and El Salvador, it seems to me a stop in Mexico or Panama or perhaps the more preferred-by-USA immigrants country of Ecuador would be a better and easier choice. And, I’m okay with Mike Pence, no prep needed.

        “The only thing that wall is going to do is keep gringos in.” Surely this is your attempt at humor as I have not heard of USA citizens lining up at the border, waiting for nightfall and then running across the border into Mexico.

        • Jason Faulkner

          You said you were curious why presidents of Latin American countries are not appalled at the rate with
          which their country’s people struggle to get to the USA border. I explained why they weren’t. I’m sorry if the world isn’t living up to the misinformation you’ve been fed.

          And seriously, anger? I would have to care about you and your opinion for that to happen. I didn’t post this for your benefit. I posted it for those who might stumble across your comment and naively take you seriously.

        • Globe Trotter

          No improvement is possible in any endeavor unless there is a frank appreciation of fact. Donald Trump is president because the American system and Americans, Democrats and Republicans, allowed or wanted it to happen. Trump is an uncanny reflection of the American culture. There is a little or large part of Trump in all Americans. Look how you, or SW, fly off the handle when you read an opinion you don’t like! Trump to a tee!

          How can you expect to alter the cultural characteristics you rightly see as deeply flawed and dangerous without recognizing them in yourself?

          • Judi

            Sorry for the slow response but I don’t follow these comments as closely as others might and I’ve just returned from an extended visit to Colombia.
            1. I do not expect to alter cultural characteristics, in fact, I appreciate many of the cultural differences in people.
            2. I did not and I do not “fly off the handle” when I read an opinion I don’t like. IMO, I respond in a respectful and logical manner.
            3. Because I believe everyone has a right to their own opinions, I do not accuse people of having deeply flawed or dangerous characteristics, (unless I know that person personally). Then I just avoid them! 🙂

    • James Snow

      Please, Please do NOT equate the ramblings of the current US President with the sentiments of the majority of the US people. It is a travesty that Trump was elected, but the USA will right the ship and hopefully get back on course as a force for inclusion rather than a symbol of exclusion and nationalism that Trump envisions. The majority are appalled at his proposed policies. The US would not have an immigration problem if it would return to its policies of welcoming immigrants as best as it can help them to assimilate. Yes….many Latin American countries need to look at solutions for the crime, corruption and civil unrest that is driving their citizens away. After the progress made in Ecuador during the past decade, the flow of immigrants to the USA has slowed to a trickle. A stable government that respects the work of its people will solve many of the woes of Latin American Nations.

      • Judi

        I have no problem with immigrants entering the USA legally. I appreciate their desire to assimilate into the USA’s culture, language and country. Legal immigrants are not excluded from entering the USA nor has President Trump said or done anything that would cause them to be removed from the USA. His primary focus is to deport illegal immigrants that have committed felonies. I believe other countries do the same thing.

  • Jason Faulkner

    “Indeed, Latin America has contributed an innovative set of social policies to fight illiteracy, bad healthcare, chronic hunger and extreme poverty lately.”

    Which pretty much undermines the entire central thesis of the article. What exactly does the author consider “new”? Great thinkers and the movements they spearheaded didn’t come from nowhere. The independence movements in the Americas, along with Marx’s theories that gave birth to socialism, communism and their delusional cousins anarchism and libertarianism, all grew out of 18th century enlightenment principles. The Bolshevik Revolution was centuries in the making. The modern form of socialism that has become almost universal in the western world was crafted after over a century of recognizing previous failings and refining the system to better meet the goals of improving the lives of societies as a whole. And on it goes boldly into the future. Every great idea stands on the shoulders of ideas that were hatched centuries before. Nothing just springs up out of nothing, in Latin America or anywhere else.

    BTW, the independence movements in Latin America started at the turn of the 19th century, not “starting in the 1850s”. Most Latin American countries had been independent for decades by then.

    • Globe Trotter

      Goodness me..an idealist! 😀 I like that!

      “Independent”? But did anything really change? Were corrupt authoritarian presidentes that much better than corrupt authoritarian Spanish governors? Authoritarianism is the only thing this country knows and is comfortable with. Not everyone, but most.

      I am not cynical. I do think this country will one day be reliably well-served. But not for another 30-40 years..all going well. Just like everywhere else, the forecast of the future can be had by measuring the quality of the candidates offered.