Will the Mideast Unrest Reach Latin America?

AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch
By Antonio Corrales

Looking at the Latin America’s current position in the Human Development Index (HDI), which was created by the UN to measure life expectancy at birth, the adult literacy rate and a decent standard of living based on GDP, the general situation looks promising. Most of the countries rank between high and medium on the HDI. Apart from Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and Peru, most of the region’s countries have leftist governments. Some countries have created their own independent groups, such as the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA), which is a proposed alternative to the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

 This organization has primarily been promoted during the twelve-year rule of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Based on this reality, it seems that the unrest sweeping through the Middle East is unlikely to be replicated in Latin America, even though the HDI is not the only factor to consider when predicting the likelihood of mass protests. On the same theme, the chances of prolonged and massive uprisings in the Middle East also appeared to be small from an analysis of measures like HDI. However, it would be foolish to ignore the Egyptian example. Egypt fared relatively well on the HDI, but has emerged as a new French Revolution, inspiring other protests around the world.

When Dilma Rousseff assumed the Brazilian Presidency in January 2011, the majority of her country’s citizens were full of joy and hope. Not only is Rousseff a close ally of former president Lula da Silva, who finished his presidency with an amazing 90 per cent approval rating in most of the opinion polls. She also represents the continuity of a pragmatic style of government in a continent where leftist ideologies can coexist with economic efficiency and improving popular well being. Although Brazil still has room for improvement, its GDP grew 4,5 per cent last year, inflation is at a controllable rate of 4 per cent and annual income per head is at a solid US$10,530. Sadly, that is not the case for most of the countries in the region.

In 1990, the UN published its millennium goals for the region. These goals were designed to combat poverty and hunger, reverse environmental degradation, achieve improvements in education and health, and promote gender equality. An analysis of the progress that countries in Latin America have made towards these goals reveals a devastating picture for most of them. The UN analysis established that Latin America’s per capita GDP will have to grow by 2,9 per cent per year for the next 11 years, in order to meet the target of halving extreme poverty. This rate is equivalent to total GDP growth of 4,3 per cent per year. This simply has not happened, and there are few indicators that suggest it will happen in the near future. 

During the past ten years, the people of Latin America have elected waves of leftist governments, whose populist leaders and ideologies have played a central role in the day-to-day lives of citizens. This situation has not simply happened by chance. On the contrary, it is a consequence of a series of disappointments with both centrist and right wing governments. A succession of leaders – mainly drawn from the social elites of their countries and disconnected from the majority of the people - proved unable to deliver greater well being to the masses. Latin American history has been a rollercoaster of military governments, dictators and a few unsuccessful democracies. The common citizens, mostly poor and needy, got tired both of unfulfilled promises and of leaders who did not look like them or provide for them. Popular reaction took the form of mass protest movements, unsuccessful military coups and, finally, a move to the left via the ballot box by electing populist leaders whose vociferous speeches resonated strongly with popular dissatisfaction. 

Egypt’s macroeconomic figures for 2010 resembled the majority of the countries in Latin America: double digit inflation and GDP per capita less than US$10,000. Similarly, Egypt’s HDI rating was at the medium level. In addition to these similarities, there are common characteristics of the governments and policies: presidents governing for long periods of time, institutions whose neutrality is doubtful, strong level of discontentment among the people, high murder rates and a lack of general social investment. This reality is producing a domino effect - some of the extreme left allies are moving closer to the centre and creating marked distance with some populist positions - which include taking an anti-private sector stance, increasing the scope of government and massive interventions.

It took thirty years for the Egyptian people to wake up and respond to their reality. There were many reasons for them to wait that long: conflicts in the Middle East, culture, history and external influence. Ironically, oil was definitely not a factor in that equation.

Venezuela’s position is different to Egypt’s, since it is the third largest oil producer in the world. While Egyptian oil and gas industries show enormous potential, they do not supply the much-desired short-term cash flow that Egypt needs. This cash flow, as well as the US$53 billion in estimated gifts from President Chávez to some countries in the region, is likely to play an important role in Latin America’s future, and may be what prevent the unrest that recently occurred in Egypt from happening in Latin American anytime soon. Even though these funds may generate questions about corruption and legalities, they may certainly represent an analgesic through social programmes, which is exactly what these governments need to prevent the spread of any unrest coming from other regions. 

 

Antonio Corrales is a businessman, politician, educator and poet. He is currently working as Director of the Bilingual / English as a Second Language Academic Programme, and the Gifted and Talented Academic Programme at Angleton Independent School District, USA.

 

15 March 2011

 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch

 

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