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Latin America and the US Are Drifting Apart

An Altamar podcast with
Two men stand next to each other holding up two paper tablets with laws written in spanish. A crowd surrounds them.

From Mexico to Chile to the United States, discord, polarization and estrangement are plaguing the Americas. The recent Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles was marked with RSVP scandals and ineffectiveness. Public discontent, economic headwinds and shaky politicians are widespread. 

The Altamar team of Muni Jensen and Peter Schechter explored the future of the continent with guest Luis Alberto Moreno, former president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the author of the book Vamos. 

Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “Tell us what the recipe is for a turnaround in Latin America.” He responded, “I always believe that the most important recipe always is to take stock of where we were, where we are and where we could be. … If you just go back in the past 20 years, there are tremendous advances that took place in Latin America. … Certainly, there are always bumps on the road. Without question, we are in a very complex moment. Latin America suffered, in my view, a combination of shocks [the latest being COVID-19].”

Divide Between Public and Private Discourse

Moreno explained,“The first thing that we have to recognize is that the way politics is done almost everywhere is more and more around identity politics. Therefore, it is all about what divides you and not how you find common ground. … It invites people who can use those political cleavages that exist today to get elected, to create more division as opposed to more unity.” 

We can apply this philosophy to help understand the chaotic elections now seen throughout Latin America. Moreno said, “Sometimes we [Latinos] put more passion than rationality on our analysis of issues. But despite that, every day, every family wakes up trying to do the best they can for their family, for their kids and for their communities. 

There is increasingly a divide between the public discourse and the people’s discourse. And it is only around very specific issues that hurt that people decide to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is the sense that one gets in many of these elections that are very hard to read.” 

People are choosing candidates out of anger rather than rational analysis of the issues. “If the reason for voting is to punish somebody because you’re angry at something, then you’re not rationalizing your decision, but rather you’re exacerbating it. And unfortunately, that’s where we’re at today.” 

I think there are the traditional challenges that every country’s had that were simply accelerated because COVID dismantled a lot of things in our own eyes and showed the inequality, the poverty.

The Summit of the Americas held in June was messy. It was unsuccessful in uniting a divided hemisphere, with the world distracted by other global crises. Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked about how other summits could be more successful. Moreno explained, “First of all, it’s hard to do any one of these summits because there is such a disparity of interest. That preparation in my view required a process of having a lot of people listening very carefully to these dynamics that are changing in the region.” Sounds like that didn’t happen. 

Too Distracted

The United States was too distracted to propose what Moreno referred to as a big, bold idea. He suggested that “the big idea here could have been: There is this new world emerging, where is the place for the Americas in that new world? … How can Latin American countries trade more amongst themselves? How can you align interests better? And unfortunately, that takes a lot of work.” 

The team asked if our guest saw an economic proxy war break out between China and the U.S. “China became a big source of diversifying Latin American trade with the rest of the world, not unlike what happened with the U.S. or any other part of the world. But what’s interesting is China’s trade with Latin America is basically … in five commodities. There’s been a huge increase in that trade, and that trade … at times when you have high commodity prices, has become wind to the sails of many of the South American economies.” 

Latin America has also been quite progressive when it comes to other social rights, such as women’s issues, gender identity, legalizing marijuana or euthanasia. In a region that’s often regarded as conservative and religious, the team asked Moreno to explain why this is the case. He responded, “First of all, there’s a very fast process of urbanization. … City dynamics change a lot of people’s behaviors. Even with big discussions with the church, these things advanced, and I have to celebrate what’s happened with women’s empowerment.”  

Trade Integration Has Stalled

There have been many attempts to better integrate trade within Latin America, but the region remains far behind other trading blocs. So, what’s stopping it? Moreno told us, “Part is the diversity of the product offerings that we have. But, more importantly, it is the connectivity of trade that is not there. It’s the number of roads, railroads, bridges, river connections, the border connectivity. I think [it’s been stopped] for lack of political will and a much deeper relationship across business sectors of the different countries.” 

Lastly, we turn to elections and the cause of the chaos that we are seeing in so many Latin American countries. Moreno returned to the anger imbued within citizens, spurring them to vote against established politicians. He explained, “That anger has many origins. I think there are the traditional challenges that every country’s had that were simply accelerated because COVID dismantled a lot of things in our own eyes and showed the inequality, the poverty.” 

Luis Alberto Moreno

Former President of Inter-American Development Bank

Luis Alberto Moreno is Colombia’s former Minister of Development and Ambassador to Washington, and former President of the Inter-American Development Bank. His most recent book Vamos, highlights the ways in which Latin America can attain wealth, justice, and integration.

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