Years from now some might look back and decide that the “Decade of Latin America” officially began in the Atacama Desert on October 14th 2010, as the world focused its attention on the resoundingly successful and innovative rescue of the 33 miners in Chile. The Fenix capsule brought the trapped miners to the surface in the same way that Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Peru are leading Latin America into what could be a decade of growth and progress. To be honest, the change has been under way for some time—and others including the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, and The Economist have already made the “Latin American Decade” claim. However, the mining rescue has thrust Latin America into the global consciousness. The achievement and attitude of the Chileans was in sharp contrast to the other main stories of October: a cynical election campaign in the US and mass strikes in Europe. As the older developed world struggles to hold on to the past, Latin America is young, optimistic and forward looking.
While Central America and the Caribbean continue to deal with the impact of the US recession, South America is clearly leading the way and in some cases, such as in Haiti, directly assisting its poorer neighbors. South America performed much better than expected during the global financial crisis and the continent is set to grow more than twices as fast as the OECD average during the next 5 years. Generally well-kept and increasingly stable democratic systems will give the region an advantage over some other emerging markets. More importantly perhaps, in a global environment characterized by uncertainty and risk, this generation of Latin American leaders, who have lived through the political and economic turmoil of the 1980s and 90s, may be more able to deal with the current challenges than their counterparts in North America and Europe.
Conflicts still exist but political and economic integration is advancing. Latin American businesses, led by the powerful “Multilatinas”, are expanding beyond their home markets and becoming more competitive. Savings from the commodity boom have allowed some countries like Chile and Brazil to invest in technology, infrastructure and education. Others, like Colombia, are now following suit.
It would be naïve however to assume that success is guaranteed. Governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina appear to be going against the grain by resurrecting failed economic and social policies. Most countries have high levels of inequality and poverty. The quality of education is still generally poor. Crime and drug trafficking are serious problems.
Nonetheless, when you compare the current situation in Latin America with the US and Europe the differences are stark. The US has succumbed to ultra-partisanship and special interests have overtaken the national interest. The aging (and shrinking) European population appears unable to adapt and innovate its welfare system to meet today’s circumstances. In contrast, the population of Latin America is young, growing and among the happiest in the world (according to a number of “happiness indexes”). It won’t be easy but Latin America now has its chance in the global spotlight. If Latin Americans can follow the example of the now famous Chileans and unite, adapt and innovate this could be a decade to remember.