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Guest: Luis Alberto Moreno, former President of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the author of the book Vamos.

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. Is there still hope to bring the hemispheres closer to common policies and economic progress?

This year, the Summit only served to underscore the fractures on the continents. Instead of resetting its relations with Latin American countries, the US seemed further from the continent than ever.  The hotly debated US RSVP list left out some anti-democratic players such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The result was that Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador and the presidents of the three Central American Northern Triangle countries decided to skip the meeting. With countries being led by ever more extreme populists, what is next for the Americas? We explore these themes with our guest Luis Alberto Moreno, former President of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the author of the book Vamos.

With a complicated part of the world to tackle in a short amount of time, we began the complex discussion with former IDB President Moreno’s vision for Latin America as he describes it in his new book. 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 of which being COVID-19].”

The conversation turned to the state of politics in Latin America and how that is playing into the current crises and states of disarray. Moreno explained, “The first thing that we have to recognize is that the way politics is done most 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 with the bath water, which is the sense that one gets in many of these elections that are very hard to read.” So, people are choosing candidates out of anger rather than rational analysis of the issues. He continued, “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.”

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.

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.”

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

In her social justice and youth-themed segment on the podcast, Téa Ivanovic asked, “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, can you explain why this is the case?”  Moreno 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 empowerment.”  

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”

What is next for the complicated hemisphere? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 128