The Inter-American Dialogue began with a conversation on a park bench. Abraham F. Lowenthal and Peter D. Bell had arrived a few minutes early for a meeting with Sol M. Linowitz, former US Ambassador to the Organization of American States. At the time, Lowenthal was a Mellon Scholar at UCLA and Bell a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both men were troubled by the breakdown in communications within the Americas during the Malvinas/ Falkland War and by how US leaders had shut themselves off from Latin Americans anxious to embrace democracy. Lowenthal and Bell wondered: Would it be possible to assemble citizens from throughout the hemisphere to set a new regional agenda?
When they entered the meeting, they continued the park bench discussion. Linowitz joined in, proposing creation of an “inter-American dialogue.” He tested the idea with Galo Plaza, the former president of Ecuador and past secretary general of the Organization of American States. As the proposal gained energy, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Gabriel Valdés of Chile, Daniel Oduber of Costa Rica, and others became involved. The Inter-American Dialogue was born.
Galo Plaza became the Dialogue’s first Latin American co-chair with Linowitz as its US co-chair, a position that Bell would later hold. Lowenthal became the organization’s founding director.
The Dialogue’s first plenary meeting of members took place in 1982 outside of Washington, DC, as an ad hoc conference of about 50 leaders from throughout the hemisphere. Ronald Reagan was in his first term in the White House, and Latin America was struggling with a debt crisis, civil wars in Central America, efforts to restore democracy, and the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. In addition to organizing a second meeting, the participants called for their findings and recommendations to be disseminated to a wider public, thus launching the Dialogue tradition of issuing comprehensive policy reports following each plenary.
After two years of work, the Dialogue opened a small secretariat to plan meetings and reach out to policymakers, executives, and media across the hemisphere. It didn’t take long for the audience to exceed the Dialogue’s ability to produce materials. That’s when it broadened its focus from member meetings and policy reports to include a think tank component—including conferences, task forces, a congressional working group, and forums for Latin Americans visiting Washington, DC. The Dialogue increasingly commissioned articles and policy memoranda for wide distribution, and its staff began to publish in leading newspapers and journals.
The next growth spurt came with the inauguration of the Sol M. Linowitz Forum in 1996, which strengthened the Dialogue’s role as a thought leader. President Bill Clinton spoke at the gala event launching the Forum, which pays tribute to Ambassador Linowitz for his many contributions to US-Latin American relations, and is designed to enhance the Dialogue’s periodic plenary meetings of its members. The Linowitz Forum Endowment Fund, established to support Forum activities, has helped assure that the Dialogue remains an independent, balanced, and effective voice in Western Hemisphere affairs. At this stage, the organization became more inter-American by increasing its presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, incorporating more Latin Americans onto its staff, and developing partnerships with policy centers in the region.
The Dialogue now reaches leaders across a wide spectrum of sectors and activities, maintaining strong ties to the policy and government communities but also expanding corporate and nongovernmental organizations’ involvement. It has responded to Latin American and Caribbean governments and institutions, public and private, seeking greater visibility and presence in Washington. It has done this largely through more frequent Washington-based forums that add diverse voices and perspectives to US policy debates on inter-American issues.