A Conversation with Alicia Bárcena

Bárcena and Shifter Inter-American Dialogue

Latin America faces critical challenges as it enters the second half of 2015. To help frame some of the most important issues for the hemisphere, the Dialogue was pleased to welcome Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and Dialogue Board Member on June 1st.

Bárcena provided a comprehensive economic outlook for the region, outlining ECLAC’s vision for an economically sustainable future. Latin America’s growth is expected to decrease significantly over the next two years as a result of a changing macroeconomic landscape and a reduction in commodity prices. As a result, Bárcena remarked, the region needs to rethink and refashion its economic dynamics vis-à-vis other regions in the world. A key step will be for countries to stop depending solely on commodity exports to global powers such as China, the United States, and Europe in order to sustain economic growth.  Bárcena brought up the importance of solidifying countries’ investment landscape, by promoting local industries while at the same time encouraging foreign investment. Mexico and Brazil, for example, are now world leaders in transportation engineering, as the aerospace and car industries continue to bustle in both countries. By moving beyond commodities and by strengthening industries and investments, the region will depend less on the ups and downs of global commodity prices and thus consolidate long-term macroeconomic stability.

The conversation then moved to one of the biggest issues facing Latin America: productivity. Bárcena mentioned that the best way to move countries out of poverty is by ensuring that the working class has access to productive enterprises. Investment, she emphasized again, will be key in transforming a country’s productive structure. Bárcena also talked about equal access to opportunity and services as the new model that the region should aspire to. Moving away from a culture where access to productive and lucrative opportunities is only reserved for the privileged, towards a model of more equitable and fairer distribution of opportunity is essential in achieving an increase in general productivity. The government should also strengthen its efforts to expand public services for the middle and lower classes. Poverty and underdevelopment can no longer be measured solely in terms of wealth, but in terms of access to public services and basic technological infrastructure. Exclusion happens not only when people can’t make enough money to sustain their basic needs, but when they are left out of the technological advances that are expanding opportunities for other members within a society. Money and access go hand in hand.

Bárcena also talked about Latin America’s changing geopolitical alliances. Over the past decade, China gained considerable influence in most countries in the region through financial aid and investment in infrastructure and development projects. “China is filling the space that the U.S. is leaving behind in Latin America,” she said. But China is pursuing a very different model to traditional investment in the region. Rather than just directly purchasing commodities from the region, China is investing in countries so that they develop the necessary infrastructure in order to produce and export commodities. China’s geopolitical interests are not secret: it’s looking towards Latin America in order to ensure food and resource security for the future. But thus far, it has successfully wooed the region with a long-term investment strategy that will allow it to tap into the continent’s resources while helping countries develop better infrastructures.

The conversation also covered Cuba and its renewed relationship with the United States and the region. The rapprochement, Bárcena said, revealed how big an issue Cuba in the U.S.-Latin America relationship. She agrees that the relationship is much more positive now, but said that it will take some time before Cuba becomes fully re-integrated into the Inter-American system.

The recommendations presented by Bárcena point to the many social and economic dynamics within the region. At the same time, they show that governments cannot afford to remain idle when dealing with the many challenges that the region is facing.

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