On December 10, 2020, more than 700 participants joined live for “Forward Together: A Conversation with Former Presidents of the Americas,” a virtual panel of former presidents featuring Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico. The discussion was moderated by Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post. The program began with opening remarks by Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, and Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., co-chair of the Dialogue’s Board of Directors, offered closing remarks.
Michael Shifter began the event stating that now is the time to reassess hemispheric relations and reassert that global cooperation is essential to solving the issues today. Shifter’s introduction was followed by video remarks from former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet from Chile. President Cardoso stated that we are living in uncertain times in which the foundations of democracy are being undermined by populism and authoritarianism; President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory is a triumph, not only for democracy but for Latin Americans as well. He concluded that now is the time to revitalize inter-American cooperation. President Bachelet focused her remarks on the economic impact of Covid-19, which, she warned, will spark a new wave of social unrest. She advised that strategies to combat poverty will be essential to a successful Biden administration.
During the panel discussion, Karen DeYoung began by posing questions to each president, starting with President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica. When asked about the current situation in Venezuela, President Chinchilla believes sanctions alone will not trigger a regime change in Venezuela; the real goal in Venezuela should be the organization of free and fair elections. To achieve this, the international coalition should continue supporting Juan Guaidó at the National Assembly and that support must go beyond declarations. Finally, President Chinchilla believes strategies must be developed to address countries that currently support Maduro, such as Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia. She added that the Lima Group’s voice should be stronger to promote an intraregional dialogue.
DeYoung then asked President Ricardo Lagos of Chile about the future of regional coordination given the vast differences between key leaders. President Lagos replied that multilateralism is essential in the post-pandemic recovery. He added that the most important task now is a strategy to reactivate the economy, given the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic. A series of investments will need to be made, and the outcome of those investments should be measured with regard to climate change and health. He added that another key issue to address will be migration. Leaders in the region must be clear in their definition of migration and must recognize that migration is a human right.
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia addressed the current state of human, political, and civil rights in the region. “Populism and human rights are like water and oil; they do not like each other.” stated Santos. He added that populists do not like multilateralism, checks and balances, or rule of law. Populism is increasing not only in the Americas but around the world. Additionally, there has been a trend towards the concentration of power in the executive branch of government, made more acute by remote work. President Santos added that the rights to health and education have been violated in the pandemic. The framework for recovery will begin with a Biden administration that can establish a working relationship with Latin America, with human rights as a core issue.
Next, DeYoung asked President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico how to address the social and economic inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated. President Zedillo remarked that Latin America was already in a “half-lost decade,” before Covid-19 and has now become the epicenter of the pandemic. The issues at hand should serve as a wake-up call for society and leaders that we cannot return to business as usual. We must move towards development. A key issue in the recovery will be protecting the rule of law in Latin America. While a new social contract is important to obtain economic growth and guarantee social safety nets, it will be impossible to achieve without rule of law.
The conversation then moved to the relevancy and usefulness of the inter-American system and its institutions. President Santos remarked that the Organization of America States (OAS) lacks leadership and a basic mission. He suggested new leadership should target the main issues facing the region today. President Lagos agreed, stating “the time has come to rethink the inter-American system and what kind of institutions we need to have a more normal understanding between Latin American and Caribbean countries and the United States.”
The panel also discussed models for economic recovery, turning to the expertise of Presidents Chinchilla and Zedillo. Both presidents agreed that economic issues today are different than those of the past. President Zedillo advised leaders to be decisive with no regard to political popularity. The methods used to win democratic power will not work to fix the economic crisis because the consequences are so extreme. President Chinchilla warned while public politics will play a major role in resolving the economic crisis because most decisions are made by the government, other sectors, like the private sector, will be looking at governments actions and messages. When there are contradictions, such as corruption in spending, we risk our economic growth and our democracies.
The discussion continued with a Q&A session with the audience. President Zedillo and Santos commented on the role of China in the region and what US leadership will look like under Biden. President Zedillo began by denouncing the Trump administration’s trade war with China and declared that one of the top priorities for the Biden administration will be to put order to the US-China relationship. President Santos added that if the United States ignores Latin America, the vacuum will be filled by China. He advised the Biden administration to have a plan to address the financial and environmental issues in the region.
The summit concluded with closing remarks from Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. Ambassador Shannon summarized the main takeaways from the discussion, highlighting that, “in a region that has been fractured and fragmented by the pandemic, we have an opportunity to bring ourselves together.”