On September 9, 10, and 11, 2020, over 6,000 participants from around the world convened virtually for the 24th Annual CAF Conference to discuss the most pressing issues facing the Western Hemisphere. The conference was broadcasted in three languages over the span of three days, amassing over 40,000 views on all of its streaming platforms. Established in 1996 as a joint initiative of CAF – Development Bank of Latin America, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Organization of American States, the annual CAF Conference has become the primary forum for policy makers and analysts, journalists, government officials, business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors, and civil society leaders to review progress in the Americas and address pending challenges.
Sessions focused on: the economic recovery and the future of Latin America’s social contract; the failures and successes of healthcare systems in Latin America; the opportunities, threats, and vulnerabilities ushered in by widespread digitalization; the growing threat to democratic governance in the region; and climate change and what a “global solution” might look like in a post-pandemic world. The conference closed with an exchange with a Republican and Democratic analyst about this year’s US presidential election.
Below is a brief event summary of the conference. A full conference report will be published soon.
In their introductory remarks, Luis Carranza, president of CAF – Development Bank of Latin America, and Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, welcomed attendees and highlighted the important role this conference has played in providing a space for open and frank exchange in the hopes of contributing to greater hemispheric cooperation.
President Shifter noted that, in the midst of this health, economic, and social crisis, there has never been more critical a time to bring together diverse and influential perspectives from around the hemisphere to focus on a common agenda. He added that the Dialogue has always viewed the conference as an opportunity to rethink and reshape our agenda moving forward and to incorporate invaluable input.
In turn, President Carranza remarked on how the pandemic has aggravated preexisting structural challenges across the region. To face these challenges, he called on countries to strengthen their fiscal regimes to be better prepared to absorb the shock of the pandemic, and he emphasized the need to use pragmatism, international cooperation, and fiscal policy to shrink the digital infrastructure gap and address issues of integration.
Following the introductory remarks, Luis Lacalle Pou, president of Uruguay, opened the conference with a virtual keynote address. The President was introduced by Tom Shannon, co-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue and former US undersecretary of state for political affairs.
In reference to Uruguay’s Covid-19 response, President Lacalle Pou shared how his administration sought to strike a balance between fulfilling the government’s responsibility to protect and respect citizen’s individual freedoms and rights, while continuing to pursue open relations with the rest of the world amid a developing pandemic. He pointed to the country’s access to credit and multilateral financial institutions as instrumental in their ability to act against Covid-19, and he emphasized the need to strengthen these institutions and broaden their tool kits. He noted the essential role that scientists and academics have played during this time, urging governments to ensure that political decisions are supported by scientific evidence and expertise. Lastly, he stressed that governments have to control the spread of the virus, but they must also continue to prioritize the standard of living for its citizens and be wary of protectionist tendencies. Most importantly, governments need to be open, transparent, and effective to build trust with the citizens they serve.
Economic Recovery and the Region’s Health Systems
The first panel of the conference focused on the varying roles of governments, the private sector, multilateral organizations, and NGOs in a post-pandemic equitable economic recovery, as well as regional challenges moving forward. The conversation was moderated by Luis Felipe López Calva, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United Nations Development Programme, who was joined by Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Rebeca Grynspan, secretary general of Secretaría General Iberoamericana (SEGIB); Carmen Reinhart, vice president and chief economist at the World Bank Group; Paula Santilli, chief executive officer of PepsiCo Latin America; and Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and professor at Columbia University.
Among other issues, panelists discussed how the Covid-19 crisis has devastated the region and offered recommendations on how it can rebound from this looming economic contraction and build resilience. They pointed to the important roles that multilateral institutions and the private sector have played offering leadership and solutions, and they emphasized the need to strengthen partnerships across sectors. The panel also discussed the necessary components of a new social contract as well as what steps policy makers should take to protect their economies and their citizens from the long-lasting effects of the pandemic.
Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami and former minister of health of Mexico, moderated the second panel of the conference, which addressed the efficacy of responses of countries policies and health systems, the varying impact of the pandemic on countries’ health systems, and the post-pandemic landscape through the lens of public health. Panelists included Luciana Borio, former National Security Council director on Medical and Biodefense Preparedness and vice president of In-Q-Tel; Carissa F. Etienne, executive director of Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO); Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); and Deisy Ventura, professor and director of PhD Global Health Program at the University of São Paulo.
Participants noted that the pandemic has exacerbated the underlying inequalities present in the region, and the most vulnerable segments of the population have been disproportionately affected, including women and girls, afrodescendents, older citizens, indigenous peoples, and migrants. Public health has now become a priority for governments, and it is important that it remains as one. Access to health services is a human right for all citizens as well as a top issue of national security for governments and policymakers. Panelists agreed that, in order to build solidarity and restart their economies, countries must first address the health crisis at the community, national, and international level and collaborate with key actors across sectors.
Climate Change and the Digital Transformation
The next panel was moderated by Yolanda Kakabadse, former minister of environment of Ecuador and former president of WWF-International, who led a discussion on the relationship between climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic and the future of the environmental policy agenda. She was joined by Ana Toni, executive director of the Instituto Clima e Sociedade; Hugh Sealy, special envoy on Climate Change for Barbados; Brigitte Baptiste, chancellor at the Universidad Ean; and Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, vice president for the Latin American and the Caribbean Region at the World Bank.
During the exchange, panelists agreed that the pandemic has distracted the region from the bigger and longer-term crisis of climate change, and it has postponed the climate action agendas of many countries. However, they were optimistic about the discussions taking place around climate change today, like the need to develop a bioeconomy and explore green development components in the private and multilateral sectors. The panel also addressed how deforestation has continued during Covid-19, urging leaders to prioritize conservation and support policy to protect these natural areas and other threatened ecosystems.
Following this conversation, Guillermo Arduino, anchor and correspondent for CNN Networks, moderated a panel on the region’s digital transformation and the role of the public and private sector in shrinking the digital divide. Panelists included Kerry-Ann Barrett, cybersecurity policy specialist for the Organization of American States (OAS); Angel Melguizo, vice president of External and Regulatory Affairs for AT&T Latin America; Robert Morgus, senior director for the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission; Silvina Moschini, co-founder and president of TransparentBusiness Inc. and CEO and founder, SheWorks!; and Laura Gaviria, director of SoftBank Group International.
The pandemic has greatly accelerated countries’ digital capacity and reliance on technology. However, as participants noted, the region still needs to focus on strengthening its technological infrastructure and defending against cybersecurity threats. Creating a productive digital citizenry will require long-term investments in digital education and skills-building across generations, especially given the changes in the workforce that will result post-pandemic. Lastly, panelists agreed that greater regulations of companies and the development of stronger telecommunication networks are crucial to increase connectivity for vulnerable populations.
Pandemic Politics and the US Presidential Elections
The final day of the conference began with a panel on the impact of the pandemic on democracy and rule of law in Latin America, moderated by Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Speakers included Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS; Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary-general for International IDEA and former second vice president of Costa Rica; Jorge Castañeda, global distinguished professor of LAC Studies at New York University and former secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico; Lucia Dammert, professor of International Relations at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile; and Luz Mely Reyes, director and co-founder of Efecto Cocuyo.
Panelists explained how differing government responses to the Covid-19 crisis have highlighted the corrosive influence of populism and authoritarianism across the region, noting the cases of El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela. Speakers remarked on the lack of government transparency and communication regarding coronavirus developments, which has continued to fuel citizens’ distrust of institutions. They also discussed the significant election challenges the region will face in the upcoming year and touched on the barriers that women and minorities still face to participate in political systems and processes. Lastly, participants agreed that the full political impact of the pandemic will not be completely understood for years to come.
The 24th edition of the conference ended with a discussion on this year’s US presidential election and the impact US-Latin American relations. Moderated by Gabriela Frias, business anchor for CNN en Español, the conversation featured Roger Noriega, visiting fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, and Julissa Reynoso, partner at Winston & Strawn LLP. Noriega previously served as the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the US ambassador to the OAS, while Reynoso is the former US ambassador to Uruguay and deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Noriega and Reynoso stressed the high stakes of this year’s presidential election in the context of Covid-19 as they discussed the potential impact of either candidate’s presidency on immigration and border security, the economy, and foreign relations. They analyzed the key differences between the US-LAC foreign policy agenda of President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, noting how US relations with Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, and Central America may drastically differ under the Republican or Democratic nominee. The future of these relationships will also depend on the composition of the US congress after the election. Finally, both panelists agreed that there is common ground around combatting China’s influence in the region and commented on how to increase the participation of women and young voters in this election cycle.