Unfulfilled Promises: Latin America Today

Melissa Reif / Inter-American Dialogue

On March 5, the Inter-American Dialogue presented its new book titled Unfulfilled Promises: Latin America Today with an introduction by Dialogue president Michael Shifter, and discussion by co-chairs, former President of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla and Ambassador Thomas Shannon. The book is a collection of essays by experts from the region focusing on salient political, economic, and social challenges including: Rule of Law (Catalina Botero), Crime and Violence (Robert Muggah), Economic Management (Augusto de la Torre and Alain Ize), Social Development (George Gray Molina), Regional Integration (Ana Covarrubias), and Latin America and the World (Andrés Malamud). The introduction was written by President Chinchilla and edited by Dialogue president, Michael Shifter and Dialogue fellow Bruno Binetti.

Shifter delivered the introductory remarks framing the book as an attempt to go beyond specific policy reports pointing to different trends and idiosyncrasies in the region. He explained that the book offers a sobering assessment of the region, acknowledging both the frustrations and advancements of critical issues. He argued that the Dialogue’s ultimate goal with this book was to involve civil society to stimulate an open debate concerning an uncertain and challenging future.

President Chinchilla remarked that the book’s title and cover photo reference Carlos Fuentes’ El Espejo Enterrado in which he compares Latin America’s development to an unfinished building in Mexico City. She expressed her concern about Latin America’s struggle to consolidate its development arising from its “inability to finish tasks," and failure to improvise, which culminates in a "strong sense of wasted opportunity.” She cited how recessions and social upheavals have set back Latin American countries for decades. She also expressed her frustration about how Asia has passed Latin America in matters of development and how many Latin American countries are suffering from setbacks in democracy. Despite these clear challenges, President Chinchilla closed on a positive note urging leaders to take initiative by declaring that “we hold the key to unraveling the 500 years of unfulfilled promises.”

Ambassador Shannon remarked that Latin Americans are their own harshest critics, and that they have in fact accomplished a lot compared to other regions in the world. He commented that the book underscores the incredible self-awareness of the challenges in the hemisphere. He also spoke about the progress the region has made toward consolidating democratic governance, yet pointed to the remaining challenge of creating democratic societies. The question that remains is, "can democracy deliver the goods?" Shannon remarked that democracy in the Americas needs to reach a second level of legitimacy through constructing a social and political transformation. Leaving the audience with an impactful image, Shannon closed describing Latin America as Mexico City’s cathedral saying that while it remains unfinished, it is still worthy of God.

Augusto de la Torre, one of the book’s contributors provided insight into his essay on Economic Management during the Q & A session. He explained that after World War II the region began lagging behind other regions of the world because Latin American governments were unable to “put together an outward looking development strategy.” He explained that the rich levels of commodities in Latin America are a blessing in disguise, hindering many economies from diversifying. This additional challenge has trapped many countries as commodity exporters.

Overall, both Ambassador Shannon and President Chinchilla praised the book for constructing a narrative about the highly diverse region, highlighting its main idiosyncrasies and analyzing where it might be headed in coming years. While the essays recognize considerable advances, they also point out setbacks and missed opportunities that have stood in the way of sustained progress.

Watch the event recording here


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