We did something wrong
Oscar Arias Sanchez
WORDS BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF COSTA RICA AT THE V SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS
Trinidad & Tobago, April 18 2009
I get the impression that every time the Caribbean and Latin American countries get together with the US President, it is to ask him for things or to complain. Usually, it is to blame the US about our past, present and future evils. I don’t think this is completely fair.
We can’t forget that Latin America had universities before the US created Harvard and William & Mary, which were the first universities in that country. We can’t forget that in this continent, like in the rest of world, at least until 1750, all Americans were more or less the same: all of them were poor.
When the Industrial Revolution appeared in England, other countries joined the industrial wagon: Germany, France, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… and, just like that, the Industrial Revolution went over Latin America like a comet, and we didn’t realize it. We certainly missed our chance.
There’s also a big difference. Comparing Latin American history with US history, one can understand that Latin America didn’t have a Spanish or Portuguese John Winthrop, who came with a Bible in his hand ready to build “a City over a Hill;” a city that could shine, such was the intention of the missionaries who arrived to the US.
Fifty years ago, Mexico was richer than Portugal. In 1950, a country like Brazil had more income per capita than South Korea. Sixty years ago, Honduras had more money per capita than Singapore, and today, Singapore – in a matter of 35 or 40 years- is a country with an annual income per person of $40,000. Well, us Latin Americans obviously did something wrong.
What did we do wrong? I can’t even list all the things we have done wrong. Firstly, we only have seven years of schooling. That is the average schooling in Latin America, which is not the case in most Asian countries. This is certainly not the case in countries like the US and Canada, who have the best education in the world, similar to the one in European countries. Out of 10 students who start secondary school in Latin America, only one of them finishes it, in some countries. There’s countries that have a child mortality of 50 kids for every thousand who are born, when the average in the more advanced Asian countries is eight, nine, or 10.
We have countries where the tax burden is 12% of the GDP, and it is no one’s responsibility but ours that we don’t charge money to the richest people in our countries. No one is to blame, except for us.
In 1950, every North American citizen was four times richer than a Latin American citizen. Nowadays, North American citizens are 10, 15 or 20 times richer than a Latin American. This is not the US’s fault, it is ours.
In my address this morning, I referred to an occurrence that I find grotesque, and that the only thing it shows is that the system of values of the 20th century, which we seem to be putting in practice in the 21st century too, is the wrong set of values. Because it can’t be possible that the rich world devotes a hundred billion dollars to alleviate the poverty of 80% of the world’s population- in a world where 2.5 billion human beings have an income of $2 a day- and that they spend 13 times more money in guns and soldiers.
As I said this morning, it can’t be possible that Latin American countries spend 50 billion dollars in guns and soldiers. I ask myself: who is our enemy? Our enemy, President Correa, of that inequality you so reasonably point out, is the lack of education; it is illiteracy; it is that we don’t spend enough to keep our people healthy; it is that we don’t build the necessary infrastructure, the roads, the ports, the airports; it is that we don’t devote the necessary resources to stop the degradation of the environment; it is that inequality that really shames us; it is the product, among other things, of course, that we are not educating our sons and daughters.
You go to a Latin American university and it still feels like the 60s, 70s or 80s. It seems that we forgot that on November 9, 1989, something important happened, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the world changed. We have to accept that this world is different, and I frankly think that all academics, all the thinkers, all the economists, and all the historians, almost all agree that the 21st century is the Asian century, not the Latin American century. And I, sadly, agree with them. Because, while we keep discussing about ideologies, we keep arguing about all these “isms” (which one is better? Capitalism, socialism, communism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, social-christianism…), Asians found a very realistic “ism” for the 21st century and the end of the 20th century, which is pragmatism. To cite one example, lets remember when Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and South Korea. After realizing that his own neighbours where getting rich at a very fast pace, he went back to Beijing and told his Maoist colleagues who walked with him in the Long March, “To tell you the truth, my dear colleagues, I don’t care if the cat is white or black, it only matters if it can chase mice.” And if Mao had been alive, he would’ve died again when he said, “the truth is that getting rich is glorious.” And while the Chinese were doing this, and since ’79 until today they have grown 11%, 12% or 13%, and have freed 300 million citizens from poverty, yet we are still discussing ideologies that we should have buried a long time ago.
The good news is that Deng Xiaoping achieved this when he was 74 years old. Looking around, dear Presidents, I don’t see anyone close to being 74. That’s why I only ask that we should not wait until we reach that age to make the changes that we have to make.
Thank you very much.
Translated by Eva Colmenero.