US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden recently visited a transformed Latin America and Caribbean – a region defined increasingly by optimism, opportunity, growth and democracy.
In a public speech in Rio de Janeiro, Joe Biden said that Brazil taught the world that “there is no need to choose between development and democracy, between a free-market system and real growth and opportunity”.
Indeed these seemingly contradictory objectives are compatible, as the region’s countries are showing. Brazil, Chile and Mexico, among others, have been pioneers in the three main development drivers: more proactive states in development policies, greater integration with global markets, and exemplary innovation in social policy, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP)’s 2013 Human Development Report.
Latin America has already emerged. Brazil is the world’s seventh-largest economy; Argentina, Brazil and Mexico hold seats in the G-20; Chile and Mexico have joined developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moreover, Latin America and the Caribbean are not experiencing or exporting major conflicts.
Over the last decade, Latin America has become a region of middle-income countries growing faster than the global average, reducing trade deficits thanks to a commodities boom, improved investments, and growing domestic markets. The region has lifted 58 million people out of poverty and into the middle class since 2002.
The United States is still the region’s top foreign investor. In 2012, US exports to South and Central America plus the Caribbean totaled $205bn, compared with $110bn in exports to China. US exports to Mexico alone reached $216bn last year.
But US exports to Latin America and the Caribbean have receded during the last decade. This vacuum is being filled by China, while India’s trade with the region is also growing substantially. The United States has become Brazil’s second commercial partner after China. Bilateral trade between the countries stood at about $100bn but Vice President Biden said there is “no reason” why that number could not be $400-500bn.
Among developing regions, Latin America and the Caribbean has the second-highest Human Development Index figures – a metric taking into account income, health and education indicators – surpassed only by Europe and Central Asia, UNDP figures show.
Despite some setbacks, the region has experienced its longest period of democratic rule, beginning in the 1990s. Apathy has turned to activism, particularly among social media-savvy youth. Citizens want their governments to play a substantive role in boosting employment, education, and health.
Problems still exist, though. Weak institutions, corruption and citizen insecurity hinder the region’s development. And although poverty and inequality have been declining in the past years, 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Women, youth, indigenous peoples, citizens of African ancestry and those who live in the countryside still lag behind. Another concern is that growth has been driven by consumption and is dependent on commodities in countries that have regressive tax structures.
Even though global economic turmoil is a cause of uncertainty, Latin America, unlike the past, is part of the solution and not part of the problem. If the region tackles its pending problems, and with its young population, abundant water and renewable energy resources, food production capacity, growing markets, and increasingly resilient democracies – the future looks promising.
Heraldo Munoz is UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Development Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.