Since the late 1990s, Latin America has freed itself from the economic and political hegemony of the United States and Europe. This expresses itself in a new-found self-confidence among heads of state in the arena of international politics as well as among the people of the individual countries. In light of the sustained high level of commodity prices on the world market, Latin America has seen, since the late 1990s, a revival of a resource-based model of economic development. The fact that Latin America, in contrast to the EU, has weathered the financial and economic crisis that began in 2007 (with individual differences between countries), and that most countries have since experienced growth, is seen as evidence that the chosen path of development is right. The curse of the “Open Veins of Latin America” seems to have changed to the contrary, and the exploitation of natural resources is offering the promise of wealth and social development. In this regard, there is little difference between the different governments in Latin America. What differs is only how public revenue is being expended. While, in some countries, most revenue goes to a small elite, others with mostly left-leaning governments, use it to finance wide-ranging welfare programmes. Indeed, poverty has decreased in most Latin American countries, however, this path of development has created few jobs, thus doing little to close the social and economic gap. One exception is Brazil, where the wages of low-income groups have been on the rise in real terms and where more jobs have been created. Nevertheless, in spite of all economic development, Latin America remains the continent with the greatest social disparities.
The challenges: environmental sustainability, democratic participation, gender equity
The environmental cost entailed by this model of development is substantial. Mining and agricultural production for export (soy beans etc.) consume and/or contaminate huge amounts of water; monocultures of genetically modified plants cause high pesticide exposure and degradation of the soil; and the expansion of arable land destroys sensitive ecosystems.
Only certain parts of the population reap the benefits of this path of development. In large areas, people are being resettled or expelled, and those hit hardest are frequently indigenous populations and small farmers. The voices and rights of many residents to participate in decisions are being ignored or curtailed through legal manoeuvres, which often results in human rights violations.
Said model of development also affects constitutional and political structures. Greater centralisation along with a focus on certain projects causes insecurity and the exclusion of certain segments of the population as well as massive human rights violations. Constitutional guarantees for certain individual and, in some cases, collective rights (e.g., for indigenous communities), are in place, however, the institutional framework of the judiciary, administrative institutions, and the different levels of government is often deficient in remote areas. On top of that, possibilities for citizens to participate are often non-existent, and frequently women do not have the same participatory rights as men – yet it is them that bear the brunt of the negative effects of such policies. Generally, Latin America has little gender equity. In addition to economic and political discrimination, violence against women is prevalent.
As the mass protests in Brazil in June 2013 have shown, parts of the population are all but happy with these developments. The protests in Brazil were mainly aimed at the rampant corruption, and the fact that FIFA and the IOC put pressure on the country to spend billions on sports facilities and related infrastructure projects for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, while, at the same time, there is a lack of investment in social facilities such as schools, the health system, and public transport. In other Latin American countries too there is a gradual increase of protests and activism against policies that focus, above all, on a positive investment climate in the leading sectors of industry (mining and agriculture for export), thus doing away with green sustainability, environmental protection, and democratic participation especially on the local and regional levels.
The Foundation’s Latin America programmes are targeted at such regional challenges. One main focus area will be the collaboration with civil society. However, there are also co-operation projects with the political and administrative sector. Through knowledge transfer, the empowerment of certain social groups, and the creation of spaces where the different social actors can engage in dialogue, the Foundation is helping to consolidate societies that are democratic as well as socially and environmentally sustainable.
We have regional and country offices in Mexico, Brazil, and Chile. In Germany a series titled “Dialogue With Germany and Europe” that includes discussion meetings, expert panels, and publications is intended to promote a more nuanced perception of Latin America and to further the economic, social, and environmental nexus between the two continents.