Culture matters

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Culture Matters
By Oscar Arias January/February 2011

The Real Obstacles to Latin American Development
Nearly two centuries after the countries of Latin America gained their independence from Spain and Portugal, not one of them is truly developed. Where have they gone wrong? Why have countries in other regions, once far behind, managed to achieve relatively quickly results that Latin Americancountries have aspired to for so long? Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region's riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalizationwas deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself. The truth is that so much time has passed since independence that Latin Americans have lost the right to use others as the excuse for their own failures. Various outside powers have indeed affected the region's fate. But that is true for every region ofthe world. The countries of Latin America are not the only ones to have faced an uphill battle in history. Latin American nations began this race with conditions equal to, or even better than, those prevailing elsewhere. They -- we -- are the ones who fell behind. When Harvard University opened its doors in 1636, there were already well-established universities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile,Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. In 1820, the GDP of Latin America as a whole was 12.5 percent greater than that of the United States. Today, with a population of about 560 million -some 250 million more than the United States -- the region has a GDP that is only 29 percent of its northern neighbor's. Latin America won its independence 150 years before countries such as SouthKorea and Singapore did; today, despite their past as exploited colonies and their lack of significant natural resources, those countries' per capita income is several times greater. One consequence of Latin America's reluctance to face such comparisons squarely has been a disconnect between discourse and reality. Tired of empty words and meaningless promises, people in the region are disillusionedwith politics in general. Recognizing their own share of responsibility for the situation, however, could be the start of rewriting history. The key is accepting that four regional cultural traits are obstacles that need to be overcome for development to succeed: resistance to change, absence of confidence, fragile democratic norms, and a soft spot for militarism.

LOOKING BACKWARD LatinAmericans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change. Instead of a culture of improvement, they have promoted a culture of preservation of the status quo. Constant, patient reform -- the only kind of reform compatible with democratic stability -- is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pining for dramatic revolutions that promiseabundant treasures only one insurrection away. Such an attitude would be easier to understand in Canada or Norway, which have achieved enviable levels of human development. But what have Guatemala or Nicaragua to prize so highly in their pasts? In cases such as these, the conservative impulse probably springs not just from a desire to preserve the status quo but even more from a desire to protectestablished privileges and a general fear of the unknown. Latin Americans hold on tight even to pain and suffering, preferring a certain present to an uncertain future. Some of this is only natural, entirely human. But for us, the fear is paralyzing; it generates not only anxiety but also paralysis. To make matters worse, the region's political leaders rarely have the patience or the skill to...
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