The official re-opening of Buenos Aires’ newly refurbished Teatro Colon, famous for its extraordinary acoustics, will be only one of the ways that Argentina will observe next year’s 200th anniversary of the May Revolution of 1810, which signaled the beginning of the country’s independence from Spain. There will be numerous public events, patriotic ceremonies headed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, university seminars and conferences, and the publication of relevant books to celebrate the formation of Argentina as a country. Over the past two centuries, the nation has had its share of accomplishments, but it has also suffered many setbacks, such as successive military coups beginning in 1930 until 1983, when democracy was restored.
Other Latin American countries have a similar historic timeline, so a Bicentenary Group was established in 2007, comprising those countries that will commemorate their bicentennials between 2009 and 2011, such as Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela. Spain also decided to participate in the group “in order to build a stronger and more cohesive Ibero-American community capable of facing the common challenges of the current economic crisis more effectively,” said Spainish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero during an event that officially marked the beginning of the bicentennial celebration of Ibero-American independence.
According to experts, the bicentennial is a symbolic milestone that will help people to reflect on the region’s advances and setbacks. The main challenges facing Latin America, they say, are its continued high levels of poverty and economic exclusion; the lack of a strong educational system and competitive economic model; and the need for stronger political parties that can defend the foundations of democracy more effectively.
While nations were busy creating an agenda for the bicentennial celebration, a coup d’etat took place on June 28 in Honduras, putting an end to the constitutional presidency of Manuel Zelaya and setting off alarms about the political climate in the region. The situation, condemned by the countries of the region, the United States, Spain and others, “is a setback,” reflects Eduardo Fracchia, professor at IAE, the business school of Austral University in Buenos Aires. “It meant the return of the ghosts of the past — the sensation that democracy is not at all that strong in the region. So, this is the right time for the other [Latin American] countries to think about tools for strengthening their own political systems.”
Honduras continues to experience dramatic times, now that power is in the hands of Roberto Micheletti, who assumed the de facto presidency. Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president, is trying to return to the country. Experts say that, without doubt, democracy is one of the values that the region must be careful to uphold, in that it leads to an improvement in the quality of politics and institutions. “The problem in Honduras is a cultural one, and its origins lie in the fact that the Republic lacks meaning,” says Ernesto O’Connor, director of economic analysis at the Argentine Catholic University. “In the case of Argentina, [the country’s leaders] should establish governmental policies [to address their] lack of basic consensus, a country plan, stable institutions, [and a system of] rotational leadership” – all of which would strengthen the standards of honesty in a democratic system.
According to Professor Stella Maris Palermo, chairman of the department of history, geography and tourism at the University of Salvador, “The road that lies ahead for Argentina will certainly demand consensus and disagreement. Every nation builds itself by conciliating its various interests. The important thing is to consider the interests of the majority while tending to those natural differences. This is not about naïve optimism; hope gives way to hard work. But you can believe that in this sense [Argentina is] undergoing a slow apprenticeship, which must crystallize in the emergence of political and social leaders.”
Urgency about clarifying the democratic landscape of the region should not obscure other pressing deficiencies, such as education and poverty. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 32% of the population in Latin America is poor. In addition, the rate of extreme poverty and indigence has reached 12.9%, the equivalent of 71 million people. Martín López Amorós, an assistant researcher at IAE, notes, “In the short run, [Latin America] must minimize the costs of the international and local crisis for each country. It should be important to try to prevent poverty rates from shooting up, and to fight against any increase in inequality that the crisis leads to.”
According to O’Connor, “There are many areas that have yet to be tackled in depth. Education and health care are the keys since they have an implication for the future offspring of those [poor people] who are currently excluded. Along with this, there is [better] nutrition, which would guarantee that the children in poor households can get a decent education, and [continue on to] study in universities and professional schools.” Along those lines, Fracchia notes that Argentina “must improve its educational system, which historically was a source of pride but which is now in decay.” The country has had five Nobel Prize winners (Bernardo Houssay, César Milstein and Luis Leloir, in Science; and Carlos Saavedra Lamas and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, in Peace). However, in recent decades, the best professors and scientists have emigrated.
But as the saying goes, the last thing that is lost is hope. “More than talking about positive aspects, we should talk about reasons for hope,” Palermo says. “Argentine history has suffered from some profound failures, but we must reach a consensus to build the future, starting by overcoming [the past]; and, despite all the possible limitations, the will of the Argentine people is focused, in that sense.”
In the case of Argentina, “there are various points to emphasize,” notes López Amorós at IAE. “On the one hand, over the past 25 years, the country has finally managed to consolidate its democracy. The level of [cultural literacy] in Argentine society is also worth mentioning. In addition, the country has managed to position itself as a global agribusiness power, and has been one of the most innovative places in that area in recent decades.” Nevertheless, he adds, not all of the countries of the region have followed the same time line. “Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador never really managed to take off, and over the course of their history they have remained undeveloped or developing countries. The history of Paraguay is different since, as you know, during the nineteenth century – with a model based on [national self-sufficiency] — it had managed to build itself into a regional power until the country was devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), from which it never recovered.” In that war, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina fought together against Paraguay.
O’Connor also cites the example of Chile, “which is the country that has evolved the most today. In Latin America, the populist mindset still holds sway, inherited from the social structure of the colonial era, and it is hard to establish a Republican mindset.” On the other hand, he adds, “in Brazil, the mindset of long-term economic development dominates, involving expansion toward the [rest of the] world, independently of which political parties govern. There is a sense of nationalism, and competitiveness.”
The anniversary of the region’s independence should also provide a boost for strengthening ties among the countries within it. But the problems suffered by such trade groups as Mercosur (the Common Market of the South), the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and NAFTA, show that a lot remains to be done.
Palermo notes, “Argentina must involve itself in the world. Without doubt, this is something indispensable but it involves more than just economic functionalities that, when taken out of context, have yielded the results we know about. Before getting involved in a global dialogue, you have to affirm the subject that you are talking about, and the Bicentennial can be a propitious occasion in that sense.”
Toward the Future
In Argentina, the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has created a Permanent Committee for the Bicentennial of the Revolution of May 1810-2010. Details are available at www.bicentenario.gov.ar. (The latest changes made by authorities have not yet been updated there; the site still mentions the role of José Nun, the country’s minister of culture, who was replaced this month by Jorge Coscia.) This is a nationwide program that encompasses “schools, social justice, economic prosperity; respect for human rights, raising the entire population’s public awareness and national identity; reducing inequality; and strengthening democracy.”
According to Fracchia, analysts agree that the bicentennial is a symbolic date that the country really needs to capitalize on “to chart a long-term path for Argentina that is desirable, since the economic policy of recent years has not fundamentally changed its character. Argentina’s industrial sector still relies on the value of the Argentine peso to address the issue of its competitiveness in the rest of the world. [Argentina is] a country that has little financial depth — a society with a high level of poverty, inequality and a fragile fiscal regime. It lacks something fundamental: Dialogue among the various parties who compose Argentine democracy. In addition, [the country] needs to strengthen its political parties and involve them more in society. The models to follow are the United States, Australia and Chile,” he says.
O’Connor agrees, noting that “Argentina’s cultural standards do not prioritize either the long-term or sacrifice, but rather the short-term pleasures of consumption. There is neither a culture of saving nor one of working, to the extent that it exists in other recently developed countries, and of course, in those [countries] that are developed. The economy must [develop according to] a long-term national plan based on consensus, but this consensus must be achieved by the very same leaders who have led the country into its current situation — and that [process] requires [the public to behave with] magnanimity [toward those leaders].”
“Past and future come together in the present,” Palermo says regarding Argentina’s bicentennial. “The attitude with which we view the past is important, because it may not be a productive one. It is not productive to be complacent or destructively narcissistic or to aspire to [alter history] with stories that make sense for a single interest group. The bicentennial is an opportunity for us to take charge of our history, reaffirm our values and admit our limitations; and above all, to accept our heritage: ‘This is what we have been; these are our achievements and failures; and it is starting from here that we need to move forward.’”