we did something wrong - speech by oscar arias - president of costa rica
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"WE DID SOMETHING WRONG"
President of the Republic of Costa Rica
Speech by President Óscar Arias at the Summit of the Americas
Trinidad and Tobago
18 April 2009
I’m under the impression that every time Caribbean and Latin American countries meet with the President of the United States of America it’s to ask for something or complain about things. Almost always it’s to blame the United States for our past, present and future problems. I don’t think that’s completely fair.
We mustn’t forget that Latin America had universities before the United States created Harvard or William & Mary, which were the first universities in that country. We can’t forget that on this continent, as well as the world over, at least until 1750 all Americans were more or less equal: all were poor.
When the Industrial Revolution began in England other countries jumped on the bandwagon: Germany, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. And the Industrial Revolution passed over Latin America like a comet and we didn’t even realize it. We certainly lost our opportunity.
There is a very great difference. If one reads the history of Latin America and compares it to the history of the United States, one understands that Latin America did not have a Spanish or Portuguese John Winthrop who, with Bible in hand, was willing to build “a city on a hill”, a city that would shine, as was the objective of the pilgrims who arrived in the United States.
50 years ago Mexico was richer than Portugal. In 1950 a country like Brazil had a higher income per capita than South Korea. 60 years ago Honduras had more wealth per capital than Singapore and today Singapore, over a period of about 35-40 years, has increased its annual income per capita to $40,000 per inhabitant. Well, Latin Americans did something wrong.
What did we do wrong? I can’t count the things we’ve done wrong. To begin with, we have an average of 7 years of education. That’s the average education level in Latin America and that is not the case with most Asian countries. Certainly that is not the case with the United States and Canada, which have the best education in the world, similar to that of Europeans. Of every 10 students who enter high school in Latin America, in some countries only 1 completes high school. There are countries that have an infant mortality rate of 50 per 1000, when the average in more advanced Asian countries is 8, 9, or 10.
In our countries taxes cover about 12% of the gross national product and it isn’t anyone’s responsibility other than ours that we don’t charge more to the wealthiest people in our countries. No one is at fault for that except us.
In 1950 every North American citizen was four times wealthier than a Latin American citizen. Today a North American citizen is 10, 15 or 20 times wealthier than a Latin American. That is not the United States’ fault. That is our fault.
During my speech this morning I mentioned something that I find grotesque and that only goes to show that the 20th Century value system, which seems to be the one we are putting into practice in the 21st Century too, is a mistaken value system. Because it can’t be possible that the wealthy countries of the world dedicate 100 billion dollars to fight poverty throughout 80% of the world’s population on a planet that has 2.5 billion human being who earn $2 a day, and they spend 13 times that (1 quadrillion, 300 million) on weapons and soldiers.
As I said this morning, it cannot be that Latin America spends 50 billion dollars on weapons and soldiers. I ask myself: who is our enemy? Our enemy, President Correa, is the inequality which you so correctly mention. It is lack of education. It is illiteracy. It is that we don’t spend on our population’s health. We don’t create the necessary infrastructure: roads, highways, ports and airports. It is that we are not dedicating the necessary resources to stop the environmental degradation. It is the inequality we have that is really shameful. It is a product, among other things of course, of the fact that we are not educating our sons and daughters.
One goes to a Latin American university and it seems we are still in the sixties, seventies or eighties. It seems we’ve forgotten that on 9 November 1989 something very important happened: the Berlin Wall fell and the world changed. We have to accept that this is a different world and as to that, frankly, I think academics and all people of reason, all economists, all historians, almost all will agree that the 21st century belongs to the Asians, not to Latin Americans. And I, unfortunately, agree with them.
Because while we continue arguing about ideologies, while we continue arguing about “isms” (which is better, capitalism, socialism, communism, liberalism, neoliberalism, sociochristianism…) the Asians found a very realistic “ism” for the 21st Century and the end of the 20th Century and it’s called pragmatism.
To give you an example, let’s recall when Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and South Korea. After realizing that his own neighbors were becoming wealthy rapidly, he returned to Peking and said to his old Maoist comrades that they had accompanied him along his long march “Well, truthfully dear comrades, I don’t really care if the cat is black or white. The only thing that interests me is that it hunts mice”. And if Mao had been alive he would have died again when Xiaoping said, “The truth is that getting rich is glorious”. And while the Chinese are doing this, and since 1979 they’ve grown by 11%, 12%, or 13% and have taken 300 million of their inhabitants out of poverty, we continue arguing about ideologies that we should have buried long ago.
The good news is that Deng Xiaoping achieved this when he as 74 years old. Looking around me, dear Presidents, I don’t see anyone who is anywhere near 74 years old. So all I ask you is that we don’t wait until we’re that age to make the changes we need to make.