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The State Of Affairs In Latin America: A Conversation With Secretary General Of The Organization Of American States Luis Almagro

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

A few days ago, I had the honor of joining an event that the Brademas Center and the prestigious New York University (NYU) hosted on its campus in Washington, DC, better known as NYU-DC. The event was titled, “A conversation with the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro“. This important discussion was held within the framework of the #DCDialogues, a forum that convenes academia, government, the private sector, and the general community in the political capital of the world, Washington, DC.

I posed several questions to Secretary General Luis Almagro about the diverse challenges the hemisphere faces at present in the areas of democracy, citizen liberties and human rights, especially in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti.

This analysis of current developments in these countries is pivotal to the role the OAS plays in fulfilling its mission for, “more rights for more people,” across the Americas.

Venezuela

One of Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous works is No One Writes to the Colonel. In the case of Venezuela, Almagro has become the voice of those Venezuelans who have no one to write to them, no one to listen to them and no one to protect them from their own abusive regime led by Nicolás Maduro. I pointed out that we all have a lot of concern and hope for Venezuela but it was necessary to know what outcome we could expect in the near future and what is needed to supporting the Juan Guaidó movement and help the brave and strong people of Venezuela fulfill their own destiny. The Secretary began by indicating that making a short-term forecast would not be possible, but it was clear that, “Guaidó is the last hope we have for a peaceful solution. The most violent solution that can be applied to the country is the one that is being applied now. My concern with empty slogans like #HandsOffVenezuela is that meanwhile all the violence in the world is being applied to millions of Venezuelans. Millions of people had to abandon the country because they didn’t have any medical care. Millions of people are starving.”

Cuba

I then transition to the largest island in the Caribbean, noting that after all the efforts to integrate Cuba into the region and bring it closer to the United States of America, we find ourselves back at square one. The only difference is that for the first time in 60 years, the Cuban president is not named Castro. Almagro’s answer could not be more clear, “The Cuban dictatorship is the worst kind of dictatorship you can find in the whole world. They are not tied at all to the needs and the feeling of the people. When this is tied to Venezuela, it makes the failure even more evident. They [Cuba] are the most parasitic country that has existed. He noted, “The Cuban government has been sucking blood from Venezuela. Today, Venezuela is a corpse and they are still sucking the blood from a dead body. It is a severe case of parasitism. They cannot afford to live without Venezuelan oil. It will be worse than during the Special Period. They [the Cuban government] know that any other government will not be able to keep delivering this oil to Cuba.

“The name of the President is not Castro, but the name of power is still Castro,” said Almagro.

Nicaragua

It is imperative to know more about the OAS’ involvement in Nicaragua. From the very beginning, the OAS has been working for democratization, stronger political institutions, rule of law, and the independence of the different branches of government in the country. The OAS has strived to be part of the solution to the political crisis in Nicaragua, since it has been a year since the protests began in April 2018. Almagro said the opposition, although they were not well organized, had an opportunity at the first two months of the protests, as they were strong enough to demand early elections and some institutional solutions. However, this period passed and the government prevailed by force. The government then tried to consolidate the peace they achieved by force through human rights violations.

Almagro shared with us that the OAS acted as a witness in the negotiation process that the government and the opposition carried out. The Secretary General urged the government of Daniel Ortega to release political prisoners as soon as possible, stop the repression on demonstrations, guarantee political freedoms and begin electoral reforms.

Almagro called for maturity from both sides, “We need people to stop lying to us. The needs of the people are too great. We need to deliver solutions. We don’t like when people play political games with this situation. It is not acceptable. We [the OAS] concentrate on the duties of the government, because only they can deliver solutions for the people.” I concluded this portion of the discussion adding that the Nicaraguan government is seeking to buy time so that the current situation becomes the new normal.

Haiti

Our conversation returned to the Caribbean. I started by noting how the international press rarely covers the important current events in Haiti, a country that recently appointed a new prime minister in the wake of protests. The Secretary General expressed his deep respect for the Haitian nation, his concern for the economic and political conditions of the country and his great admiration for all the struggles the country has historically overcome.

“We want the country to stabilize; people to be respected; and the electoral process to be implemented. The country needs a lot of international cooperation for the country to stabilize, and we will provide it. In early May, there will be meetings in Haiti’s Congress to confirm the interim the government. We need to keep clear. We can’t play with fire when we are all in a barrel of fuel. We should help always to stabilize Haiti. We shouldn’t exploit their structural problems. We should be concerned about their needs.”

He commended the country saying, “Haiti was the first Caribbean country to investigate the corruption in PetroCaribe. It’s a commitment against corruption and puts a lot of stress on the political system.”

Social Inclusion

I did not want to end this conversation without knowing a little more about the steps that the OAS takes to close the inequality gap, taking into account that Latin America is considered the most unequal region in the world. My idea was to address vulnerable populations such as the indigenous peoples, afro-descendents, and the LGBTQ community, among others.

Almagro pointed to the central mission of the OAS, “More rights for more people”. He detailed the social inclusion campaign carried out as an organization and when referring to the LGBTQ community, he said that, “we want each country to resolve the discrimination suffered by the people of this community.” He even indicated that he attended the Vancouver Gay Pride and will attend the Washington Pride. Coincidentally, two days after this discussion, Almagro published a photo in which he is seen receiving the Global Champions Awards 2019 from the Human Rights Campaign, for his leadership for LGBTQ rights and for the work of social inclusion that his organization carries out.

These four countries in the Americas, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti, require the most focus from the OAS and the international community. There are many bright spots within the Americas, but as a region, we are only as strong as our weakest link. For more details on the dialogue with Secretary Almagro, we leave you with this video from the event.

Education: The Path to Overcoming Inequality

By Luis Porto, and Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, Guest Blogger

Learning processes are both the cause and the consequence of different systems of social interaction, and should be analyzed within this framework when designing and implementing educational policies.

Many of us have heard, for example, that if we know where a person lives – if we find out their postcode or address – it will be easy to predict not just their educational path but also their opportunities for social mobility, for developing a decent life, and for actively contributing (or not) to the transformation of their communities and their countries. This because “where someone lives” provides relevant information about the context in which that child develops, not only from the socioeconomic or demographic perspective but also from the perspective of the set of human rights that person accessed (or was unable to access) even before birth, thereby affecting their psychomotor development: overcrowding, the mother’s education, or nutrition in a person’s early years are some of the factors that impact their cognitive and learning abilities.

This is confirmed by the fact that, despite important investments in education in the Americas in recent decades, reflected in the boost to education budgets with respect to GDP to amounts similar, in some cases, to OECD countries (6%), we still see that the right to access a quality education remains a pending issue for the region. What evidence is there that we haven’t reached the education goals our people deserve? If we look at the results of international exams such as PISA, participating countries in the region occupy some of the lowest spots in the ranking. Problems with school attendance and learning remain and worsen the gap in inequality among groups according to their socioeconomic strata, and in view of other characteristics that produce further situations of discrimination and social exclusion.

To cite a few statistics: at the pre-primary level enrollment reaches 66%, although in some countries it stands at 90% and in others at 20%. In the case of primary education, where the region has a coverage rate of 95%, structural socioeconomic factors have prevented its full universalization. Likewise, the region has seen a very slow advance in average growth in secondary enrollment, which has reached 50%, and just 25% of youths and children in the poorest quintile finish their secondary studies, compared with 75% in the richest quintile.[1] According to UNICEF, 1 of every 3 school-age children is not enrolled in secondary school, and 30 million youths/adolescents work informally and in difficult conditions. This situation is more severe among migrant and disabled populations. Among these groups, only between 20% and 30% attend school.

The persistence of unsatisfactory results at the education level in the region, and of inequality in the Americas, invites us to reflect not only on the results of the practices and policies implemented up to this point but also, fundamentally, to review the intervention methods and the extent to which they address, in combined or isolated form, the factors impacting the success of teaching and learning processes. How is our vision of education and the functioning of our educational system contributing today to the aim of overcoming inequalities and building more inclusive societies? Thinking about this is crucial so that education continues to be socially valued as a basic tool of human development.

It is precisely this that the Organization of American States, in cooperation with Inter-American Dialogue and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America, seeks to do with its “,” a theoretical-practical first exercise that aims to contribute a comprehensive look at the field of education, with its analysis highlighting the importance of paying attention to the socioeconomic conditions of students and their families, and the need to think about the pedagogical offering in a comprehensive way to adjust it to the cultural capital of students and their communities. It is an exploratory paper that seeks to shed light on educational practices that can make up for, or attack on some level, the “prior” inequality of access to personal rights. It is not a recipe book, because as already mentioned, it’s not always possible to translate educational practices that have yielded positive results in certain contexts, certain educational communities, certain aspirational frames of the identities in which people and their families are incorporated, etc…

The text is organized into five sections, covering variables such as malnutrition, socioeconomic background, disability, and access to adequate housing and health services, among other important factors for child and youth educational development that are not always analyzed comprehensively.

Chapter 1 of the Inter-American Guide focuses on child development, prioritizing the discussion of why it is important to deal with inequities from an early age. As the document notes, early childhood is a critical period for interventions that seek to reduce educational and social inequality and poverty in general, as these early years are decisive for children’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development. It is during these years when the formation of abilities that help children with lifelong learning is fortified or falls behind. On the basis of empirical studies (Naudeau, Kataoka, Valerio, Neuman, and Elder, 2011), the Guide specifies factors such as poor diet, little stimulation in the home, and/or lack of access to quality care or preschool centers as the cause of many children not developing at the level they should. The document proposes strategies to boost the development of life skills at an early age, such as home visit programs, establishment of child care centers, and better access and quality in early education, among others.

Primary education is a critical time in education provision. While early childhood (years 0 to 5) is the most important period for brain development in humans, it is in primary education that the bases of academic knowledge are laid and such essential skills learned as reading, writing, and doing basic mathematics, which are important in preparing children for more advanced learning and for life in general.

Chapter 2 of the Inter-American Guide on Educational Inequality deals with free and compulsory primary education as a universal human right, which has led to the near universalization in the Americas of primary school attendance, with many countries reaching a net primary enrollment rate close to 100%.

This section of the Guide maps the challenges that persist in achieving full universalization of primary education and lays out the differing levels of education access, particularly for populations in situations of poverty and vulnerability, as well as indigenous and Afrodescendent children and those with disabilities and special needs. The Guide highlights some of the strategies used to strengthen learning in primary education, including the development of student-centered learning policies, emphasis on reading in early grades, inclusive education, and bilingual intercultural education, among others.

Chapter 3 deals with secondary education, putting special emphasis on the education path of children in situations of poverty and vulnerability. This group may develop learning deficits that cause them to fall behind academically, repeat one or more years, and develop negative attitudes toward school. The complexity of adolescence imposes a set of additional issues that challenge the capacity of educational systems to guarantee the quality and appropriateness of education, as well as these youths’ presence in the educational system. Some of these issues covered in the Guide include the situation of those who never enter secondary education or leave it early due to the need to start working or assume other responsibilities, including the situation of young women faced with early maternity as well as those who from a young age have responsibilities associated with domestic work and unremunerated care. How, then, can educational systems transform secondary school to reduce inequality, in doing so improving graduation rates and learning levels among youths living in conditions of poverty and vulnearbility? Among the strategies mapped in this chapter of the Guide are the use of conditional cash transfers, implementation of tutoring and mentoring programs, and school reentry, among others. The final section of the text lists the main lessons for implementing strategies to reduce educational inequality, that is, specific recommendations that can be useful in planning these actions and equity-oriented educational policies.

This contribution from the OAS, in connection with Inter-American Dialogue and support from CAF Bank of Latin America, aims to overturn the aforementioned adage that says “if we know where someone lives, if we know their post code or address, we can predict their educational path.” This document starts from the premise that inequality of access to basic human rights is one of the most important causes of educational inequality, and only by dealing with them in a comprehensive manner can we begin to have the desired results for children and young people in the region. At the OAS we believe we can contribute to connecting actions so that universal rights are expanded and made concrete in the region and to promoting the recognition of the rights to equality and freedom from discrimination. Education is one of the key tools to achieving this.

**The points of view expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the position of the OAS.

[1] UNESCO (2014). “The State of education in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The document can be accessed at this link.

[2]UNICEF, “Hechos sobre Adolescencia y Jóvenes en América Latina y el Caribe”. Extracted from: http://www.unicef.org/lac/Fast_facts_SP%281%29.pdf. Last visited 17 November, 2014.

Latin America’s High Gini Coefficients

During an interview with the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development, the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, said that the phrase, “more rights for more people,” “has to do with the situation in the continent… the continent that is the most unequal in the entire world.”

What Almagro was referring to is the high level of income and wealth inequality in Latin America. The rich in Latin America earn a large portion of the total income, while the poor have a very small share. Comparatively, the region is wealthier than Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, but the distribution between the rich and the poor is worst in Latin America.

One way to demonstrate Latin America’s level of income inequality is through the Gini coefficient, a standardized measure of income distribution among a population. The Gini coefficient or index is a number between 0 and 1 calculated by taking all people in a population and ordering them by income level. Based on the distribution of incomes, the Gini index predicts income gaps between two randomly selected individuals in a population[1].

A higher Gini index indicates greater inequality: a score of 0 means that every person has exactly the same amount of income, while 1 signifies that all the income in the country is held by a single individual.

In Latin American countries the Gini coefficient is often between .4 and .5. In 2015 Brazil’s Gini coefficient was .51. For comparison, in Russia, a country home to some of the world’s richest oil magnates, the Gini index is about .38[2].

Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Alicia Bárcena Ibarra argues that one reason the region has such high Gini coefficients is because of its revenue systems that are too greatly focused on consumption taxes and which disproportionately impact low and middle-income earners. Low tax rates for multinational companies as well as high tax avoidance hurt the situation, she says[3].

As Almagro suggests, another reason income inequality is so high is because of disparities in rights. Certain groups, women, children, indigenous communities and rural farmers, have much less access to education and health services, for instance.

With “more rights for more people,” Latin America would make significant progress in cutting back income inequality and reducing some of the world’s highest Gini coefficients.

[1] Kenton, Will. “Gini Index” Investopedia. February 6, 2019. Retrieved from:  https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gini-index.asp

[2] Bárcena Ibarra, Alicia & Byanyima,Winnie. “Latin America is the world’s most unequal region. Here’s how to fix it.” The World Economic Forum. January 17, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/inequality-is-getting-worse-in-latin-america-here-s-how-to-fix-it/

[3] “Gini index.” 2017. The World Bank. 2017. Retrieved from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?end=2017&start=2017&view=map&year=2015

OAS Electoral Observations Can Prevent Future Threats to Democracy

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In 2018 Latin America faced a number of democratic crises, among them Daniel Ortega’s violent repression of peaceful Nicaraguan protestors and Venezuela’s further fall into humanitarian disaster.

In 2019 the world will grapple with exactly how to confront and combat these situations. A mix of sanctions and aid is the traditional policy recipe. In the case of Venezuela, the United States, Canada and others are now putting increased diplomatic pressure on the Maduro Regime and have formalized support of the young opposition leader, Juan Guidaó1.

But more long-term solutions are needed to combat the crises of tomorrow. Undoubtedly, this involves the overall strengthening of democratic institutions and norms, particularly in places where democracy is already being threatened, but also in places that are traditionally democratic strongholds.

One way to do this is through Electoral Observations Missions. During an interview with GFDD, Director of the Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation (DECO) at the Organization of American States (OAS), Gerardo de Icaza, explained the utility of such initiatives.

Electoral observation missions, like those of DECO, prevent fraud and guarantee free and fair elections by helping carry out electoral processes at the national or municipal level. Vote counting and keeping polling places safe and free of corruption are among their activities. Such independent missions are particularly important for countries that are developing and do not yet have the technical capacity to ensure free and fair elections.

In the Western Hemisphere, countries possess one of the most formidable electoral observation organizations in the OAS’ DECO. In its more than 50-year history, the regional body has carried out over 240 successful missions in more than 27 countries throughout the region. The organization is extremely transparent, offering complete and easy-to-access reports and data on each of its observations2.

But, many countries in the region do not utilize DECO’s capabilities. Chile, Canada, and Argentina have never had visits from the OAS body. In Venezuela, for instance, there has not been a DECO mission since 2006.

Reacting to disasters like those of Venezuela and Nicaragua are complicated, and as the Venezuela example demonstrates, can potentially worsen an already bad situation. A proactive and simpler way of preventing threats to democracy is to utilize independent electoral observation missions, like those of the OAS.

With more electoral observation missions, Latin America and countries around the world, might experience less democratic and humanitarian crises in years to come.

  1. Wyss, Jim & Camacho, Carlos. “Venezuela now has two presidents. How long will the uncertainty last?” Miami Herald. January 23, 2019. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article224962020.html
  2. “Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation.” OAS. 2019. http://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=S-015/16

Latin America Still Faces an Uphill Battle on Gender Equality

By Geovanny Vicente Romero, Guest Blogger

In some ways Latin America has been a trailblazer when it comes to female leadership in politics. Many of the world’s first democratically elected women heads of state were in Latin American nations. In 2014, four females held the highest office in their countries: Michelle Bachelet in Chile; Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; Christina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica. But, as pointed out by the Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OAS, Rita Hernández Bolaños, the region still has a long way to go before achieving gender equality.

In part due to courageous female leaders, many Latin American countries, starting with Argentina in 1991, implemented gender-based quota laws in the 1990s and 2000s. Today the region boasts some of the highest percentages of female lawmakers in all of the world. In Cuba and Bolivia parliaments are majority female and in Mexico, following recent elections in 2018, just under 50 percent of lawmakers are women1. In the United States, for comparison, just about a quarter of all lawmakers are females2.

But there are signs that the region is moving in the opposite direction. Whereas just five years ago there were four female heads of state, today there are none. In 2018 the region elected six male presidents, many who, like conservative President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, threaten women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

The old machista culture remains pervasive too. According to the World Bank, females in Latin America are seriously underrepresented in the labor force and earn on average 16 percent less than men3. Violence against women is higher in Latin America than anywhere else in the world4.

Women played a big part in the passing of the quota laws that allowed for high numbers of female members of congress today. Female legislators also have proven to be more supportive of bills involving women’s rights and those fighting gender-based violence and femicide5. At the OAS, and throughout all of Latin America, more female leadership is needed to combat issues like gender-based violence and bring the region closer to gender equality.

  1. “Women in national parliaments,” Inter-Parliamentary Union. November 1, 2018. http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm
  2. Desilver, Drew. “A record number of women will be serving in the new Congress,” Pew Research Center. December 18, 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/18/record-number-women-in-congress/
  3. Tavares, Paula & Octaviano Canuto. “No women, no growth: The case for increasing women’s leadership in Latin America,” The World Bank. August 17, 2018. http://blogs.worldbank.org/latinamerica/no-women-no-growth-case-increasing-women-s-leadership-latin-america
  4. “From Commitment to Action: Policies to End Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. United Nations Development Program. http://www.latinamerica.undp.org/content/dam/rblac/docs/Research%20and%20Publications/Empoderamiento%20de%20la%20Mujer/UNDP-RBLAC-ReportVCMEnglish.pdf
  5. “Latin America has embraced quotas for female political candidates,” The Economist. July 28, 2018. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/07/28/latin-america-has-embraced-quotas-for-female-political-candidates