By César Chelala
November 06, 2019 "Information
Clearing House" - In Latin America
several countries are under turmoil, as people
cannot even meet their most basics needs. The last
few months have seen a remarkable spectacle:
hundreds of thousands of citizens are taking to the
streets to protest to what they perceive is their
governments’ attack on their well-being, and the
governments’ responses have been late and
A reason for these failures can be found in an
anecdote related by Jean Cocteau. A couple of
drivers suffer a car malfunction in a small Chinese
town: there is a hole in the gas tank. They find a
mechanic that can repair it; he can do an exact
replica of the tank in a couple of hours. When they
pick up the car they restart the trip when, in the
dark hours of the night, they face the same problem.
The reason: the mechanic had also copied the hole in
the gas tank. Governments, and alas, not only those
in Latin America, are trying to solve problems
facing them using the same recipe, the one that
hadn’t succeeded before.
What is happening now is important not only in
its dimension, but also in the possibility of a
generalized continental chaos with unpredictable
consequences. And this is happening after Latin
America seemed to be a on a path to sustained
development, based on years of high commodity
prices. However, governments, rather than taking
advantage of this situation, have instead used the
remarkable financial resources obtained for their
own spurious aims.
The citizenry, tired of false
promises, resorts to voting for populist
governments that, although they increase
the countries’ external debt, have at
least a policy of redistribution of
resources that solves immediate problems
and gives people a false sense of
security. This has been starkly seen now
in Argentina, where Alberto Fernández
and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (they
are not related) won the country’s
presidential election although she has
more than a dozen criminal cases against
Present economic and social crises have special
characteristics according to what countries are
considered. The common denominator to all is the
profound economic inequality which, according to the
United Nations, is greater in Latin America than in
any other part of the world. The Economic Commission
for Latin America and Caribbean states that,
although in Chile poverty levels went down three
percentage points between 2016 and 2019, one percent
of the country’s population still owns 26.5 percent
of its wealth.
David Konzevik, an Argentine economist and
advisor to many governments, has developed the
theory called “The revolution of expectations”.
According to Konzevik, the degree of knowledge and
information that exists today makes people aware of
possibilities for better living that are
unfulfilled. Governments by and large remain deaf to
people’s demands. “The poor today are rich in
information and millionaires in expectations,”
Konzevik told me recently in New York.
In addition, in almost all countries judicial
institutions are weak and as a result widespread
corruption remains unpunished. As the worldwide
economy has slowed down, governments lack resources
to pay for social programs. As a result, the public
has become increasingly more vocal in its demands
for better services and salaries, and less willing
to accept great levels of social inequality.
However, today not only the poor participate in
the protests against the governments. Protesting as
well are vast sectors of the middle class who also
see their quality of life considerably lowered by
government policies that favor mainly the rich.
Is there a way out of this morass? The answer may
be in the following story told by the
Spanish-Mexican historian Juan María Alponte. “A
man, passing a quarry, saw three stone cutters. He
asked the first: ‘What do you do?’ ‘You see,
cutting these stones.’ The second said: ‘I prepare a
cornerstone.’ The third one simply said, unaffected.
‘I build a cathedral.’” We need politicians who want
to build a cathedral.
César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press
Club of America award and two national journalism
awards from Argentina.
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