On the Edge: Latin America’s Decade?

Minister of Environment and International Development Erik Solheim. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Minister of Environment and International Development Erik Solheim. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly. These are opinion pieces written by invited contributors who make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

Written by Erik Solheim, Minister of Environment and International Development

When I took up my post as Minister of International Development five years ago, I intended to concentrate on Africa, the poorest continent. Asia was the continent making impressive progress – a lesson to us all. Latin America seemed to be neither one thing nor the other, neither desperately poor nor particularly successful. I soon learned to think otherwise.

Brazil has emerged as one of the world’s major powers and has clearly become the region’s leading nation. This was demonstrated at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last year. Brazil is also an environmental success. In seven years, the country has reduced the rate of deforestation in the Amazon region by 75 percent. It is the most important action to combat climate change undertaken by any country – ever. Brazil is a development policy model that serves as inspiration for other countries, as does China. Dilma Rousseff was recently elected as Brazil’s next president.

With few exceptions, Latin America is now, for the first time ever, ruled by men and women who do not come from the traditional elite. The politicians now seem to resemble those who elect them. One of the most fascinating Latin American leaders is President Mujica of Uruguay. He received me in his office – a short man, with his shirt open at the neck, worn trousers and a casual jacket. Not the type you might expect to be elected president, but he is adored by rich and poor alike. The former guerrilla leader spent 14 years in prison, 10 of them without access to reading material. When I asked him how he survived, he said that he would spend his mornings making imaginary designs for a variety of machines. In the afternoons he would go for walks in his tiny prison cell. The evenings he would spend studying the social organization of ants.

Many are now saying that this will be Latin America’s decade. The continent has gained self-confidence as a result of economic growth, a dramatic decline in poverty, significant progress in regard to the environment, and, most particularly, democracy. What is known as the Latin American left is not, of course, a homogeneous group. It’s a big leap from Lula to Chavez. President Lula has gained popularity both among Brazil’s multimillionaires and among the poorest farm workers. He is friends with everybody, from the U.S. to Iran. President Chavez, on the other hand, provokes confrontation, both in his own country and abroad.

Paradoxically, China is an underlying factor in Latin America’s awakening. Brazil now trades more with China than with the U.S. And for a small country like Uruguay, China is a vital trading partner. This is dramatically changing the balance of power. The huge economic shift in China’s favor has also changed the way the continent is perceived.

But there are enormous challenges. The gap between rich and poor is greater than on any other continent. Historically, Latin America has probably had the most short-sighted middle class in the world, oblivious to the importance of ensuring that the entire population reaps the benefits of economic progress. The majority of the population were marginalized for as long as possible. Retribution is now taking the form of a massive shift towards the left.

In South America, politics has a lot to do with personalities. Among the icons of the new Latin America are coca farmer Morales, union leader Lula, Bishop Lugo and urban guerrilla leader Mujica. They are all fascinating people whose personal histories put even President Obama’s way to power in the shade. You can hardly fail to be fascinated, optimistic and excited. Now the Brazilians have elected Dilma Rousseff as their president. She, too, has a dramatic past as a guerrilla fighter and torture victim, but is likely to be a more conventional president. She represents perhaps the normalization of leftist democracy that South America needs.

Erik Solheim is the Minister of the Environment and International Development, and is a member of the Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti). He has worked in politics since 1977, and former positions include Socialist Left party leader (1987-1997) and Storting member (1989-2001). He served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for five years before joining Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s cabinet in 2005.

Please bear in mind that opinions expressed in “On The Edge” are not necessarily those of the Norwegian American Weekly, and our publication of these views are not an endorsement of them.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 3, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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