Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Latin lessons

Latin American countries successfully made the shift from repressive dictatorship to robust democracies. Yet Egypt remains loath to learn from their experiences, writes Emad Gad

In the mid-1980s most Latin American countries were in the grip of brutal military juntas. Democracy was a distant dream for Latin America's economically underdeveloped societies. Although they possessed enormous natural wealth their fascist dictatorships presided over widespread poverty and sprawling slums. Most of these countries were crippled by soaring national debt. Brazil, a country the size of a continent, stood on the verge of bankruptcy and was about to default on its debt-service payments to international financial institutions.

Fortunately these countries had resourceful and resilient populations, a dedicated intelligentsia and an enlightened clergy. The Latin American peoples continued their resistance against the juntas in spite of the heavy toll.

Many paid with their lives. The literature produced by the intelligentsia helped revolutionise the masses and steer their struggle. Particularly impressive was the role played by members of the Catholic clergy and, specifically, the body of doctrine they developed -- liberation theology -- which sanctioned active engagement in support of the causes of freedom, social justice and democracy. This progressive theology was staunchly opposed by the Catholic hierarchy. When faced with ultimatums from the Vatican to either toe the line or face censure, suspension or even excommunication, many liberation theology practitioners chose the latter so that they could remain true to what they believed was their religious mission -- to take the hand of the poor and needy and stand up against injustice and tyranny.

Another important aspect of the Latin American experience is that Latin American societies helped each other. Reformists and revolutionaries created a network of transnational relations. The individuals, groups and organisations involved in this network launched a two-pronged strategy aimed at countering the US hegemony that kept their countries economically dependent, turning them into banana republics, and at raising the social and political consciousness of their peoples, whom they refused to dismiss as backward or unready for democracy. They succeeded in setting into motion authentic grassroots liberation struggles as opposed to campaigns to promote the ascendancy of one group over another. Moreover, in these struggles religion became a force to enlighten and revolutionise the people, not a screen for power bids or an instrument to win votes in an election.

The overall effect was to stimulate a kind of domino theory in reverse. The original domino theory was a Cold War invention of Washington that held that if one European country fell to the communists other capitalist countries would topple like dominos standing in a row. In Latin America political leaders, together with the intelligentsia and politically conscientious elites in various fields including the church (for many members of which actively serving the destitute constituted the heart of religious devotion) succeeded in overthrowing one junta after the other until eventually all Latin America's dictatorships had toppled. They were followed by popularly elected democratic governments that set into motion historic reconciliations that enabled their societies to overcome the dark legacy of tyrannical regimes because they longed to set their sights on rebuilding their countries on the basis of justice and social democracy rather than remaining mired in a dark and painful past.

These emergent democracies progressed by leaps and bounds. Latin American countries, on the whole, developed into modern and robust democratic states. Economically, they surged ahead on the path of equitable development, enabling them to make huge inroads against poverty and, simultaneously, to approach first world levels in GDP, standards of living, technological development and other progressive indicators. Brazil, once on the verge of national bankruptcy, now boasts the eighth largest economy in the world. But far from coming at the expense of the poor and underprivileged this economic rebirth went hand-in-hand with equally impressive advances in combating illiteracy, improving education and healthcare and reducing unemployment rates. Before long former President Silva da Lula could boast that Brazil had succeeded in doing what no other country in the Western hemisphere has done, incorporating hugely expensive dental treatment into national health insurance.

With knowledge and awareness, faith in the country and its people, and the active support of a progressive clergy, Latin America succeeded in emerging from the cycle of underdevelopment and entering the world of democracy and progress. These experiences in overcoming underdevelopment merit our attention because we have much to learn from them.

Interestingly, as Latin American countries surged forward on the path to democracy and development they also began to aspire to forge a close network of relations with the Arab world. Physically, many Latin Americans resemble people from North Africa and the Near East. But more importantly, these countries have built up traditions of diversity and plurality and, therefore, have no sense of difference or conflict with the Arab or Islamic world. They feel that their negative experiences with the US draw them closer to us. Yet former Brazilian President da Lula often complained of the poor levels of communication between the Arab world and Latin America. He said that Arabs had to travel to South America via European capitals, which meant trips of around 20 hours, whereas if there were direct flights between Middle Eastern and South American capitals the flying time would be cut in half. Da Lula became particularly passionate when speaking of Egypt and his desire to welcome Egyptian leaders to Latin America. But when Brazil hosted the first summit of South American and Arab countries in 2005 Mubarak sent his foreign minister whereas the heads-of-state of Qatar, Algeria, Lebanon and Palestine attended in person. One of the consequences was that the second summit, in 2009, was held in Doha instead of Cairo. Again Mubarak dispatched his foreign minister.

The third summit has just convened in Lima, Peru. South American leaders believed that the level of Egyptian participation would increase due to the Arab Spring, and they hoped that President Mohamed Morsi would attend in person and help pave the way to closer economic ties, scientific and cultural cooperation. However, it appears that Morsi changed his mind at the last moment and decided, instead, to go to Ankara to attend the opening ceremonies of the Justice and Development Party's national convention. So, for the third time, Egypt was represented by its foreign minister while South American countries were represented by their heads-of-state. There is something ironic in this, given how far we lag behind those countries in all respects. Not only does Latin America now comprise strong and robust democracies, they are models in the type of transitional justice needed to overcome the legacy of decades of repressive dictatorial rule. They are also pioneers in the fight against rampant poverty and underdevelopment. They are eager to share their experiences and expertise with us. Our leaders, unfortunately, remain preoccupied by narrow and short-range concerns that have no bearing on the future we need to build.

The writer is an analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He is also head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and a former MP.

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