Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 228 | Julio 2000


Latin America

Latin America and International Cooperation

In a recent conference on Finland and Latin America, Sandinista Renovation Movement president Dora María Téllez, speaking on behalf of Latin America, explained our continent’s problems and spoke of needs that international cooperation can and should back.

Dora María Téllez

Latin America and the Caribbean—"Our America," as Cuban patriot José Martí called it — is a region of the world whose face is presented to you daily through the news media, through cultural activities or conferences, through different artistic or literary expressions or through political and social events.

Most of the information you receive from these sources informs you of natural catastrophes, timely political events, the odd item of economic news and the occasional sketch of daily life. Today we should try to reflect on the deeper currents of our countries’ life, on the matters that occupy and concern our peoples in the cities and in the countryside, on the coasts and in the jungles; everywhere in the varied geography of this region.

We are a region of insecurities

Just over 500 million people live in Latin America and the Caribbean, including mestizos, indigenous peoples, African-Americans, descendents of European and Asian immigration… We are a mixture of races, languages, traditions, cultures and customs covered by a common identity that distinguishes us as Latin Americans, that reaches beyond borderlines and regional particularities, but is difficult to define precisely. We have reached the end of the second millennium as what used to be called third world countries but are now known as developing countries, meaning that we have been unable to break the boundaries of our own poverty let alone join those societies whose future offers more certainties than insecurities.

Finnish citizens have quite a degree of certainty about their future and that of their families and communities. They are sure that their children will go to school, that they will have the opportunity to work in decent and basically just conditions, that they have the possibility of improving their quality of life and that they will receive health care until they die and live a dignified retirement. They have free time for recreation and for enriching their culture and they live in a system that offers them the possibility of debating about things they do not like and of changing them. They know they have rights as citizens and that mechanisms and instruments exist to ensure that those rights will be respected, promoted and increased.

You have many good and just certainties. But our setting is very different. Latin America is a region where both poverty and the number of poor people are on the increase. It is a high-risk zone for any human being.

Eighty million living on a dollar a day

It is worth mentioning a few figures and reflections to illustrate this. Three of every ten Latin Americans currently live on less than two dollars a day, and approximately half of those live on under a dollar. In my country, Nicaragua, four of every ten people live on under a dollar a day. Although it is difficult to imagine what kind of life someone can have with that income level, it translates into this: in many rural homes people do not light their fires to cook every day, or they eat just once a day and very little.

A few days ago, I was talking to a poor peasant who told me that in his community some people could not even afford to buy salt, an absolutely indispensable element. And he felt much better off than others because he worked with his partner making weavings. They learned the indigenous tradition of weaving from an old woman in the community and with funding from Norway for this project and the help of an Argentine woman who has displayed extraordinary solidarity, they built small looms. This community, called El Chile, is home to a few of the 80 million Latin Americans living on a dollar a day. And this statistic is no less than it was a decade ago; in fact then it stood at 65 million, so there are approximately 15 million more people with this income level today. This demonstrates that the main efforts of a large part of the population in our countries are dedicated simply and flatly to surviving, to the daily search for food for their families, with no security beyond that which the next day brings.

The poor are growing poorer

We have been told that this situation was caused by the incorrect structuring of our economies and imbalances in our countries’ economic policies. We were told that overcoming poverty would only be possible if we created different economic conditions. In recent decades the governments of Latin America have dedicated a large part of their efforts to creating healthy economies, establishing advantages for foreign investment, resolving fiscal and financial deficits, reducing the size of the state, privatizing public services, stimulating exports, promoting the capacity to compete in the market and establishing regional trade agreements. All of this aimed at promoting economic growth under the premise that once this goal was achieved the benefits would trickle down to society as a whole.

On this premise, economic stabilization and structural adjustment programs started up in our countries, imposed on the governments by the IMF and the World Bank as a behavioral norm and a condition for receiving foreign aid flows. By now it is pretty clear even to their promoters that while these adjustments have relatively improved macroeconomic conditions and generated economic growth, this is not only insufficient, but the medicine applied has also helped aggravate the illnesses, causing real havoc among the population, particularly the poor. It is also clear that the economic policy being promoted has encouraged the concentration of wealth and increased social inequalities, so the rich are now richer and the poor poorer.
While, according to 1999 World Bank figures, the richest 20% of Finland’s population receives 35.8% of the country’s income, in Brazil this privileged 20% controls 64.2% of the income, in Guatemala 63%, in Paraguay 62.4%, in Colombia 61.5% and in Panama 60.4%. Meanwhile, the poorest 20% in our countries controls between 2.1% and 3.1% of the income, and is totally excluded in Latin American society.

Peasants, indigenous people the unemployed, youth, women...

The structural conditions that determine the growth of inequalities are greater now than before. Thousands of Latin Americans are fighting for a bit of land to work, while the trend is toward increasing land ownership concentration. That is why we see landless peasants in Brazil going to Brasilia and taking over government buildings to demand a solution that never arrives. That is why peasants in Nicaragua are demanding legal security for the lands they received from the Sandinista agrarian reform or the programs for demobilizing fighters at the beginning of the 1990s. The insecurity in which they are barely surviving induces them to sell their lands on the cheap to those who can obtain legal guarantees and have the necessary resources, influence and mechanisms to work them. It is in the rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean that the population is most affected by poverty and where it is most difficult to bridge the gulf between a present that offers no hope and the possibilities of a better tomorrow.
Tens of thousands of indigenous people throughout the continent are demanding legalization of their lands and respect for their traditions, languages, culture and management of their own affairs. They live in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and are breaking their silence of centuries to question the public policies that are affecting them, to propose new ways of governing themselves and to demand new, truly multicultural ways of understanding our nations.

Unemployed people are packed into the cities, the hope of rural migration, looking to make some kind of living through informal commerce: selling newspapers, food, second-hand clothing, lottery tickets, or any other items in squares, along the streets, at traffic lights, in the burgeoning improvised markets. The small and medium businesspeople are plagued by a lack of resources and technological support with which to successfully insert themselves into the new conditions of the local and regional markets. Many have already joined the growing ranks of this extensive informal sector; others are struggling to survive.
Many young people find that the doors are firmly closed to any kind of job or technical and professional training, but are open to crime and drug dealing and use. Our children can be found working in coffee plantations, as servants, as street hawkers and even in the sexual market, while our women are at a clear disadvantage as the discrimination against them is still severe.

Exporting our labor force

The desperation, the impossibility of satisfying even a minimum of their most urgent needs have forced hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans to emigrate to the United States and Europe in search of opportunities that they do not find in their own countries. The scale of this migration is such that, at least in Central America, family remittances, product of the self-sacrificing work and solidarity displayed by emigrants toward their families, is the most important source of foreign currency in each country, outstripping all of our exports. No export product generates as much foreign currency as the exportation of our people. US migration policy has become an economic policy priority for each of our countries, a turn of events that reflects the dramatic nature of the current situation.

To compensate for the effects of stabilization and economic adjustment, programs have been developed in nearly all of our countries to cushion their social impact. As a result, figures on infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy and access to potable water are now generally better than before, but the structural conditions—economic, social and political—that generate more poverty and more poor people still remain and are on the rise. The state has been reformed to make it smaller and more efficient, but it has put its emphasis on facilitating economic growth, setting aside any intervention to redistribute wealth.

Public disaffection with government

What is the solution to these problems? How can we get ourselves on the path to development? I find this an existential question. I have dedicated an important part of my life to promoting economic, political and social change in my country, through various means, including armed, political and electoral struggle. I am a daughter and protagonist of the Nicaraguan revolution and my answers are decidedly influenced by that fact.

In the last two decades, we have seen the exhaustion and collapse of military dictatorships in our continent, thus opening the way for building democracy and respect for human rights. Currently, civilians mainly govern the region and elections are periodically held, but the political and institutional model built on old foundations essentially preserves elements of crisis.

The population perceives that the state is not responding to its most urgent problems and that the political system’s institutions—central government, parliament or local governments—are unable to coordinate an appropriate response to the demands and proposals put to them by civil society. The political institutionality is not connected to the population; it lacks mechanisms for interaction and permanent dialogue with the citizens and their organizations, and public opinion still has little influence on the actions of political leaders.

Although periodical electoral processes have been established, the public’s participation is unsatisfactory. In some countries, the abstention level is very high. In Guatemala, only 30% of the population turns out to vote and authorities are thus elected with a minimum of political and social legitimacy. The rise in abstention levels is the result of the population’s lack of confidence in the institutional mechanisms for resolving society’s problems.

A widespread plague of corruption, which has been overwhelmingly rejected by public opinion, has developed alongside the economic problems and the lack of understanding between the state and society. Corruption has now come to represent a serious problem for governability and good governance. It is made possible and allowed to multiply because of impunity, which is an attribute of power and of the powerful. Meanwhile, the poor are the greatest victims of impunity, lack of justice and embezzlement of public goods.

The governance we lack

Democratic governance is the condition that allows a society to deal with its coincidences and divergences in a constructive way, stimulating the integral development of its citizens, families and communities. It assumes a positive interrelation between its citizens, civil society and the state. This condition is only possible when the political system’s institutions fully guarantee the exercise of individual, social and civil rights. Good governance is born of the citizenry’s confidence in the functioning of the system in which they live.

When a society totally or partially lacks those certainties that are basic to its survival and development, when the legal and juridical framework is broken, harming the exercise of civil rights, when the political system’s mechanisms react too poorly or too little to urgent social problems, when the system is exclusive and promotes exclusion, a crisis in good democratic governance is created and society looks for and uses other means to challenge and change the situation.

Political violence and all forms of social violence are the means used during such crises, while a part of society recurs to other forms of questioning. The rending or decomposition of the social fabric, and the proliferation of both individual and organized crime are also expressions of the absence of democratic governance. Every now and then, complicated but predictable political crises erupt in one of our countries, revealing the fragility of the existing institutionality.

Our societies are ripe for democracy

These problems are nothing new. They are old problems to which insufficient or bad solutions have been applied. They are old problems in a continent whose society matured extraordinarily in the last decades of the recently ended century, increasing its demands, its expectations and its organization. Community, peasant and indigenous organizations have multiplied in number, force and representativeness. The women’s movement, ecological groups and nongovernmental organizations now have a growing role in Latin American society. Not only do they demand actions from the state, they generate alternative solutions in the struggles for democracy and against poverty. Meanwhile, the media have become highly important vehicles for expressing public opinion and are intervening decisively in the Latin American political and social panorama.

Our society demands a better life in all areas. Never before in our history has it been so prepared and willing to intervene in public affairs in a direct and systematic way. It is not satisfied with the intermediation of stagnant political parties, whose ways of operating favor the political leaders rather than the voters.

Our society demands the construction of a model of democracy that does not simply imply returning to the "democracy" that preceded the dictatorships. It is demanding one that establishes a political system that takes into account the current reality of this new millennium rather than that of the end of 19th century, which led to exclusive political systems designed for an ethnically and culturally homogenous society that never really existed in the continent. How can we talk of democracy in Guatemala if its indigenous people continue to be treated as second-class citizens and hardly vote during elections?
We are societies that will not make do with periodical elections, that want, promote and are struggling for a model of integral democracy, a rule of law and conditions of life and justice that correspond to our nations’ real features.

The state that we want

I am a politician. As the president of a political party in my country I try to listen to the message the people are sending us. We Latin Americans want profound changes that clear the way to the future. Today’s Latin American society wants a state that is concerned about economic growth but goes about creating development in an integral way, so it is not just a catalyst and an agent of private economic action, but also an instrument for the elimination of social exclusion and inequality. We want a state with a real balance between the branches of political power that guarantees good governance, justice, transparent public administration and the end of impunity. We want a state that considers civic participation to be more than just a utilitarian statement in government programs, that turns it into an instrument, a permanent mechanism, an option through which society can directly decide about issues that affect its everyday life. We want a state in which the armed forces and police are dedicated to safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and upholding the security of all of its citizens. They should be institutions that uphold democracy and human rights and stop being untouchable factors of political power that have been made into arbitrators of society.

Latin American society reached the 21st century knocking firmly on the doors of a new political, economic and social model and pushing them to open to us. Our society wants to be part of the best of globalization. It does not want to be left behind in technological affairs. It wants to be connected to the rest of the world, but to achieve all of this it must urgently reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest.

Nordic cooperation with Nicaragua

So what do Finland and the Finnish people have to do with all of this? I want to speak from my own experience. The Nordic countries have uninterruptedly accompanied Nicaragua for almost all of the last twenty years, and I have no hesitation in saying that they have been concerned for the future of our people, families and communities. They have had faith that the changes, even the most drastic ones, could help us improve our profile as a society. They have aimed to help improve people’s basic conditions rather than exclusively concentrating on improving the health of the economic system. From any point of view, they have offered extraordinary and useful backing.
I understand that in Nicaragua’s current situation, cooperation is wondering about how long it can go on playing its current role. It has seen the development of a complex political process in my country and a substantial worsening of people’s economic situation. At this moment, it is natural for it to doubt the efficiency and effectiveness of its presence, the type and form of its cooperation, its real impact, its presence over such a long time and the responsibility governments have in continuing the programs and projects. The minimum and legitimate aspiration of any cooperation is to start long-term processes and not just satisfy immediate needs.

All of these doubts and questions are completely valid in Nicaragua. It is an exceptional occurrence in our political history that, in the 1990s, three governments have succeeded one another that have had political and ideological orientations that were not only different but also contradictory, in the context of a polarized situation. This novelty has translated into the impossibility of defining state policies, successive changes of emphasis and governmental priorities, instability and fragility of government institutions, limited continuity of policies and actions and deficient use of both public resources and those provided by cooperation.

The pact

In recent years certain tendencies have re-emerged that negatively affect Nicaragua’s institutional development, including authoritarianism, the centralization of power and generalized corruption in public institutions. These forces have revealed the weakness of the institutional system and the rule of law and thus the condition of governance. Rather than being oriented toward greater coordination with society, the changes in the country’s institutionality and rule of law have been manifested through the consummation of a two-way pact between the government and the main opposition party aimed at changing the basis of Nicaragua’s political system.

The scope of this agreement is now being forcefully expressed in society through the concentration of political power and restrictions on political pluralism and on the electoral participation of different forces. It is also being expressed in the party-based bias of the bodies responsible for administering justice, the institution charged with overseeing the administration of public resources and even the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson. The changes hammered out in the pact have reintroduced mechanisms of exclusion and obstacles to the population’s social and political participation.

Given this context, what role should cooperation play? We understand that it is up to us Nicaraguans to resolve our own problems, but we appreciate cooperation’s positive influence. I can confirm that the presence of Finnish cooperation and that of the rest of the Nordic countries has served to balance other voices that have limited themselves to asking the country to adjust the national accounts. This balance has helped develop a positive agenda for strengthening civil society and its capacity to act, promote human rights and construct democracy.


In these times of globalization, in which our countries are weak and will not necessarily come out ahead against big corporations that no longer compete but merge, we cannot limit ourselves to economic affairs. We cannot limit ourselves to economic matters in a world that puts forward the free market rather than the fair market as the great solution. We cannot limit ourselves to economic matters in a world in which our greatest advantage appears to be having cheaper labor, less rigid labor norms and laws and fewer workers’ rights than the developed countries, and in which our governments are willing to accept rules laid down by large businesses that their own countries no longer accept.

In these times of globalization, we recognize that Nordic cooperation’s concern with promoting democracy goes to the very heart our affairs. This is not because democracy in itself is the answer to our economic and social problems, but because I am absolutely convinced that increasingly opening the political systems up to society’s democratic participation is the right way of permanently placing ourselves on the right path. It is a question of helping ensure that the social dynamic influences our country’s destiny rather than just accepting the conditions the financial organizations and the big corporations use to exert pressure on our national agendas.

We must recognize that the role the Nordic countries are playing in Nicaragua to ensure that the debate between international cooperation and the international financial organizations is not just limited to structural adjustment and macroeconomic figures. It is extended to cover the poverty of our people and matters of democratic governance to provide guarantees for the Nicaraguan people and for the success of the cooperation itself.

Canceling the debt

We have asked international cooperation to back Nicaragua’s request for entry into the initiative for Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). Reducing the burden of our foreign debt is essential to the country’s economic recovery. But we will achieve precious little if the resources freed up from paying off the debt’s principal and interest are used to consolidate the concentration of capital or increase unnecessary public spending instead of turning them into a motor force in the fight against poverty. Along with cancellation of the debt, social demands about the destination of those resources should also be heard. Less debt should imply available financing for rural and urban small and medium producers, job creation, reforestation, appropriate management of water sources and the reactivation and expansion of deteriorated basic social services.

The real guarantee for the use of public resources originating from national taxes or international cooperation funds is society’s capacity to control them, obliging the governments to administer them transparently. And that is only possible with increased democracy.

Democracy: A long-term condition

Democracy is a long-term condition that guarantees the continued introduction of the changes that Nicaraguan and Latin American society require for their coexistence and for the construction of an economy oriented toward the welfare of their peoples and communities.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, development implies a change of approach and will only be guaranteed if society has avenues in which to circulate, channels that facilitate civil society’s decisive participation in the decisions of public life. If we take this road, accompanied by international cooperation, we Latin Americans will be able to face the first century of this third millennium with hope.

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