Culture Matters

Oscar Arias
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Council on Foreign Relations
Latin Americans must look in the mirror and confront the reality that many of our problems lie not in our stars but in ourselves. Only then will the region finally attain the development it has so long sought.
Political Geography
United States, Latin America
Nearly two centuries after the countries of Latin America gained their independence from Spain and Portugal, not one of them is truly developed. Where have they gone wrong? Why have countries in other regions, once far behind, managed to achieve relatively quickly results that Latin American countries have aspired to for so long? Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region's riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself. The truth is that so much time has passed since independence that Latin Americans have lost the right to use others as the excuse for their own failures. Various outside powers have indeed affected the region's fate. But that is true for every region of the world. The countries of Latin America are not the only ones to have faced an uphill battle in history. Latin American nations began this race with conditions equal to, or even better than, those prevailing elsewhere. They -- we -- are the ones who fell behind. When Harvard University opened its doors in 1636, there were already well-established universities in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. In 1820, the GDP of Latin America as a whole was 12.5 percent greater than that of the United States. Today, with a population of about 560 million -- some 250 million more than the United States -- the region has a GDP that is only 29 percent of its northern neighbor's. Latin America won its independence 150 years before countries such as South Korea and Singapore did; today, despite their past as exploited colonies and their lack of significant natural resources, those countries' per capita income is several times greater.