Santiago Summit: Can Latin America Now Lecture Europe About Economics?

Latin America brings historic confidence to its economic summit with the battered EU in Chile this weekend, but its own precarious problems lie just beneath the surface.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Eliseo Fernandez / Reuters

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (R) and Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wave to the media at the La Moneda Presidential Palace in Santiago, Jan. 25, 2013.

If there were words for schadenfreude in Spanish and Portuguese, you might hear them uttered on the streets of Santiago this weekend. On Jan. 26 and 27, the Chilean capital will play host to a Latin American-European economic summit—and the developing region might be excused for feeling a little smug in the company of First World guests who not long ago looked down their noses when they looked across the Atlantic.

Many of Latin America’s economies are sound if not booming today compared to the cash-strapped nightmare gripping European Union (EU) members like Spain and Portugal. Having weathered the global crisis—thanks to burgeoning commodities exports but also to firmer fiscal discipline—Latin America is projected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to grow 4% in 2013 while the Eurozone is expected to remain in recession. The Eurozone’s aggregate budget deficit is 4% of gross domestic product; in Latin America, a region once known for budget bedlam and debt disaster, the average is closer to 2.5%. The Eurozone’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 90%; Latin America’s is under 40%. “This represents quite a big leap forward for the region,” says Michael Henderson, Latin America economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London.

Europe, as a result, may have something to learn from Latin America at the Santiago summit, which will be attended by leaders from the 33 nations of the relatively new Community of Latin America & the Caribbean (CELAC), headed by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, and the EU’s 27 member nations, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Among the chief lessons for the EU: it needs to get back to the responsible financial basics it once lectured developing regions to follow. (Which is why many observers say it’s a shame the U.S. won’t be present too.) Perhaps to emphasize that point, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde last month called out Chile as one of the world’s “most stable and prosperous nations,” a South American country which, like Brazil, is on the cusp of developed status.

Still, if Europe’s failings will be hard to ignore in Santiago, Latin America’s vulnerabilities are noticeable too. For starters, as Legarde also noted, the region needs to acknowledge that its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. Commodities, from oil to soybeans to metals, have jet-fueled the continent’s impressive growth over the past decade. But its overreliance on no-tech raw materials exports—the IMF calls South America the world’s “most commodity-dependent sub-region”—and its failure to modernize and diversify its economies during these boom times, to improve its starkly inadequate education, infrastructure and productivity, are already proving a drag. Just ask Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil, which after years of robust expansion suddenly saw just 1% GDP growth last year, and where President Dilma Rousseff is appropriately scrambling to produce more engineering graduates.

What’s more, financial sobriety isn’t quite unanimous yet. “For every Chile,” Henderson points out, “there’s a country like Venezuela,” where mismanagement of the oil-drenched economy has led to one of the world’s highest inflation rates, “or Argentina,” where profligate populism is rearing its head again. Regionwide, while poverty and inequality have improved so far in the 21st century, 20th-century plagues like corruption and monopolies continue to stifle economic opportunity—a large part of the reason even Chile has seen civil unrest lately.

And it’s doubtful that CELAC holds the solution to those problems. At a pre-summit meeting last month, CELAC finance ministers declared that the organization expects to do nothing less than “build consensus on the principal financial and fiscal matters that will let us expand growth and development.” But while the EU may have been effective at integrating Europe’s myriad economies, there’s little to indicate that CELAC—which includes communist Cuba but just as pointedly excludes the U.S. and Canada—will be much more than a symbolic expression of the two-century-old Bolivarian dream of unifying a politically, culturally and economically balkanized Latin America.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., notes that at the close of the Santiago summit, Chile will hand the rotating CELAC presidency to Cuba—whose governmental ethos, as well as its economic shambles, couldn’t be a starker or more conflicting contrast. “It illustrates the profound divisions within CELAC’s membership and the very different ideas about how to run an economy,” says Shifter. “That’s the paradox of these regional organizations in Latin America, and it makes it hard to see how CELAC can be effective at pushing coordinated reforms.”

That said, however, the current EU mess—and Britain’s recent noises about extracting itself from that common market—hardly make it a model for developing regions to emulate. “It’s interesting that various blocs within [Latin America] have looked to the EU as an example of economic integration,” says Risa Grais-Targow, a Latin America associate at the Eurasia Group. “I think the European experience can help provide a useful model of what to do and what not to do in terms of providing a stronger social safety net.”

Which means schadenfreude may not be the best attitude for Latin America to bring to Santiago. While thriving Latin American economies like Chile, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Mexico can certainly bask in cross-Atlantic turnabout this weekend, they need the EU—Latin America’s second-largest trading partner and its No. 1 foreign investor—to rebound. Europe’s troubles may elicit some self-satisfaction in Latin America—but if they last much longer, they could help bust Latin America’s vulnerable boom.