South America: sobering reality, singular people |

South America: sobering reality, singular people

Morgan Smith
Tia Julia. Whiele photographing street musicians in Miraflores Park in Lima, this woman approached me and asked me to vote for her. She is one of some 3,000 candidates running for 100 Congressional seats. (Morgan Smith)

In February, I had the opportunity to visit Ecuador and Peru with a group of business people from around the United States. Our goal was to meet with U.S. government officials from the embassies in Quito and Lima, as well as Ecuadorean and Peruvian business people, academics, government and military officials.

It was a sobering experience. Our relations with Latin America generally are at their lowest ebb in years.First there’s the Iraq war. Not only does most of Latin America oppose it, but it has drawn almost all of our attention and resources away from Latin American issues. Second, American-style democracy and economics has failed ,for the most part, to lift Latin Americans out of poverty. Third, the high price of oil has enabled an anti-American like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to promote anti-Americanism throughout the continent. Our sole focus seems to be the drug war rather than attempting to alleviate the terrible poverty in these countries.Ecuador is a tiny country – about the size of Colorado – squeezed in between giants like Colombia to the north and Peru to the south. It is run by a small group of rich families who make sure the government is nonfunctional and that the courts rule as they direct. This makes Ecuador a nightmare for foreign investors. There have been something like 11 governments since 1992, and seven presidents in the last nine years. And no one predicts that a new government will be much improvement. The United States has proposed a Free Trade Agreement with Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. Ecuador will almost certainly reject it; there have been recent riots and demonstrations in opposition. Sadly, this could be disastrous for Ecuador’s cut-flower industry, which has grown rapidly because of the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Interdiction Act. Those trade preferences expire this year. If they aren’t supplanted by a Free Trade Agreement, the Ecuadorean flower industry will be taken over by Colombia, costing perhaps 300,000 jobs in Ecuador.

The much larger Peru (three times the size of Texas) is doing well economically, even though its current president, Alejandro Toledo, has popularity ratings even lower than President Bush’s. Exports have soared, and the poverty rate has been reduced. This is due, I believe, to the leadership of the extremely capable prime minister (minister of the cabinet), Pedro Kuczynski, who hosted a lunch for us.The elections here are very critical. Although there were originally about 22 candidates, the two finalists were the nationalist and former military officer, Ollanta Humala, and Alan Garcia, who was a disastrous president from 1985 to 1990. Lourdes Flores, the impressive female candidate, failed – unfortunately – to make the runoff. The key player, however, was Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He was so aggressive in supporting Humala that he caused a backlash and allowed Garcia to win. Let’s hope that Garcia does a better job this time than during his previous presidency.Even though this was a somewhat gloomy and unsettled visit, the chance to meet with individual citizens of Ecuador and Peru – politicians, soldiers, people on the street – was special. Here are a few photographs with descriptions.

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