Fuentes: Education will move Latin America ahead

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Prolific Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called for a “new New Deal” for Latin American political and social reform in a speech to a half-full Salomon 101 last night. The speech kicked off a week-long conference on the bicentennial of Latin American independence movements during the University’s “Year of Focus on Latin America.”

Fuentes, a professor-at-large in the Hispanic Studies department, spoke at the conference organized by the department and the Brown University Transatlantic Project, an “academic initiative on cultural interactions between Europe, Latin America and the United States,” according to the project’s Web site.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Independences: Historical Reinscriptions, Atlantic Theory and Criticism, 21st Century Voices.”

As he presented theories surrounding the different stages of Latin American history, Fuentes drew upon the ideas of writers from French author Victor Hugo to contemporary Latin American historians. But as he moved into a discussion of Latin America’s present and future, he laid out his own ideas for substantive reforms.

Though poverty rates in Latin America have been falling in recent years, Fuentes said, tax systems remain “primitive” compared to Europe and education is inadequate, especially in science and technology.

Today, in the face of a possible economic recession, “we need a new New Deal,” he said, a “system of governance from the bottom up. There is no … way to meet global demands from the top down.”

Fuentes emphasized the importance of education, specifically a public education system that would offer equal opportunities to all. “The basis of inequality is exclusion from education,” Fuentes said.

He also talked about strengthening infrastructure, using microloans to reach out to poor women and modernizing Latin America in a way that emphasizes information and technology. Fuentes called for the elimination of “bureaucratic fat” from governments, offering citizens “not more or less government but better government.”

As the conference commemorates the bicentennial of Latin American emancipation, Fuentes traced the historic arc of the independence movements in the region.The revolutions, in which Spanish American nations broke off from Spain, were “long and violent,” and saw the destruction of infrastructure and agriculture in many of the countries.

“Was independence worthwhile?” Fuentes asked, in light of the sacrifices made for sovereignty from colonial power. “Could Spanish America have developed within a Hispanic commonwealth of nations? … How much did the loss of the colonies affect the crown and the loss of the crown affect the colonies?”

For states to form in Latin America in the post-colonial era, “we had to undergo the pain and loss of dismemberment.” For example, he said, Mexico lost a tremendous amount of territory to the United States, in what Americans call the Mexican-American War.

But even among the difficulties of early state-building, Fuentes said, a high value was placed on the rights of the individual. The “repeated failures” to create successful governments “paradoxically strengthened individual freedoms,” which Fuentes called a “pragmatic liberal tradition.”

Fuentes then compared the authoritarian, socialist and democratic regimes that dominated the political landscape of 20th century Latin America. Authoritarian regimes “often presented themselves as anti-communist to get Washington’s blessing,” Fuentes said, adding, “We can argue until the cows come home whether (Fidel Castro) was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union by (the United States government’s) hostility” or whether he would have taken that position anyway.

Fuentes commended President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, which renounced military intervention in the region and left Latin American nations to work out a solution leading to freedom and cooperation. In contrast, the “bloody and murderous” regime of Pinochet in Chile was the result of Nixon “dismiss(ing) the Chilean people’s capacity to correct mistakes.”

“Such were the bitter fruits of Cold War politics in Latin America,” Fuentes said.

A few students, but mostly visitors attending the conference, asked questions in English and Spanish after the lecture. Agustin Patino, an artist, presented his painting to Fuentes called “Carlos Fuentes without Time.”

Beatriz Pastor, a professor of comparative literature at Dartmouth who introduced Fuentes, said, “There are people in this world who don’t require an introduction and Carlos Fuentes is one of them.”

Pastor cited Fuentes’s accomplishments and ubiquity as an author, political writer, academic and media presence, saying he is “truly unique in the cultural and political landscape of our times.”

Other notable speakers in the Transatlantic conference include Eduardo Lago, a Spanish novelist, and award-winning Polish-Mexican author and journalist Elena Poniatowska. The conference will continue through April 12 with discussions, forums and lectures by academics and writers on such topics as “The Catalan Literature Scene,” “Film and Literature” and “Allegories of the Nation.” Saturday will be devoted entirely to 21st century literature, and will feature a speech by the contemporary Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin.

Professor of Hispanic Studies Julio Ortega, one of the conference’s organizers and director of the Transatlantic Project, said the main focus of the conference was the process of emancipation of Latin America. “From this experience we explore the notion of emancipation and independence (through) cultural history, literature (and) political thinking,” Ortega said.

Fuentes’ lecture was a “great synthesis of cultural memory of Latin America,” Ortega added.