How Political Challenges in Latin America Affect Poverty

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SEATTLE — Latin America has had a long history of political challenges causing poverty. It is often the case that throughout history, countries do not address the problems early on and the cycle of poverty continues into the present. There are many simple factors that have major influences. These can include a lack of basic services such as water, weak local institutions, being born into poverty and many more.

The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Maxwell A. Cameron about the political challenges in Latin America. Cameron is a political science professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in comparative politics in Latin America, constitutionalism, democracy and political economy. He is an author and editor of dozens of books, including Democracy and Authoritarianism in Peru, and is currently part of a research excellence cluster on global challenges to democracy.

The Borgen Project: What are the biggest political challenges in Latin America in terms of poverty?

Maxwell A. Cameron: I think the main challenge in Latin America is social and political inclusion. Due to the region’s colonial past and the exclusionary effects of successive models of development, there’s a legacy of social exclusion. This means that there are many people who lack the basic skills and knowledge necessary to be productive economic agents, to be employed and find high-paying jobs in the labor market that would allow them to live lives of dignity to support their families. This would also mean that they don’t have the capability to be effective citizens and have a voice in decisions that affect their lives directly.

The exclusion that we observe in the region is due to things like huge shanty towns, where people settle on land that they don’t have title to, a lack of access to basic public goods like running water or social infrastructures like schools, hospitals, good pensions and so forth. Another indicator of exclusion is informality. The majority of people in many countries don’t have access to a labor contract, so they are in the informal economy and they don’t have unions to bargain with. Not to mention they don’t have access to unemployment insurance or pension. They operate in workplaces that aren’t regulated, so problems of health and safety arise.

On the political side, there’s a lack of good representation, a connection between parties and voters and an inability of the population to channel their demands in the political process, while at the same time there are powerful economic groups that have access to lobbying. 

TBP: How does violence play into political challenges in Latin America?

MAC: Violence is incredibly important because it has a variety of negative effects. In fact, it contributes to social exclusion. Violence directly undermines people’s ability to live fully human lives, to be fully citizens, to be able to work and play in a safe and secure environment. The trauma of violence makes people fearful and unable to be comfortable in public spaces, and it inhibits their engagement in politics as well. People become very focused on the lives of themselves, their families and immediate circles when afraid.

However, it also postpones needed changes or reforms. It’s also a result of repression by powerful economic or social groups that feel threatened by the way in which inclusion could undermine their power or their privileges. Violence is used in response to pressures for change, but then the changes don’t happen or are postponed. So what you get over time is a pattern of delay to social demands. For example, if governments don’t invest in public education, infrastructure or communications, then you can’t achieve development.

Therefore, you get into a vicious circle where oppression is used to install changes. If you look at a country like Colombia, violence that started in the 19th century is reproduced throughout the country’s entire 20th century and into the present.

If you look at the countries where there’s the most violence, Peru, Guatemala, etc., that’s where there’s the lowest human development. The ones with higher development are countries that have undertaken important policy measures that have enabled larger shares of the population to be educated. You have patterns of economic development in those countries that are more sustainable.

TBP: In your opinion, are the political leaders doing enough to address poverty in Latin America?

MAC: No, because part of the problem of poverty is the governance issue. You need strong public institutions in order to create the conditions for a well-regulated market. You can have badly governed places that have random points of prosperity due to things like the discovery of natural resources. However, to sustain economic development that leads to prosperity and a modern economy requires major public investments. The big reason why you don’t have those public investments is that countries get on a pathway where fundamental and social investments are not undertaken and you get pressures for change that are threatening and you get repression, which inhibits development.

Part of the problem is that elites are not prepared to surrender their taxes. Elites don’t have to pay taxes, because they don’t think they get anything in return for it. Therefore, with fewer taxes there is more of a game to pay your taxes. This is a collective action problem. Countries that tax those who hold wealth have better development. 

TBP: What do you think are some solutions that citizens can take to reduce poverty and crime in Latin America?

MAC: What we really need in the region is to promote full citizenship and agency. Think of development as a process where people are empowered to live the kind of lives they wish to live, be the kinds of people they wish to be and do the kinds of things they wish to do. We also should not assume the core of economic development is growth. There’s just no solid evidence for this. However, there’s a connection between growth, development and democracy, but these connections are complex. Also, the view that if we have growth, everything else will fall into place is too simplistic. We should pay attention to growth, but I believe we need to acknowledge the critical role that is played by governments in supplying the types of public goods that enable everyone to share in prosperity.

If I were making recommendations to a Latin American government on reducing poverty and promoting development, I would say you could almost not lose by investing in education. So skills aren’t individual qualities, but a social benefit. If you have a skilled society, everyone benefits from it. A place where doctors, lawyers and firefighters are all trained, there’s a series of social benefits for this. Don’t give people skills just so they can sell their labor for themselves, but have it benefit the society. So big investment in education is critical.

Secondly, big investment in health. You need to maintain a basic standard of health like sanitation, garbage disposal, clinics, preventive medicine, hospitals, training nurses and doctors and so forth.

Third is security, which we have discussed previously. If you constantly feel threatened, you’re going to carry around anxiety and trauma. This will have a set of effects on your health and being a participant in society. It’s also going to inhibit you from contributing to things that affect your life. So education, health and security, which are all public challenges, are very important.


With all this in mind, 2018 has already been an eventful one for Latin America. There are NAFTA renegotiations going on, trade talks between South America and the EU and presidential elections in several countries. Although there are still many political challenges in Latin America to face, there is hope that these changes will get the governments and people of Latin America working towards a brighter future.

– Negin Nia
Photo: Flickr

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