26 October 2010 ~ 16 Comentarios

Look toward the future, not the past

THE MIAMI HERALD
Posted on Tue, Oct. 26, 2010

BY CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER
www.firmaspress.com

Andres Oppenheimer has done it again. Some years ago, he published Saving the Americas, and the book became a best-seller almost instantly throughout the region. His description of China’s booming economy — which in 1985 was the size of Brazil’s and now is the world’s second-largest, surpassed only by the United States — was (or should have been) a kind of wake-up call for Latin America’s conscience.

Now Oppenheimer has returned with an even more important work: Basta de Historias! (Enough of History!): Latin American Obsession With the Past and the 12 Keys to the Future. It was released by Debate Publishers in Mexico and most probably will become an essential component of the oldest and most vivid of all our conundrums: why Latin America is poor and underdeveloped. Ever since Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó published Ariel in 1900, we have been exploring the topic without finding a universally satisfactory answer.

The discussion has been joined by absolutely all the relevant Latin American figures, from Octavio Paz to Hugo Chávez, from Carlos Rangel to Juan Domingo Perón. Some armed themselves with words, others with guns, but all were convinced that they knew the deep-rooted reasons why the inhabitants of Switzerland, a multiethnic country without access to the sea and thinly populated, like Bolivia, have a per-capita income 15 times greater than the people in that Latin American country.

Oppenheimer’s theory has, like the god Janus, two faces. In one direction, it sees the cultural roots, generators of an impractical attitude to life. It is a society rich in lawyers and humanists that graduates a lot more psychologists than engineers or specialists in computer science. In that sense, paradoxically, the book is in the tradition of Ariel, but while Rodó endorsed the spiritual component of Latin American man, contrasting it with the contemptible materialism of the Anglo-Saxon Caliban (archetypes that Rodó extracted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Oppenheimer finds that feature, so predominant in Spanish America, lamentable.

Is there a remedy for Latin America’s relative backwardness? Yes, Oppenheimer postulates, but only if a profound and lasting educational reform takes place. That’s the other warhorse that runs through his book, chapter after chapter. Instead of continuing to discuss the evils of colonialism or the old and continuing errors of the republic, we need to carefully observe how the Finns, owners of the world’s best educational system, teach and learn; what the Israelis have done amid the desert to build a prosperous, free and highly developed society; what are the secrets of little Singapore, a geological excrescence in the Pacific overrun with people, whose per-capita wealth exceeds that of the United States.

Because Oppenheimer has a practical mind, he takes seriously only the results. He does not waste time examining theories. He knows that in a globalized world ruled by competition, in the full civilization of knowledge, the winners will be the wisest, most productive and organized people, the most innovative and creative, so long as they have adequate institutions. Lamentably, those people are few in our lands.

In all international school tests where students match their knowledge of mathematics, Latin Americans invariably end up last, almost always next to the Africans. How are we going to adequately compete against the Europeans, Americans, Chinese or Indians if our masses are notably less educated and our upper classes fail to understand the importance of science, technology and original research?

Is there a Latin American country that will separate from the pack and show some elements of educational excellence? According to objective data, no. Not even Chile, which today is at the head of the continent. None. Not a single Latin American university appears among the 200 best schools on the planet, and barely three or four rank among the top 500.

Israel, a small state, annually copyrights more scientific patents than all of Latin America, with its 550 million inhabitants. It is true that the Brazilians manufacture airplanes, but that achievement does not make it a driving First World power.

Where do we begin to repair this secular failure? A banker friend of mine, an incorrigible enthusiast, has bought 20 copies of Enough of History! to send to Latin American presidents. I hope they read the book. Above all, I hope they understand it.

(C)2010 Firmas Press

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