To understand what is happening politically across Latin America, one needs only to look at the history of the United States. Despite its status as the oldest democracy in the world, the United States took centuries to fulfill the principles of equality and freedom embodied in its founding documents. Indeed, the belief that the United States was in fact a formal democracy existed even while suffrage was the sole province of rich white men, and while African Americans were enslaved for a century and subjected to brutal racism and segregation for another century after their emancipation.
We find ourselves faced with a similar paradox in Latin America today. When the Latin American elites — including their corporate-owned media — speak of freedom and equality, they speak only for themselves. Like America’s Founding Fathers who preached equality yet themselves were slave owners, Latin American elites have left out large swaths of the populations, leaving them poor, disaffected and disenfranchised. In many of our nascent democracies, “fundamental” rights are the province of the powerful.
Definitions of freedom and justice vary depending on where one sits, and for the 164 million in Latin America living in poverty — and the 68 million still in extreme poverty — there is neither justice nor freedom not true democracy. For this poverty is not the result of lack of resources, but of inequality bred from a perverse power structure where historically a few dominate the many. This structure has enabled the wealthiest 20 percent to get 47 percent of total income in Latin America, while the bottom 20 percent only get 5 percent, according to United Nations statistics.
During our seven years of governing Ecuador, my party has led the movement to end this paradox by breaking the monopoly of the elites and democratizing our political process to truly be by, and for, the people. We have invested our resources smartly and for the majority of our people, especially the poorest. For instance, we have the largest ratio of public investment to GDP in Latin America (about 15 percent), while total public debt is just 23 percent of GDP, thanks to a tripling of tax revenue achieved through efficient and well-enforced tax collection — not tax increases. This massive public investment has resulted in historical transformations in education, health, childcare, roads, ports, airports, telecommunications, power generation, justice system, and security.
The result is that Ecuador today leads Latin America in reducing social and economic inequality, and we are among the top three in poverty reduction. Ecuador is one of the three most dynamic Latin American economies, with an average growth from of 4.2 percent from 2007 to 2013 and the lowest unemployment rate in the region (4.1 percent). According to the 2012 Human Development Report of the United Nations, during the period 2007-2012 — which coincides with our government —Ecuador is one of the three countries in the world with the greatest upward mobility in terms of development.
These achievements are already known as the “Ecuadorian miracle, and the most obvious consequence has been political stability. Since 2006, our party has won ten consecutive elections, and we have the highest approval ratings in the continent, with about 80 percent. Formal democracy has been achieved, but more importantly so too has “real” democracy — the one that provides access to rights, equal opportunities, and decent living conditions.
When it comes to human rights, Ecuador is one of seven of the 34 countries on the continent that has subscribed to absolutely all of the inter-American human rights conventions. As with all genuine rule of law, we pursue crimes, not specific people. But by ending the preferences and advantages historically given to select groups, for the first time everyone is now equal before the law and must be held accountable to the same standards of justice. Not surprisingly, we face fierce opposition from these same groups.
Many US politicians do not like it when leftist governments, which constitute the majority of South America’s governments, achieve such success. The United States is the most powerful country on the planet, and one of the most successful in the history of mankind, but there is no “universal” path to achieving freedom and justice.
I admire America’s extraordinary ability to innovate, the fighting spirit of its citizens and its prestigious universities and educational system. There is plenty of space to collaborate in the areas of science, technology, trade and others within the framework of a bilateral relationship that should be based on mutual respect and recognition of our own interests.
But for those who want to create a monopoly on the definition of sublime concepts such as “freedom,” they should well understand that there can be no freedom without justice. In Latin America, where not just economic but political and legal inequalities plague our continent, seeking justice is the only way to achieve true freedom.
These problems are political, and cannot be solved without addressing our social priorities: the elites or everyone, capital or human beings, the market or society? Today, those of us who try to transform paper democracies in Latin America into true democracies are subversively attacked by those whose status and power is being challenged. These individuals claim their freedom of expression is being denied, when in fact they seek impunity for media to manipulate the truth. They make accusations of disrespect for their human rights, because for once the law applies equally to everybody. And they cry of dictatorship and authoritarianism, because they cannot bring the government to submit to their whims and interests.
As an economist educated in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, I had the opportunity to live four years in this wonderful country. For this reason I know that many Americans consider Abraham Lincoln the best president in history, even if some of his contemporaries derided him as a “tyrant,” “despot,’’ “fanatic,” and “crazy” for his noble fight to abolish slavery.
There is much to learn from Lincoln’s example, namely that must equality and freedom must trump popularity and expediency.
“All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those words were written when the United States was an aspiring democracy. In Ecuador and across Latin America, we also hold these truths to be self-evident, and we must make them a reality not just for certain people or at some future time, but right now and for everybody.
Rafael Correa is the president of Ecuador.