Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

What role for Latin America in the world: Policy shaper or policy consumer?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Chris Bryant - Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office


Michael Reid - Americas Editor, The Economist


Alison Evans - Director, ODI 

Chris Bryant - Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Chris Bryant talked about his experience in Latin America when he studied liberation theology in Lima and Buenos Aires in the 1980s and how it led him into politics. The scars of Latin American dictatorships were still open and he quickly became aware of the region’s recent history. He made a brief visit to Chile where Pinochet was still in power and attended the funeral of a young Chilean who killed by the Chilean military. Tear gas was thrown at the funeral by the police and on these canisters was written “Made in the UK”. This led him to join the Labour Party.

Chris Bryant discussed economic growth in Latin America, he noted that 1 in 3 on the continent are still in poverty and 1 in 8 are in extreme poverty. For these people the ‘golden years’ of economic growth has passed them by. But, for many poor, growth has brought some important beneficial changes.

During decades, Latin America was falling into a spiral of violence. Since this there have been important reforms in justice and police. The UK supports this both directly and through  multilateral agencies with both know-how and funds.

He made clear that Europe is not so far ahead of Latin America. It’s difficult past of dictatorships, political prisoners and the death penalty is not that long ago. One of Europe’s great gains is the development of the European Union that will stop the re-emergence of such things.

The EU and Latin America has several common challenges:

  1. Tackling the global economic downturn. The G20, will require a continuously active role of Latin America. He noted that free trade must also be fair trade.
  2. Collaboration to ensure global security against terrorism and drug cartels.
  3. Global climate change, which can amplify threats to the poorest and most vulnerable. Latin American countries’ role in the Copenhagen climate change talks will be very important.

Chris Bryant suggested that dealing with these issues will bring both regions together. He said we need greater cooperation in the united nations and other multilateral bodies. He made several further suggestions:

  1. British business should take a greater interest in Latin American markets and opportunities.
  2. There should be greater Latin American and UK cooperation within multilateral institutions.
  3. Latin America must ‘step up to the mark’ at the Copenhagen Climate change conference later this year.
  4. Personal security and political stability should be regarded as complimentary to, and inseparable from, political freedom.

Michael Reid - Americas Editor, The Economist

Michael Reid described his time living in Lima during the 1980’s. He suggested Latin America had made huge progress since then, moving away from the Latin America of Galeano.

He described the region as one of great heterogeneity. The degree of leverage by outsiders varies considerably when one talks about each country. There have been vast changes in power relations. There has been a relative decline of the US influence and a stagnation of EU influence whilst China and India have seen a growing economic influence on the region.

In addressing the question of whether Latin America is a policy shaper or policy consumer Michael Reid described how Brazil and Mexico now have considerable global influence and their own policy influence.

On the area of democracy he said Latin America has been a policy shaper for the developing world. Despite some events and set backs democracy is going relatively well, although it has been a rather slow process, there has been a general trend towards more inclusive politics.

He discussed the current political turmoil in Honduras and whether this is the shape of things to come. He suggested that it is not because there were particular circumstances in Honduras, like a president who switched sides and joined the Chavez’ president for life approach. There is a clear fear of Chavez in the region. Can Latin America negotiate this process and re-establish democracy in an orderly manner? The broader challenge in LA is to improve the quality of democracy.

  • On social and environmental issues, Michael Reid said Latin America is both a shaper and a consumer: he discussed cash-transfers, transport policies.
  • On education, Latin America needs to be a policy consumer and Britain has a role to encourage best practices.
  • On environmental policy Latin America has a key role to play. Brazil’s policy towards Copenhagen is still in play and an early dialogue with them is important.
  • On land rights, Latin America is a policy consumer.
  • On the economy, Latin America should be seen as a policy shaper. The half decade of growth is over but the global financial crisis did not come from inside of Latin America. A minor recovery is expected in the second half of the year (with the exceptions of Mexico and Central America). The reason why the recession came late to Latin America is partly because the region had learned from the previous economic crisis and regulated their markets and implemented stable monetary and fiscal policy: post Washington Consensus.

Comments and questions from the audience:

The general global issues outlined by Chris Bryant seem a bit vague. Are there more concrete examples on how the region is actually relevant for the UK. Is there an imminent threat or a golden opportunity?

What Chris Bryant said about human rights not being just an ‘add on’ and that Latin America could be a policy shaper on the issue was welcomed. But the EU is the driver of Human rights in Europe, and its influence is waning in Latin America. Given that, where will the UK’s leverage come from on this issue?

The participant welcomed the central role given to human rights in Chris Bryant’s speech and asked what governments can do to help a more structural development of human rights policies? He also asked the panel to comment on Brazil's stance on human rights and its relation to their positioning in the UN.

Peru and Honduras remind us of how fragile the democracies could be and it is a little early to be getting complacent. There is fear that some of the ‘anti-democratic’ actions of governments might spread.

In the 1990s Columbia was almost a failed state yet after many years it is now in a better situation. If this is true, why do you consider that the suspension of aid to Colombia is a good decision?

What do you believe is Latin America’s biggest resource to continue to develop the region?

The participant questioned the suggestion that Latin America’s role as a policy shaper on the economy when its policies have increased poverty and inequality. This inequality is reflected in the lack of consultation of the negotiations with the EU Free Trade Agreements. On these issues Latin America is consuming policies.

What is the role of Brazil within the Region and how has this changed in relation to its own relationship with the other BRICS (Russia, India and China). If the region has to be a policy shaper, Brazil needs to do much of it.

Chris Bryant:

Britain has an historical relationship with Latin America and climate change is a matter of importance today where there is an enormous potential threat that needs to be addressed and we need Latin America to address it. British businesses need to be far more imaginative in their relationship with Latin America, we cannot just leave it to the Spanish.

It was a brave decision for the UK to focus its’ aid on the poorest countries and this has had an implication in Latin America. But the voluntary sector continues to play an important role in the region harnessing the imagination of the voluntary sector is important.

Human rights and democracy: Part of democracy is about writing our own future. The UK cannot tell Latin America how to run its system. But we do have certain values and principles (treatment of individuals and death penalty, for example) and we raise these issues bilaterally and multilaterally. Prisons are a key issue that need to be addressed. But we need to recognise that people need to create their own democracies.

British businesses: It should not just be about British benefits but so much heavy investment relies on large flows of capital. One of the big challenges is the creation of strong education systems (universities among the top in the world for research). This will enable Latin America to lead in global business.

Threats to democracy: how do you deal with the Putin problem of someone wanting to stay in power after the constitution says you should go? How do you make democracy resilient? Chile had a strong democracy for the vast majority of the 20th century and then it had a great problem. Democracy must deliver security and personal freedom to work.

Honduras did come as a shock. The Organization of American States has played an important role because British condemnation of the coup will not change things. Many of the solutions will be in the hands of Latin Americans, Britain has to find the right way to contribute.

Michael Reid:

Brazil has its own agenda, the current government believes in democracy but not in talking about it. A change in Presidency may change things.

On Colombia, the decision was justified because there was a shocking revelation that the Colombian military had been breaching human rights. Since the British government had been training the military on human rights, it had to make this decision. Michael Reid acknowledged however that there are arguments for the British government to review this policy.

On bilateral trade agreements the region has not been able to be a policy shaper. The  longer the recession goes on the longer the region will be a policy consumer as decisions will be taken elsewhere in the US or China. And the region will have to look for outside sources of finance.

Discussing threats to democracy Michael Reid cited organised crime and over-mighty presidents and the temptation of presidents to suppress the autonomy of other institutions as the main concerns. He suggested the economic cycle will decrease many leaders popularity and unsteady their political position.


Over the last year Latin America and Europe have crossed paths on a number of significant regional and international issues respectively. The financial crisis spread its toxic tentacles across the globe and Foreign Direct Investment, Official Development Assistance, remittances and trade from Europe to Latin America have slowed down. Negotiations on Association Agreements between the EU and Latin American blocks and bilaterally negotiated free trade agreements have stalled and in some cases broken down.

Some issues to be considered include:

  • How can the EU-LA partnership be more flexible in reacting to and accommodating for greater turmoil in the international system;

  • The need to pay attention to the role of the US, and now China, in the region.

  • How to focus the debate on Latin America on a number of issues of mutual interest and what role can the UK play?

This meeting was a chance for Chris Bryant, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to draw from his personal experience in Latin America and apply it to how the region, the UK and Europe should work together to tackle common global challenges. Michael Reid, the Americas Editor at the Economist magazine acted as discussant.