No matter how many walls are built or laws passed, immigrants will continue to leave Latin America as long as there is political and social instability at home, El Salvador President Mauricio Funes said Monday.
Speaking to a group of policymakers and economists at the Americas Conference in suburban Miami, Funes said the map of immigration is similar to the map of poverty, each existing where the other is present.
In order to build a region that is safer, and where fewer feel compelled to leave, access to public services and wages must be guaranteed, Funes said. This, he argued, is what the United States and the international community need to keep in mind when trying to help the region combat problems like organized crime and terrorism.
Funes also said the issue of drug trafficking can’t be solved by Latin America alone, noting that large amounts of consumption and money laundering take place in other countries.
“Those who think drug trafficking only affects our region are mistaken,” Funes said in his keynote luncheon address.
Funes was one of several high profile Latin America leaders to speak at the two-day conference organized by The Miami Herald and the World Bank, which will address topics ranging from the commodities boom to initiatives in Haiti.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela told the conference the United States is pursuing a new approach with Latin America that seeks to advance the interests of the region while recognizing individual countries’ needs. He said there are four priorities of the policy: social and economic opportunity, clean energy, safety and democracy.
“Our common success is what U.S. policy in the Americas is all about,” Valenzuela said.
In 2009, total U.S. merchandise trade with the region reached $524 billion, Valenzuela said. More than 40 percent of Latin America exports flow to the United States – making it the largest export destination in the hemisphere.
He said President Barack Obama is committed to moving forward with Panama and Colombia free trade agreements after discussion with key stakeholders.
In discussing challenges for the region, Valenzuela said Latin America and the Caribbean need to focus on increasing economic competitiveness, which includes doing a better job of educating its citizens. He said that epidemic tax evasion must also be addressed.
“The wealthiest must understand they can no longer simply seek to safeguard their own narrow interests,” he said.
Several panels discussed how countries can better manage commodities growth. Natural resources have been a recent boon for many Latin American nations, but reliance on them can make countries vulnerable to booms and busts over the long run.
The World Bank released a report on the eve of the conference that concluded commodity wealth can fuel growth in other sectors of the countries’ economies – forming the foundation for future prosperity – if it’s properly invested and managed.
Chile was repeatedly cited as having saved up money from its increases in mineral and non-mineral exports, while Venezuela has spent large amounts of its oil revenues and failed to expand other industries.
Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said investing in technology and innovation and attracting international investment required training people and helping them rise above poverty. There’s an opportunity for these countries to grow their economies while reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, he said.
He also said development policies need to work in conjunction with social policies.
“We need to confront the challenge of strengthening democratic institutions, a judicial system that works,” he said.
Funes was elected in 2009 on the ticket of the political party of the former guerrillas, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. In calling for regional unity at the conference, Funes said it is no longer a matter of right or left, capitalism or socialism, but creating efficient and ethical governments that address the most pressing challenges.
“A country dominated by a small group, whatever their political or ideological orientation, can only consolidate its backwardness, its dependence,” Funes said.
Haiti’s prime minister also addressed the conference Tuesday afternoon.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive defended the speed of reconstruction in his Caribbean country since the Jan. 12 earthquake, saying rubble in the capital is being cleared as fast as possible.
“One (U.S.) official said it would take a thousand trucks one thousand days to remove the rubble from the streets of Port-au-Prince,” Bellerive said. “Haiti does not have a thousand trucks and Haiti has not had one thousand days.”
Presidential elections will be held in November as planned, and recovery projects remain on track, he said.
The accomplishments Bellerive listed included the restoration of electricity, getting students back to class and his government’s plans for roads linking cities throughout the mountainous country.
Bellerive said plans to rebuild Haiti cannot move faster than funding for those projects, and that some progress was being blocked because the Haitian government does not control the disbursement of money pledged in the earthquake’s aftermath.
He implored the international community to invest in Haiti, saying job creation was the backbone of the country’s recovery.