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December 7, 2022

Georgetown Americas Institute Celebrates Inaugural Year with Bill Clinton, Former Latin American Presidents

On November 30, the Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) celebrated its inaugural year by hosting former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Latin American presidents Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera of Uruguay, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico at the Americas Symposium on campus.

Diana Kapiszewski moderates a panel with Ernesto Zedillo, Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, and Juan Manuel Santos.
Diana Kapiszewski moderates a panel with Ernesto Zedillo, Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, and Juan Manuel Santos.

The former heads of state joined the symposium in Gaston Hall, where they discussed the key challenges and opportunities facing Latin America and the Caribbean — part of the mission of the GAI.

“This [Georgetown Americas Institute] is going to be a great addition to the academic and scholarly life of this university and hopefully it will also provide ideas to address the big challenges of our region, of Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Zedillo, who served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000.

The GAI was founded to provide a platform for dialogue, research, and impact around the key challenges facing Latin America and the hemisphere. The institute aims to advance research, teaching, and impact in the Americas across governance, economic growth and innovation, social and cultural inclusion, and sustainability and the environment.

Alumnus Rolando Gonzalez-Bunster (C’68) and his wife Monica Gonzalez-Bunster (Parents ’00, ’05, ’14, ’16) established the institute with a generous gift to Georgetown.

In his opening remarks, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia offered particular thanks to the Gonzalez-Bunsters for their transformational gift.

“This institute represents the longstanding engagement of our community in Latin America and the leadership and generosity of Rolando and Monica Gonzalez-Bunster, who through this generous gift have helped us to realize even greater possibilities for our university to pursue research, engagement and impact on key issues facing our region.” –John J. DeGioia

During two panel discussions, the former presidents discussed the state of inter-American relations today and the social, political, and economic challenges and opportunities ahead for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), exemplifying the vision behind the creation of the Georgetown Americas Institute.

Navigating the Development Trap

During a panel discussion moderated by Diana Kapiszewski, associate professor of government at Georgetown, the former Latin American presidents agreed that the region is in the middle of another “lost decade.” Global challenges threaten the economic and social progress made in the region in the last decade, as gains from the commodity boom wane and inequality, poverty, and declining standards of living increase.

Zedillo warned about the three pitfalls of the development trap: inefficient economies due to low productivity and high labor force informality, increasing poverty and inequality due to the end of the commodity boom, and weakened rule of law.

The former presidents concluded that to avoid this scenario, LAC must seize opportunities for deeper global integration as reliable partners in trade and investment, digital transformation, and climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

John J. DeGioia gives introductory remarks at the Americas Symposium.
John J. DeGioia gives introductory remarks at the Americas Symposium.

Democratic Regression and Contentious Geopolitics

The leaders also discussed the global threats to democracy, which are impacting Latin America and the Caribbean.

Lacalle Herrera, the former president of Uruguay, explained that democracy’s two facets of legitimacy, of origin through fair elections and in governance through the exercise of power, are being threatened in the Western Hemisphere as well. Democratically elected leaders are taking office and undermining the process that brought them to power, President Zedillo added.

Despite these concerns over democratic regression, Clinton highlighted some of the strengths of LAC democracies and how much the United States has to learn from the region as it deals with increasingly divided politics.

Lacalle Herrera mentioned that from a global point of view, Latin America and the Caribbean can benefit from increasingly contentious geopolitics if the region can effectively navigate deals between China and the United States. He emphasized that each LAC country must take an individualistic and practical approach to international relations.

"There is no one Latin America. It's very difficult to apply a single formula to the type of relationships we must and could have." – Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera

Santos added that like the European Union or the United States, LAC countries cannot evaluate trade and investment partners solely on shared values, but must consider their own particular economic interests.

Combatting Climate Change

Santos also highlighted how Latin America and the Caribbean can play a critical role in the global fight against climate change, pointing out that the region boasts the richest biodiversity on the planet. However, the region will need significant funding to phase out coal production and transition to clean energy, he said.

“Latin America should try to present its case with one voice in order to demand from the industrialized countries, the richest countries, more commitment and financial commitment [to fight climate change].”  Juan Manuel Santos

Clinton praised Brazilian President-elect Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva on policies in his first presidency that reduced deforestation in the Amazon while also growing the economy. The former U.S. president emphasized that cooperation on climate change benefits not only the United States and the Western Hemisphere but the whole world.

Rethinking Drug Policy

Santos pushed for a pragmatic and coordinated regional approach to rethinking drug policy.

Reflecting on Colombia’s experience at the beginning of the twenty-first century, he stated that the punitive and prohibitive approach to addressing illicit drug trafficking did not yield the desired results. Prohibition stimulated organized crime across the Americas, and today drug trafficking is a pervasive issue throughout the region, Santos said.

Santos called instead for a new conversation that replaces the war on drugs with drug policies crafted through the lens of human rights and global health.

What Lies Ahead

Zedillo noted that there are severe political economic constraints that render unfeasible the sweeping reforms needed to combat issues like climate change, income inequality, power distribution or weakened rule of law. He advised that these issues need to be addressed holistically, urging leaders to focus on protecting and strengthening universal rights, like health care and education, instead of creating a patchwork framework of social benefits.

Clinton ended the symposium by reiterating that political agreement and a shared vision can be built through cross-sector compromise.

“Anybody thinking about America’s relationship with other nations would say working for the best means building as many relationships as possible that would give inclusive economics, inclusive societies, and inclusive political cooperation. And preparing for the worst means that if everything else goes off the rails, we need to be good neighbors.”  Bill Clinton