On September 5 and 6, 1996, under the inspiration of Julio María Sanguinetti, who at that time held the Presidency of Uruguay for the second time, the Círculo de Montevideo was created. Last week that institution held its XXVI Plenary Meeting in Santiago de Compostela. 25 years passed, during which the members of the Circle debated and pronounced themselves on the great crossroads and problems of Ibero-America in the international context.
Five of those who participated in that founding assembly in 1996 were present at the Santiago meeting: Sanguinetti; the former president of Spain, Felipe González; the former president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos; the Argentine political scientist Natalio Botana and the former president of the IDB, Enrique Iglesias. The former Spanish Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruíz Gallardón; the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim; the diplomat Martín Santiago Herrero, and the former director general of the United Nations Organization for Industrial Development (UNIDO) Carlos Magariños.
The seminar lasted three days, under the title The world in a pandemic. But the agenda was much broader and was organized around two recurring problems in all the presentations: the civilizational change that global society is experiencing today, and the threats and challenges that this alteration poses to democracy. Against this background, particular issues emerged: difficulties in coordinating international policies on sensitive issues, such as the management of the pandemic; the growing and disturbing importance of social media in the political debate; and changes in the dynamics of work and global trade.
The academic exhibitions were enriched by coexistence, especially by the exquisite meals of Galician cuisine, tinged with anecdotes and stories of personalities with a long and successful career in politics and the State. With Sanguinetti, it was impossible for art to be lacking: there were two very interesting visits, guided by experts, to the Cathedral of Santiago and the magnificent treasures of the San Martín Piranio monastery. All the spirituality of the city is condensed in that architecture.
The first to speak during the seminar was the host, Alberto Núñez Feijoo, president of the Xunta de Galicia, who opened the sessions and remained there until they closed. Núñez Feijoo praised the role that specific people play in caring for democracy. He was referring to the leaders who were in front of him, in particular Felipe González, to whom he paid tribute for what he has meant for the modernization of Spain. Tribute of one of the most prominent leaders of the PP to the maximum contemporary leader of the PSOE. Feijoo praised a culture that seems to be eclipsed: “Before, responsibility ruled, which is fixed in the long term. Today frivolity governs us, which cares about personal interest and immediate profit ”.
Sanguinetti, with an eloquence that always surprises, painted the general landscape of public life that would be analyzed and discussed during the meetings. He noted that the pandemic accelerated many of its pre-existing inertia. It came to light that the international system lacks an area in which to coordinate the management of a crisis. All the exhibitors emphasized this problem. Lagos, with great pedagogical charm, offered a very concrete example: the supply of vaccines that, in the absence of a global decision-making body, presents the risk of being governed by the law of the fittest. Or because of the reflections of what Sanguinetti called “vaccination nationalism.”
The Uruguayan leader pointed out other novelties of this stage in history. The reappearance of the centrality of the State for communities alarmed by the health emergency. Also the power of social networks, which are deployed more and more. The role of these networks was a leit motif of all sessions. Sanguinetti noted that they lack neutrality. That is, once again “the medium is the message.” González insisted on the same problem, from another angle: intervention in the different digital platforms enables intrusion into people’s privacy. Society is segmented according to tastes and preferences. People are typified. They are operations that serve a very strange business of this new era: the most lucrative activities are based on the management of private data of the public, which is a free “merchandise”. Lagos observed the same phenomenon from a political side. Networks allow life together to become horizontal. But they facilitate, through big data and artificial intelligence, which manipulates those who access them. They have, at the same time, a democratizing potential. And an authoritarian potential. Twenty-four hours later, Ruíz Gallardón returned to the subject to imagine the features of a legal regime for the use of these platforms.
Slim looked at digital technology with market criteria. He proposed that, similar to what is happening in the United States, governments subsidize access to telecommunications for the most vulnerable sections of the population. He analyzed the news that teleworking brought, driven by the COVID crisis. He ended up recommending a far-reaching labor reform, allowing people to work three days a week, 11 or 12-hour days, and retire at age 75, which would greatly alleviate the unbearable burden of pension systems on public accounts .
Botana also referred to the labor order, based on two experiences. A conversation with a university student, who confessed to having a hyper individualistic life project: “My world is my laptop. Everything I need is there ”. The other conversation was with an unemployed person who makes a living as a wall painter in Buenos Aires. Threatened by daily insecurity, produced especially by the expansion of drug trafficking, this worker has only one complaint: “There are no longer any rights.”
Somehow Enrique Iglesias and Carlos Magariños converged on the same agenda. The former IDB president reconstructed the history of the institutionalization of organizations to coordinate trade. He concluded, sadly, that almost all of them are deactivated. Iglesias called for a revival of efforts to integrate economies. Above all, on a regional scale. Latin America should look at itself in the mirror of the happy experience of the United States, Canada and Mexico. It should also break the silence.
Magariños took up an idea from Martín Santiago: that of the rapid rise of the middle sectors, which since 2018 have become half of the world’s population. He related this deployment to two phenomena: the greater weight of emerging countries in world GDP and the accelerated deterioration of the environment. On that horizon he placed the terrible figures of the pandemic: 400 million new poor worldwide, of which 10% are Latin American.
These developments, which drive a gigantic transformation of life in society, pose a very demanding challenge for politics. All participants pointed out, in different panels, this problem. González spoke of the strategic place that the foundations of the system occupy, especially because they are not seen: the rules of the game, the division of powers, the rule of law, the fundamental guarantees. “What happened to the Miami building could happen to them: the foundations are cracked, they are in-mediated, and when we want to remember everything that is above it collapses.”
Lagos and Botana raised the same problem with a more general scope. The two argued that today’s institutions correspond to the era of industrial society. That the dizzying changes of the digital transition require the creation of a reorganization of life in common. “The leader found out what the citizens thought every four years, with the elections; now you can listen to citizens all the time, on the networks. But there is still no way to anticipate these demands, which imply another way of governing, ”said Lagos. Botana put it in other terms: “Politics is in tow of the great civilizational mutation, which has another speed and challenges us to create new institutions.”
Sanguinetti, the creator of the Circle, noted the danger of political fragmentation, the simplistic tendency towards extremism, the default from the center. He also called for “reforming institutions, recreating parties, reformulating the State itself.” In short, he recalled the objective of the institution that he created 25 years ago: “We are not here just to stir ideas. We are also to find ways ”. There would be no more suitable place than Santiago de Compostela to invite to this adventure.
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