Former President of Peru on the Crisis in Democracy, Education, and Leadership

by Jonathan Robert Faust

Alejandro Toledo. Image via Creative Commons.

Alejandro Toledo was the President of Peru from 2001 to 2006 and is currently a consulting professor at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. He sat down with me on Wednesday, April 21, to discuss his new book, The Shared Society: A Vision for the Global Future of Latin America. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

JF: The title of your new book is The Shared Society. What is the shared society?

AT: A shared society envisions a global future for Latin America. It is a society where, independent of nationality, gender, or skin color, we recognize that we are all part of the same world. In order to create this society, we need to share our strengths and knowledge to construct a world that will be better for our children and their children.

By the year 2050, when the world population will be at around 9 billion people — today we’re at 7 billion — it will confront different challenges, such as obtaining clean drinking water, ensuring food security, and battling the adverse consequences of climate change. Other challenges will include building an architecture of strong democratic institutions where the rule of law prevails and the authorities are accountable to their citizens. We face the challenge of developing our nations’ capacities to deliver concrete and measurable results to the people, particularly to the poorest of the poor. The world needs to make a democracy that delivers, and for that, we need diversified, sustained rates of economic growth. We should have both a medium and long-term perspective when working towards these goals and others, such as eliminating early malnutrition in the developing world, providing healthcare and improving the quality of education.

JF: You note that poverty and income inequality in Latin America have declined since 2000, but you still believe that Latin America needs to “take a sharp turn and make a giant leap.” What does that involve?

AT: There is no better weapon in the world with which to construct a democracy that has a positive impact on the reduction of poverty than providing access to quality education, beginning with the poorest of the poor. We need leaders who have a sense of vision and the inspired intelligence and courage to make decisions today knowing that they will not benefit politically from those decisions. Those decisions, by definition, will generate results with a medium and long-term timeframe. Education takes a long time. That’s not good for our politicians, who are thinking in terms of the next election and not in terms of the next generations. To the extent that the world will confront wars based on the need to provide clean drinking water, food security, and to address the adverse impacts of climate change, as I said before, we need leaders who have the courage to make those decisions.

JF: You also note that easy access to commodity revenues has lulled Latin America into ignoring the environmental impact of the region’s growth. Given that some of the economic development has resulted in the degradation of the environment, how do you propose going forward in a way that will both protect the environment and reduce poverty and inequality?

AT: It is very difficult to prevent investment in destructive industry because we need the revenue to invest in the minds of our people in the short run. The environment is very crucial. Unfortunately, this is a challenge that the leaders of the world have not been able to address effectively. We have met in Kyoto for the Kyoto Protocol to see if we could make some decisions together in the world about the adverse impact of climate change. Nothing happened. We met in Copenhagen. Nothing happened. We met in Lima last year. Nothing happened. Now, we are going to meet in France.

There is one clear issue for me that I want to put boldly, with all due to respect: the world is going through a crisis of leadership. We live in a world of competing interests. The United States does not want to sign any commitment yet to lead the world to do something about climate change. China says, “I won’t do anything yet because I’m a developing country,” and it’s the country that most pollutes the world. I don’t want to kill the few preserved lands that are still left in the world in the Amazon. We have 37 percent of the clean water in the world. I don’t want it to be contaminated. So, if the leaders of the world are not able to make a decision and a commitment to confront climate change, then our children will suffer the negative consequences of climate change.

JF: You note that Latin America is fortunate to be geographically well-positioned to collaborate with the fastest-growing region in the world: the Asian-Pacific Rim. In general, what sort of collaboration do you envision with the countries in the Asian-Pacific Rim?

AT: Geographically, we have a great advantage. We can open up markets and diversify the composition of trade and the sources of plans for investment. We in Peru, Mexico, and Chile are members of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation]. We now have given Asia access to get to the Pacific through Peru without going through the Atlantic. That facilitates an economy of 300 million people. If we take advantage of that, we can fulfill the major premise of the book: that Latin America is the most promising continent as of the period of 2015, provided that we’re successful and have the courage to meet those challenges.