Media Center



November 7, 1996 - New Jersey

I would like to begin by expressing my deep appreciation for the invitation I received from the writer Tomás Eloy Martínez, Director of the Latin American Studies Program at Rutgers University, to address you at this Dialogue of the Americas, organized to launch the program. One could hardly imagine a more fitting setting than Rutgers to reflect upon the themes of this dialogue, as this university stands in the very crossroads of intellectual life in the eastern United States.

For two days, you will be concentrating on two main themes. The first is a fascinating one: "Power and the Media". The second is a real academic challenge and a complicated and difficult issue: "Alternative Pressure Groups at the End of the Century". Both are critical and complex fields of study. Nevertheless I would like to attempt something by way of a brief introduction. My goal is a modest one: rather than give you stock answers, I would like to propose new questions for you to consider.

You are indeed fortunate to have with you our good friend the celebrated Mexican writer and historian Carlos Fuentes. I say fortunate not just because you will undoubtedly remember his remarks for days to come, perhaps for the years to come, for the entire duration of the Latin American studies program. However, I do say so because few writers have done so much to unearth the roots of our identity and culture as Latin Americans, as well as the bridges that connect us to each other and the obstacles that stand between Latin Americans and our Anglo- Saxon neighbors to the north.

At this point in Latin America's history, one cannot overstate the importance of the role that the media play and will continue to play. Allow me, if you will, to dwell on this very important point.

Power and communication are two factors of the same equation. There can be no power without communication, just as communication is invariably an expression of power. Any other scenario -- a world in which communication is not equivalent to power or in which power can exist in a communication vacuum -- is unthinkable today.

What interests us most, however, is how the media interact with the various sources or manifestations of power. This is the only way we will be able to get at the keys that ensure both the free and full exercise of freedom of the press and stronger democratic institutions in our countries.

In this dialectical relationship, the media undoubtedly affected the power structure every day and still do, whether that power be political, economic, social or even military. Power has obviously changed the media, so much , that the most relevant issue for journalists and broadcasters today is their attitude and responsibility vis-a-vis the power structure.

In the past, we had a good paradigm to explain how these two factors affected each other. The media was an important part of the power structure and there were so many clear connections between the media and political or economic power in a society that the media was doing more than just reporting facts. They were defending specific interests, as well. But now this has changed. And, the new and more mature relationship offers us fresh opportunities even though one frequently still finds leaders who do not appear to grasp the concept of an independent media and prefer instead the old style of mutual accommodation.

Today the paradigm is one of the mutual independence of the power and the media. While much more difficult, this seems to me to be a much healthier relationship. And I speak now not just as the journalist I once was for my hometown newspaper, but also as someone who has watched the media from inside politics for the last thirty years.

Today, the media must serve dual interests. The first is that of their readers or listening audience. The media owe their readers or audience honest reporting, analysis and opinion. The second is the interest of their shareholders, to whom they owe profits. While these interests sometimes conflict, they have tremendous results when they work in tandem, mutually reinforcing each other. The daily newspapers and radio and television news broadcasts that succeed in serving both purposes are truly remarkable. On the other hand, It is regrettable when the owners of a newspaper or radio station that succeeds in satisfying its readership or listeners, are forced to shut down because of an inability to generate enough profit. This is exactly what happened to New York City's edition of Newsday. Moreover, it is equally disturbing when a publication serves only its business interest -- i.e. when the newspaper or broadcast turns a profit at the expense of good journalism.

Unless the true nature of today's media is understood, politics can never be what it should be, i.e., an instrument for change, for moving a society from where it is to where it ought to be, and for promoting the common well-being. Only with the help of the media can a society be mobilized and the substance of the internal debate that propels and reshapes it be communicated. Accordingly, the media can induce the public to reflect upon the fate of the nation or the destiny of the community of nations only by exercising leadership and enlisting the involvement of various segments of the community.

In today's Latin America, this issue is taking on a new dimension and significance. I am convinced of the importance of the economic reforms that most of our countries have strived to introduce. However, for reasons I will explain, I believe that the time has come to rethink the role of the State in our countries and, where necessary, to introduce some political changes to give our institutional foundation new legitimacy. None of this can be done without the media.

Who were we just a few years ago? A handful of poor countries, without suficient resources to create prosperity or wealth or even new sources of employment, with monopolistic or oligopolistic economic structures designed to protect or enrich the few, and with an outdated productive apparatus. Some countries were devastated by violence, while the majority of our states had become huge bureaucracies who had taken over failing industries and businesses, airlines and banks. A good number were struggling under the overwhelming burden of the foreign debt. In general, we were not holding the reins of our own destiny, despite all our xenophobic and protectionist rhetoric. Even though some are still nostalgic of those times.

It took the debt crisis and the last decade -- known as the lost decade -- to drive home the urgency of economic reform. These days, economic reform is not a very popular topic and it doubtless did not live up to all its expectations. All the same, taking stock of the historical process helps us to understand the reasons why reform was indispensable.

And what did we reform? Almost everything. We opened up our economies and took away the subsidies that our entrepreneurs were receiving. Pressed to compete and to get a foothold in the new markets that were opening their doors, we modernized and made ourselves more efficient. In some countries, the size of the state was reduced by selling off assets and businesses, while in others, the state's presence shifted away from some sectors and got into others. We amended our labor laws and left behind decades of unionized populism. We started the process of modernization of our transportation systems, ports, highways, airports, energy infrastructure and systems for executing budgets in the social sectors. We abandoned, for example, the low-cost housing policy that had the State build all housing, opting instead to give people direct subsidies to purchase their own housing, built by the private sector. But you surely know more than I about the far-reaching economic reforms undertaken in Latin America.

The reform was not, as no reform is, the panacea for all our problems. It was, however, the remedy for the cancer that was destroying us inside, inflicting poverty and impeding progress. In such a short period, reform did not bring well-being or wealth, nor did it entail a fairer distribution of income, nor did it reduce violence. In most countries, it took its toll on growth and employment, and only now do we see new growth and job creation in some countries.

It was easy to conclude then that, with the existing levels of economic growth and State inefficiency and corruption, we would never recover from our crisis. However, today we can say that economic reform was only the first step, but a major one, in the right direction. And, if we want to continue to pave the way toward higher standards of living, we need to take at least three more steps.

The first is to rethink the role of the State in our countries, and undertake an intelligent and dispassionate debate on the issue.
The second is to examine the need for political reform in order to restore legitimacy to our democratic institutions.
And the third step -- which may seem like a cliche but is in fact related to the second issue and the subject of today´s agenda -- is to give power back to the people.
Why is it necessary to rethink the role of the State?

Because we have to reach an agreement, similar to the one that has been reached here in the United States, on (a) what the State does well and should continue to do, (b) on what it does not do so well and should no longer do, and (c) on what it does not do so well but should continue to do, and therefore, must improve.

In Colombia, for example, the issue of downsizing the State, was largely irrelevant. Actually, the Colombian State had not grown as much as others had in the region. It represented a mere 18% to 20% of its gross domestic product. In the process of cutting the bureaucracy, privatizing state companies and modernizing the State, the only sensible thing to do was to increase the size of the State and invest in those sectors where its presence continues to be essential: justice, citizen security, public order, and socials sector.This has been hapening during the last 10 years. The size of the satate has been increasing nearly 1% per year.

I bring up this example because many critics have argued that economic reform did not achieve its full purpose. The reason for this is because often the inadequate functioning of the State is wrongly attributed to the structural reforms of our economies. In Latin America, the State has and continues to have huge obligations. Hence in spite its traditional inefficiency, our efforts should not be devoted to diminish its size but rather to modernize it, by taking it out of where it should not be, and by improving its operation.

Over the next twenty years of your professional careers, all of you will witness a very strong debate on the role of the State, and maybe you will hear less about macroeconomic policy and privatization. And none of you will be absent from that debate. Whether your area of expertise is the arts or political science, journalism or economics, anthropology or history, you will have to participate and debate this issue, because this issue will have serious and significant consequences in our individual and collective lives.

The second step that countries must undertake is to carry out a political reform.

There is no doubt that in many countries of Latin America institutional legitimacy is weak, and that the only way to confront today´s challenges is by committing to political reform and by modernizing the different branches of the State.

I believe that this is the greatest challenge that our future leaders will face. All of you have repeatedly heard that you are the future, you are the tomorrow, you are our hope. Your professors and instructors and all those persons who take a piece of paper and read it in front of you have told you this.

Well then, it is true. You are the future. And, political reform will be the common denominator in Latin America during the next twenty years. That will be the scenario that many of you will have to face and from where you will have to make the decision of whether you will be participating actively in politics or in public life. This will also be the conceptual and political framework in which many of you will experience the most interesting days of your lives.

This step is related to the last of the three we mentioned, which must complement what was begun through economic reform. It also has to do with the second important issue that you will be discussing over the next few days: to give power back to the people.

The only way to really strengthen our democracies and finally brace the great reform of the end of the twentieth century is to go from representative democracy to a true participatory democracy. In every country people are crying out for mechanisms and means to participate in the decisions of their community. Traditional representation through politicians is no longer enough: people want a voice.

The force that drove economic reform was the need to streamline the State´s operation, to make better use of taxpayers' money, and eliminate those obstacles that threatened the individual in a protectionist and monopolist market by encouraging competition. In addition, the ultimate reason for political reform is to recover institutional legitimacy -- including respect for those institutions -- and undoubtedly to empower each individual within the society in order to confront arbitrariness and become a more active participant.

Let me repeat, today, we know that structural reform of our economies was crucial but that alone it cannot resolve all the problems that daunt us since the beginnings of our republics. I am referring, in particular, to the use of violence to achieve political ends, to the growth of criminal drug organizations and their immense power of corruption, and in general, to all that continues to stand in the way of providing well-being, social justice and peace to our people. In order to get rid of these evils we must open up our societies, modernize our political systems and make our states more efficient.

Only in an atmosphere of transparent political discourse and increased public participation will the tension between the media and political power, which unfortunately prevails in some countries of Latin America, subside. And, only in an environment of respect for participation by the people will civil society find the means to strengthen the role of the State.

Friends of Latin American Studies Program:

I am an optimist. Not a born optimist, though. I am an optimist that has placed his hope in the future, in reality, in the daily struggle between the dreams for a better society or a truly integrated community of American nations, aware of how difficult it may be.

I believe that it is possible to find a better destiny for Latin America. But, I am also convinced that it will take much more than rhetoric or airing our past resentments. We will only be masters of our own destinies when we are able to truly improve the living conditions of our people and when we engage in a dialogue among equals with the rest of the world.

Carlos Fuentes and Tomas Eloy Martinez, to give you an example, have shown us that culture, thought and imagination are the instruments that we possess to establish closer relationships with the rest of the countries of the world, especially with the United States.

If we follow their example in each and every field of knowledge, in science and in art, in politics and in economics, we will be able to unveil a Latin America where progress, education, security, peace and well-being is not only a privilege of the few but a common denominator in healthy growing societies.

I personally have no doubt that you, who have the privilege of being here and observing Latin America in a systematic and unbiased manner, will help us discover new ways and means to recover our destiny.