Alejandro Toledo has remained a passionate advocate of reform since departing the presidency of Peru in 2006. In his home country, he embodied the possibility of transformation, having risen from poverty in an Andean village to top political power, where he initiated a process of economic and social change for Peru. Now he serves as a kind of roving ambassador on behalf of the most deprived populations in Latin America.
Toledo is advancing a particular initiative, the “Social Agenda for Democracy in Latin America,” which asserts an inextricable link between effective, inclusive political institutions, and economic justice. “If we’re not able to reduce high levels of poverty, inequality and social exclusion, then… poverty can conspire against democracy,” says Toledo. Natural resources are not a solution, but actually a burden, he believes. Many nations rich in mineral or agricultural wealth, including Peru, have very low standards of living. Inequitable foreign exchange and trade, buttressed by corrupt leaders, often robs these nations of their treasure, and of any chance for investing in development at home. The poor remain poor and, with no way of achieving a decent income or meeting their basic needs, hopeless. They “lose faith in democracy,” says Toledo.
The path out of poverty and corruption represents an opportunity and challenge for Latin America, says Toledo. Citizens must demand that their institutions be accountable, and political leaders must provide a plan for economic development that incorporates “explicit social policies that go beyond trickle down.” Topping Toledo’s agenda is quality education. Investing in the minds of people is a long-term proposition, acknowledges Toledo, and many politicians “don’t have the patience, when they know the return will take 18 to 20 years before the kid turns out to be an engineer.” But only education can “bring a family, a region, a nation, into a world of opportunity.” Educated populations create citizens “with a sense of solidarity,” who can work their way out of indigence and engage meaningfully in a democracy.
Toledo also wants sustainable development in Latin America, so future generations can enjoy clean water and healthy forests. He is a fan of microfinance as well: “You give me $1 to invest in a poor woman … and we begin changing the face of the world.” He encourages fellow Latin Americans in the audience to return: “Latin America is a promising continent, but … it will only play a crucial role in the world economy and democracy if you are there.”