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AQ Miami Launch: Trade and Social Mobility with an Update on Cuba

May 01, 2008


  • Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, Cuban Democratic Directorate, and author of "Cuba: Until When? Frustration Mounts," Americas Quarterly (Spring 2008)
  • Andrés Oppenheimer, (Moderator) Latin American Editor and Foreign Affairs Columnist, Miami Herald
  • Jose Rivera Font, Vice President and General Manager, Yahoo! Hispanic Americas
  • Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy, AS/COA
  • Regina Vargo, Senior Director of the Global Trade and Investment Practice Group, Greenberg Traurig, LLP


Americas Society and Council of the Americas hosted a May 1 panel discussion of social mobility and trade as well as an update on the political and economic climate in Cuba. The following is a summary of the main discussion points.

Trade and Colombian Security

Public security and labor union safety remain primary concerns for the U.S. Congress if it is to resume consideration of the pending U.S.-Colombia trade pact. Addressing these concerns, Greenberg Traurig’s Regina Vargo noted that labor safety has improved in the country. Colombia has expanded the mandate and number of prosecutorial offices for addressing violence against union leaders. Murders of labor union leaders declined sharply to 26 in 2007 from 200 in 2002. However, murders of labor union organizers reached 22 so far this year, suggesting a regression in 2008. Despite this, President Álvaro Uribe currently enjoys strong popularity (over 80 percent approval ratings, according to the  Miami Herald). An experienced Department of Commerce and USTR negotiator, Vargo declined to comment on Congress’ attitude toward speculation that Uribe may seek a third term, which is currently barred by the Colombian constitution. She stated that, while respect for democratic institutions in Colombia serves as an important factor in U.S. Congressional consideration of the trade deal, labor security, U.S. public opinion on trade, and geopolitical challenges for regional influence, notably from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, will also influence Congress’ deliberations.

During her discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Vargo recognized that U.S. factory jobs have declined, but that services employment has increased. North American trade, she said, is disproportionately blamed for aggravating the U.S. trade deficit, which has not grown with NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada since 2000. The trade policy debate not only affects NAFTA and the Colombia pact, she stressed; the U.S. also has pending agreements with Panama and Korea. How Congress decides these agreements will affect progress on the global Doha Round.

Upping Social Mobility—A Multifaceted Task

A number of factors affect social mobility in Latin America, and Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini discussed several aspects examined in the current issue of the policy journal. Geography tops the list. In Latin America, the country of your birth can often set you ahead—in the case of Chile, Argentina, or Peru—or behind—in Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia, or Ecuador. Living in an urban area also affords greater opportunity and access to basic and social services than rural residence. Education and social policy play another key role, with teacher-to-pupil ratios correlating highly with social mobility. Governments that spend more on primary education give their children greater opportunities to advance. Yet public higher education—for which access is limited—often receives the most funding, said Sabatini. Moreover, governments’ ability to influence education budgets and improve university access remains limited because universities function with significant political autonomy. Finally, questions of economics are also fundamental to social mobility. Inflation undercuts social mobility, while deeper financial markets tend to reinforce social mobility. Furthermore, countries that distribute their economic growth per capita more evenly chart higher mobility.

Sabatini highlighted conditional cash transfers (CCTs) as one way countries have successfully remedied some of these factors. For instance, Mexico’s Oportunidadesprogram has increased primary school enrollment 11 percent. Brazil has likewise increased primary school enrollment by 3 percent, and Nicaragua by over 17 percent. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has replicated the Oportunidades in New York public schools. More broadly, trade’s positive impact on economic growth and investment in infrastructure also lays the groundwork for greater social mobility, said Sabatini.

Returning to the question of higher education, Sabatini also noted that that Latin America lacks engineers and scientists. He also explained that the type of high-tech corporate and university partnerships—forged between U.S. universities and pharmaceutical, computer, and biotechnology companies and universities to produce research and development centers—is notably absent in the region. These types of partnerships, he said, are essential for training new generations of engineers and scientists.

Cuba: “Quantum Physics”

Opening the discussion of recent events in Cuba—that is, President Raúl Castro’s appointment and recent economic reforms—moderator columnist Andrés Oppenheimer asked if, in Cuba, change is disguised as continuity or continuity is disguised as change. While Oppenheimer admitted his skepticism, panelist Cuban Democratic Directorate Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat conveyed a more complex picture, comparing the reading of the political tealeaves of the Castro regime with quantum physics. He said that the regime is not moving in the direction that we think. Gutierrez-Boronat perceives a growing youth movement and increased dissatisfaction among labor and the military in Cuba. The regime’s political repression also has an economic toll, he says: foreign investment has declined since the regime’s crackdown on dissent and journalists in the 2003. He predicted greater instability in the future. However, he cautioned that, though he is more optimistic that economic opening can lead to political opening, this is not imminent. He also added that U.S. policy doesn’t keep the Castros in power and, while important, is not a decisive political counterweight. On the question of the Helms-Burton Act (PDF), Sabatini questioned the utility of the law as an effective carrot-and-stick diplomacy tool, suggesting that the law’s prerequisites for diplomatic dialogue are open to interpretation.

An AS/COA-Yahoo! Partnership


During closing remarks, Jose Rivera Font of Yahoo! highlighted a partnership in which AS/COA provides editorial content to the Yahoo! Spanish-laguage properties in the Americas. The content includes articles, both from the new AS/COA policy journal, Americas Quarterly, and the monthly policy bulletin, News & Views. In addition, users of all three properties interact with editors and writers from Americas Quarterly and News & Views on Yahoo! Respuestas (Answers).