Academy for Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural Diplomacy in Latin America (CDLA)

European - Latin American Relations: The State of relations Relations

Defining Latin America

‘Latin America’ is an ambiguous term, with cultural, geographical and historical implications. Thus, before engaging with Latin America - be it on a practical or theoretical level - it is imperative that we outline exactly what we mean when we refer to it. One widely accepted definition (Webster’s New World College Dictionary 2009) would be: ‘the part of the Western Hemisphere, south of the U.S, in Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and South America, where Spanish, Portuguese and French are the official languages’. The linguistic criteria given above make this definition problematic on two levels; first because it emphasises the European heritage of Latin American countries, thus placing a large number of indigenous Latin American peoples in a secondary position; second, because it excludes parts of the English and Dutch speaking Caribbean, which, despite not being linguistically ‘Latin’, share cultural traits, geographical position and historical experience. Considering the problems and implications that can arise from using linguistic criteria to define an area which is neither linguistically nor culturally homogenous, in the following article and during the course of the congress the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy will use the term ‘Latin America’ to refer to all parts of the American continent south of the U.S. border, which includes Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Latin America Today

In terms of culture, biodiversity, ecology and natural resources, Latin America is one of the richest and most diverse regions in the world. With an area of approximately 22,000,000 km2, the 45 countries that make up Latin America and the Caribbean comprise 14.1% of the earth’s total land surface area and 8.6% of its population. These inhabitants are of diverse cultural origin, including descendents of Europeans, Africans, Asians as well as numerous indigenous groups, and speak over 550 different languages. The region encompasses glacier fields, tropical rainforests, deserts and islands and boasts an abundance of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, namely oil, copper, gold, timber and guano.

Such statistics suggest a region with considerable potential and a solid foundation for development. However, in a number of areas, this potential remains to be fulfilled. The Latin American continent today is confronted by a range of diverse and difficult problems which are in urgent need of address if the continent, and all of its inhabitants, are to prosper as they should. Of these problems the most pressing include poverty and inequality, corruption, insecurity, discrimination and exploitation.

Latin America is one of the most unequal and imbalanced areas in the world in terms of wealth distribution and access to services and resources. The economic gap between the rich and poor is often astonishingly large. In Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia for example, the richest 20% may own over 60% of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 20% may own less than 5%. This gap is made overwhelmingly apparent by the landscape in many large South American cities, where makeshift shacks and slums lie adjacent to skyscrapers and luxury apartments. Though a number of Latin American nations have experienced economic growth in recent years, large segments of the population have yet to enjoy the full benefits of this and continue to lack the jobs, healthcare, education and safety that are needed to improve their quality of life. It is an unfortunate fact that poverty in Latin America often directly related to race or ethnicity and people of non-European descent often have less access to resources. Indeed, 80% of indigenous people in Latin America live in abject poverty.

Rapid population growth in the Latin American region is a factor directly related to inequality and thus, in urgent need of address. Latin America’s population is growing at an incredible rate – between 1950 and 2000 the number of inhabitants more than doubled from 175 million to 515 million. Today the figure stands at 586,662,468 million inhabitants and this is projected to rise to over 800 million by 2050. This phenomenal rate of growth puts increasing pressure on resources to which the majority of inhabitants still have limited or no access. In turn, people are at greater risk from malnutrition and infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. National HIV prevalence is now estimated to be at least 1% in Belize, Guyana, Panama and Suriname while Brazil - by far the region's most populous country - accounts for around 43% of people living with HIV in Latin America.

Political and institutional corruption is another prevalent problem in the Latin American region. According to Transparency International's most recently published Global Corruption Barometer, 10% of Latin Americans reported paying bribes in 2009 (a 2% increase since 2005). It is clear that development prospects will be negatively affected by the existence of such corruption.

European-Latin American Relations: A History

Europe’s relationship with Latin America began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus, believing he had reached Asia, first set foot on the Caribbean island of San Salvador. Though not the first European to reach the Latin American continent, Columbus and his voyage of ‘discovery’ marked the beginning of European colonization of the ‘New World’ and a period of turbulence, imbalance and inequality, during which business was conducted on European terms.

Before the arrival of European ‘conquistadores’, Latin America was populated by a number of indigenous groups, descendents of hunters who had migrated from the Asian mainland across the Bering Straights land bridge between 40,000 and 25,000 BC. Of these 350 groups, many were culturally, linguistically and socially autonomous and had little or no contact with each other. It was the European conquistadores who, by referring to them collectively as ‘Indians’, imposed an artificial unity on the indigenous peoples of Latin America, paying no heed to their differences. As far as the conquistadores were concerned all ‘Indians’ were darker-skinned and therefore inferior, and thus, rather than initiating dialogue or attempting cooperation, they began a mission to destroy the existing indigenous civilisations. The foundation of the ‘New World’ involved bulldozing everything that had existed before it and single-mindedly imposing European culture.

After a few centuries of European presence in Latin America an autonomous Latin American identity began to emerge. Descendents of Europeans born in Latin America, particularly those of mixed indigenous heritage, of whom there were an ever increasing number, no longer felt Spanish and began to resent colonial rule. These feelings became stronger as time went by and eventually, at the turn of the 19th Century, sparked wide-scale rebellion against the Spanish and colonial authorities, resulting, eventually, in Latin American independence.

The Wars of Independence and Colonial Legacies

The year 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the independence of a number of Latin American nations, namely Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Colombia, while Bolivia and Ecuador celebrate in 2009 and Paraguay and Venezuela in 2011. When we reflect on the Wars of Independence of the turn of the 19th century it is important that we realise that, though they may have put an end to official foreign rule, the legacy of European colonialism remains, to this day, particularly in terms national identity and social and racial inequality. The following section will demonstrate how, in many ways, independence was formal and superficial, how the culture of the Latin American governing and intellectual elites continued to be essentially western and how the newly independent nations neglected to recognise their own cultural diversity in any meaningful way.

At the turn of the 19th Century throughout Latin America the leaders of the independence movements placed increased emphasis on a celebration of the pre-Colombian past (the cultures of the Aztec and Mayan and Incan empires), stressing the legitimacy of these empires. By glorifying the indigenous past they pleaded a national right to sovereignty, which had been taken away during the conquest. By highlighting the injustice of colonial rule they justified their own rebellion against it. However, this cultural revival was more an appropriation of the indigenous past than a meaningful effort to include indigenous peoples and culture into the nation. Indeed the exaltation of the pre-Colombian past was not combined with a concern for the contemporary Indian.

The Need for Cultural Diplomacy and Dialogue in Latin America

Though the issue of race and ethnicity and equality has become increasingly important in cultural and political debate during the course of the 20th and 21st centuries there remains a significant degree of inequality and prejudice. This prejudice is not directed solely at indigenous peoples. Historically, Latin Americans of African decent have been similarly discriminated. Racial and social hierarchies laid down in the colonial period have been so internalised by Latin Americans of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds that race, ethnicity, social status, poverty, literacy, access to healthcare and education continue to be inextricably interrelated.

Cultural diplomacy initiatives are desperately needed to combat the legacies of European colonialism in Latin America. Indeed, the most effective way to erase prejudice is through education and increased inter-cultural contact. We must ensure however, that cultural dialogue and exchange is mutual and that increased recognition and participation of indigenous and afro-descendent groups within Latin American nations does not imply cultural assimilation.

European-Latin American Relations Today

EU-Latin American Relations

Europe and Latin America are linked, not only by a shared history but also through cultural, political and economic ties. Strategic partnership between the EU and Latin America has existed since the first bi-regional Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1999. The regions now cooperate closely and maintain intensive political dialogue at regional, sub-regional and bilateral levels. EU policy priorities towards Latin America are defined in the recently adopted communication “EU-Latin America: Global players in Partnership” (2009) and include a number of issues, namely macro economic and financial matters; environment, climate change and energy; science, research and technology; migration; and, finally, employment and social affairs. The EU is the leading investor in the region and the second largest trading partner after the US. Indeed, from 2007-2013 EU assistance amounts to around €300 billion, while the European Investment Bank is authorised to lend up to €2.8 billion.

However, while EU-Latin American cooperation seems to demonstrate the existence of an equal and flourishing inter-regional relationship, some civil society organisations assert that cooperation often merely serves to strengthen ties that benefit corporate Europe and that official development aid is at times just another channel for draining resources from Latin America to Europe. Activists claim that EU-Latin America often neglect to take into account the economic asymmetries and power imbalances between the two regions, or the social reality and urgent need for development, social justice, environmental protection and defence of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is therefore important that we continue to seek to ensure that EU-Latin American relations and cooperation are mutual, two-directional and reap equal benefits for both regions.

NGOs and Development Aid

An increasing amount of European aid to Latin America is directed through nongovernmental organisations. In fact, 43% of all unofficial aid that Latin America receives comes from the countries of the European Union and since 1992, over 40% of the aid projects co-financed by the EU and NGOs have been based in Latin America. This data indicates that European NGOs are playing an increasingly pivotal role in Latin America, a role which has undergone a number of important changes since the early 1990s. The most important of these changes to note is the increased emphasis on projects that embrace building citizenship, developing civil society and promoting democratisation as the keys to long-term and sustainable development in the region.

Considering the great and increasing influence of European NGOs in Latin America, it is important that we assure that these organisations remain sensitive and responsive to the needs and wants of the region. Cultural diplomacy has a potentially vital role in assuring that this occurs. A failure on the part of European NGOs to research, engage in dialogue with and listen to local populations could have potentially disastrous consequences, resulting in said organisations ultimately doing more harm than good. Thus, unofficial development aid is an element of the contemporary European-Latin American relationship that deserves a great deal of attention.


Due to economic, social and security developments affecting the region in recent decades, emigration has become an important point of focus in Latin America. Today, 2.2 million Latin Americans live in Europe, with the largest populations being found in Spain, Italy and Portugal. European immigration has resulted in the creation of new cultural, social and economic ties linking Europe and Latin America. Indeed, remittances (money sent back to Latin America by migrants living in Europe) have become an increasingly important aspect of economic links between the regions. The fact that the transference of money is often unofficial makes it difficult to monitor and analyze accurately, however, despite this, some argue that remittances play an important role in the development of less developed Latin American regions.

Unfortunately, Latin American immigration in Europe does have a number of related problems. There is notable discrimination and prejudice against Latin American migrants living in Europe. This is an issue in urgent need of address and an area where cultural diplomacy and initiatives designed at increasing contact and dialogue are arguably the best way of ameliorating the situation.

The Potential for Cultural Diplomacy in Improving the European-Latin American Relationship

200 years since the nations of Latin American began their struggle for political independence from Europe, ties between the regions continue to be strong. However, it is clear that, though huge improvements have been made in this respect during the course of the past two centuries, we must continue to strive for a balanced and equal inter-regional relationship, based on mutual exchange and thus resulting in mutual gain. As we consider new strategies to address the issues and problems faced by Latin America, it is essential that we engage meaningfully with the needs of the region and all peoples living within it. In order to assure this is achieved it is essential that we engage in dialogue and recognise the potential of cultural diplomacy in facilitating this. At the same time, while dialogue is undoubtedly of key importance, for this dialogue to be productive, and in order for it to facilitate true understanding and equality, the emphasis must be placed on listening rather than talking; on being receptive to the needs of others rather than trying to articulate and impose one’s own will.

In an effort to address problems of inequality in Latin America and for the European-Latin American relationship to be healthy and fruitful we must, in the words of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, ‘use silence to listen to one another, to touch one another, to know one another’.

In the following final section, two case studies are outlined, providing examples of initiatives designed at promoting development within Latin America and facilitating dialogue between the Latin America region and other regions.

Case Studies: Multilateral Cooperation and Cultural Diplomacy in Latin America and Beyond

The Bilingual Literacy Program of Bolivia

Illiteracy is a very big problem in Bolivia’s Chuquisaca and Potosi regions. About 70% of indigenous women living here are unable read or write. In addition to this, maternal mortality rates are high above the national average. The Bilingual Literacy Program seeks to combat both of these problems by providing literacy training in their native Quechua language and, at the same time, distributing information on healthcare, health insurance and safe maternal practices.

This project, executed by the Vice Ministry of Alternative Education and funded by the United Nations Foundation, was advertised through media and local events. Thanks to the program, 100,000 men and women living in this region have already learned how to read and write. It was for this reason that the project was awarded the UNESCO Malcolm Adiseshian Literacy Prize in 2000.

Supported by the UNFPA (The United Nations Population Fund), the Bilingual Literacy Program provides a good example of an initiative, which aids development by responding to the needs of the local people. By teaching literacy in Quechua the project also ensures that indigenous culture and heritage is promoted and that indigenous participation within the nation does not involve a cultural compromise.

Cultural Diplomacy Through Theatre: Dramatic Adventure – Project Ecuador

Though focused on US- rather than European-Latin American relations, the Dramatic Adventure Theatre Project is an example of an initiative, which uses culture, more specifically theatre, to facilitate a truly mutual inter-cultural exchange. This New York based company, founded in 2006, provides the possibility for international artists to become intimately involved with distant and rural frontiers in order to build a platform where ideas, talent and original works can be shared.

In 2008 the Dramatic Adventure Team travelled to Ecuador, where they collaborated with and empowered local independent artists and young talent from disenfranchised communities. By engaging with young talent and local artists in workshops, the project facilitated an exchange of artistic knowledge. Dramatic Adventure Theatre became part of local communities in significant and tangible ways by teaming up with local non-profits organizations, helping those s raise awareness for the things they do, and participating in projects that assist those organisations in achieving their goals.

In collaboration with local theatre groups, the Dramatic Adventure team also produced a play based on their experiences in Ecuador. This play, “Flight 360” drew on Ecuadorian issues and themes, which stood out as being in urgent need of address, as well as celebrating elements of local cultures they had had made contact with during the seven weeks they spent in the country. The play was performed in both Quito and New York, thus raising inter-cultural awareness in both regions.

The Dramatic Adventure project provides an example of a successful initiative, which could be emulated to facilitate intercultural dialogue and exchange between Europe and Latin America.