Listen to this article
As a continent convulsed by a love-hate relationship with global capitalism, it seems only right that Latin America has been home to both diehard Davos regulars and an “anti-Davos” rival summit.
Conceived by two Brazilian activists, Oded Grajew and Chico Whitaker, the World Social Forum was launched in 2001 to champion “counter-hegemonic globalisation”. Its aim was to give a voice to a wide range of social movements and bring to global attention a radically different vision to the capitalist one infusing the Swiss mountain summit.
The WSF’s charter defined it as a “meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism”.
The “anti-Davos” proved a big hit with Latin America’s “Pink Tide” of leftwing leaders early this century. In 2009, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appeared at the WSF in the Brazilian Amazon city of Belém, along with fellow socialist presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. About 1,900 indigenous people from 190 ethnic groups also attended.
Part of the WSF’s undoing was its very radicalism. Keen to prove its anti-Davos credentials, it banned declarations of any kind and refused to appoint spokespeople. The pink tide was to ebb as bluer, more conservative waters lapped at Latin America’s shores.
A decade later, Davos holds its 50th annual meeting, while the future of its alt-globalist rival seems uncertain. The last WSF meeting was held in Brazil in 2018 and its website makes no mention of a 2020 event. The backing it enjoyed from Lula (since jailed for corruption) is a distant memory.
Latin America’s centre-right Davosians have also endured their woes. Argentina’s Mauricio Macri pitched his economy at the WEF as an investor-friendly haven but lost his re-election bid last year. His critics blamed Argentina’s deep economic crisis on faulty free-market policies. No surprise that his replacement, leftist leader Alberto Fernández, is skipping this Davos.
President Sebastián Piñera of Chile, his country long seen as the region’s best advertisement for globalist, investor-friendly policies, attended a WEF gathering in New York in September. His hosts praised him, a billionaire businessman, as a leader capable of embodying public-private co-operation.
Less than a month later, riots engulfed Chile as citizens rose up against some of the country’s less popular free-market economic policies and demanded the resignation of Mr Piñera. He is not expected to attend the WEF this year.
Now the Davos model faces a fresh challenge, with Latin America’s three biggest economies all ruled by populists of the left or right.
Symbolising the change, a very different Brazilian president took to the stage in 2019. Jair Bolsonaro, a conservative former army captain, delivered a message not often heard at the WEF: “Our motto is God above all.” Mr Bolsonaro shunned the elite wining and dining element of the forum, lunching alone in a supermarket food court, and is reported not to be coming this year at all.
Mexican presidents used to be enthusiastic WEF participants. Leftist incumbent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, however, has put the presidential plane up for sale and eschews foreign travel in favour of road trips to Mexico’s remote indigenous communities. The best foreign policy, he says, is domestic policy.
Despite Latin America’s seesawing politics, some business and political leaders do value the opportunity to bring their often-neglected region to the attention of a global audience. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s former president, first went to Davos as one of the forum’s Young Global Leaders 30 years ago. He returned numerous times as cabinet minister and then head of state.
“For any Latin American leader, Davos represents a great opportunity to do what it was created to do: networking,” he said. “If you know how to use the forum well and plan the limited time carefully, you can get a huge benefit.”
Latin Americans might also use Davos to learn lessons from one of the world’s biggest economic success stories of past decades. In 1971, when the WEF held its inaugural meeting, the Asean countries were forgotten backwaters with largely rural economies, many scarred by war and poverty.
Today Malaysia has higher GDP per capita than Brazil, Mexico or Argentina. Thailand has overtaken Peru and Colombia. Venezuela, once Latin America’s wealthiest nation, is now poorer per capita than Laos.
The secret of south-east Asia’s success, the distinguished Singaporean academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani told a Davos panel on Latin America last year, was inclusive growth. “It is very important that people, especially those at the very bottom, must feel that tomorrow will be better than today,” he explained.
Latin American leaders fearful of unrest in 2020 could do worse than to heed that advice.
Get alerts on World Economic Forum in Davos when a new story is published