Peruvian leader on the costs — personal and political — of global poverty
Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo shined shoes and sold lottery tickets as a boy in the Andes. A half century later, he had ascended to that nation’s highest office, serving as president from 2001 to 2006. On Dec. 2, his personal journey helped to illustrate a talk he gave to a standing-room-only audience in Royce Hall about the fight against global poverty. The lecture was sponsored by the Burkle Center, the International Institute and the Latin American Institute.
"In the world of probability there is always an error margin," he said. "I am the result of that error margin, and I'm determined to take advantage of that."
Worldwide, 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and 1.1 billion survive on less than $1. In Latin America alone, those numbers are 220 million and 110 million, Toledo said.
The founder and president of the Global Center for Development and Democracy spoke of poverty, inequality and social exclusion as evils in themselves and warned of the consequences of failing to reduce all three. The current global financial crisis threatens to reverse recent progress in lifting Latin Americans and others out of poverty, he said. At the same time, poverty and the political instability it brings threaten investment and growth.
“If we’re not able to reduce those levels of poverty and inequality,” Toledo said, “we’ll not only truncate growth, we’ll not only undermine democracy, but we might be stimulating the expansion of authoritarian populism.”
For Latin America, such a failure would mean that “the region might lose an incredible, unique opportunity to make a qualitative jump and to take a predominant place in the world economy in the next 10 or 15 years.”
Toledo, who holds a doctorate in the economics of human resources and has taught at universities on three continents, went on to draw connections between macroeconomic issues and everyday struggles.
"Income as a measure of poverty … doesn't tell you the drama of people who don't have access to clean water, access to rural electricity, access to good quality of health and education, access to a decent job,” he said.
Calling for “equal trade” instead of free trade dictated on terms set out by powerful nations, Toledo criticized U.S. and European farm subsidies and said that trade pacts should be written to allow “the poor woman in the Andes” to sell sweaters abroad.
“A free trade agreement to me only makes sense if this becomes a wagon, a train that pulls the medium, the small and the micro-entrepreneurship.”
Before leaving office, Toledo negotiated a bilateral trade pact with the United States and agreed on the framework for another with Thailand. Burkle Center Senior Fellow Kantathi Suphamongkhon, who introduced Toledo at the lecture as “a man of the people” and “a true leader,” was the Thai trade representative at the time.
The former president repeatedly appealed to international students in the audience to return to their countries after receiving a UCLA education. Over the last 60 years, he said, Latin America in particular has developed considerable human capital that it must stop losing.
“Please don't forget that your country is waiting for you,” he said.
Responding to a Cuban student who asked how she could return to a dictatorship, Toledo expressed optimism about that country’s democratic future. “Times change,” he said, pointing to the groundbreaking U.S. Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — a woman and a biracial man.
“Maybe in the next 20 to 25 years,” he added, “it would not surprise you if we had a United States president of Latin descent.”