Latin America's Brain Drain

LIKE flight capital in offshore banks, Latin America's best and brightest are abandoning their homelands in search of better opportunities. This brain drain dims the region's prospects for economic recovery. Speaking recently at the Organization of American States, President Luis Alberto Lacalle of Uruguay warned of ``the intellectual decapitalization of Latin America.'' He said that Latins educated in the United States and Europe are marketing themselves abroad rather than seeking jobs at home.

With the Gulf crisis causing a global capital crunch, it's unlikely that recovery plans for debtor nations will have the financial clout to help replace the nuts and bolts missing from Latin America's infrastructure.

Meanwhile, policymakers tend to overlook the cause-and-effect relationship between Latin corporatism, which subordinates individuals to the aims of the state, and the brain drain. Even as the Soviet Union acknowledges that its collectivist system can no longer create wealth and well-being, Latins continue to devote a large portion of their resources to protecting state interests.

Argentina's idea of privatization is to sell controlling interests in its state airline and telephone companies to state monopolies run by European governments. Venezuela is plowing windfall oil profits into state projects that ignore the structural weaknesses of its economy.

With the state continuing to regulate job opportunities by controlling the growth of free enterprise, young Latin professionals must decide between competing for high-wage jobs in Miami and Madrid, or driving a taxi at home.

Economic restructuring supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund won't by itself generate the growth that could lure back a generation of expatriate Latin professionals. But in-country programs that help bridge the north-south technology gap can provide Latin American children with educational opportunities relevant to the region's economic future.

President Lacalle of Uruguay has proposed the creation of a global university as one way of slowing the Latin brain drain. It would employ satellite television and computer networks to link professors in the US and possibly other industrial nations with students who want to help turn things around in Latin America. Worldnet, the interactive satellite television network employed successfully by the United States Information Agency to promote democracy in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and other regions could serve as a technical model for such efforts. Initial financing for the program could come from ``debt for education'' swaps and from companies willing to donate or provide at low cost personal computers and satellite time.

In December, George Bush is scheduled to become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to tour the southern cone of Latin America. But the visit to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay is overshadowed by a budget battle that will keep Mr. Bush from making hoped-for promises of major new assistance. Although the Bush plan for a hemispheric free trade zone was praised initially in Latin capitals, a growing number of regional leaders are demanding a debt and aid package beyond the means of Washington and the banks.

With civilian-military relations in several Latin American nations still problematic, Washington has made a quiet retreat on human rights that may accelerate the brain drain. Yielding to White House pressure, the same Congress that's decrying atrocities by Iraqis in Kuwait has refused to link assistance under the International Narcotics Control Act to the human-rights performance of recipient armed forces. The act provides US funds and advisers to armies conducting counterinsurgency operations.

With the battle between Latin reformers and corporatists at a standoff, the armed forces (and their civilian supporters) are poised to break the stalemate. Argentina's growing Fuerza Republicana (Republican Force) party, led by retired Gen. Antonio Bussi and supported by former junta members and ``dirty war'' veterans, is calling for a stronger state sector. Argentine congressional and gubernatorial elections will be held early next year; the success of Fuerza Republicana will be watched by other ultranationalist, military-backed political parties in Latin America.

Efforts by governments to subordinate the rights of individuals and enterprises to the state will slow the cadence of Latin America's march toward democracy and development. If Latins remain ambiguous about economic and individual freedoms, and if Washington continues to waffle on Latin human rights, the intellectual decapitalization of the region will continue.

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