I spent the first week of September in Chile and Argentina. Three yeas have elapsed since I last visited Santiago, and I have not been to Buenos Aires for almost four years. It was very good to be back in these two very nice cities.I love to travel in Spanish speaking countries, - I go to Spain and Mexico from time to time in addition to Argentina and Chile. The reason is not just because the people are so wonderful. After all, in my experience, the people have been very nice in just about all countries I have been to around the world. But, being totally immersed for days on end in my native language, is a particularly pleasurable experience, and one that, as I have thought about it, is not only personally appealing but also important to my mental health. Let me explain.
It is well accepted that a good physical exercise plan should include different kinds of workouts, some focused on aerobics to increase cardiovascular endurance, and some anaerobic in nature to strengthen our muscles. In addition to its benefits on our physical health, a regime of exercise also improves our mental health as well as helping to reduce depression.But, advances in brain sciences have begun to show the importance of also exercising our mental faculties. Throughout our lives, our brains need stimulation to be healthy, in the same way that our bodies need physical exercise. A lack of mental exercise and stimulation can result in severe problems, from the time we are born to old age.
I am convinced that as we learn more about the workings of our brains, we will learn how different kinds of stimulation best help different parts of our brain, much as we have learned how to best exercise different parts of our bodies. Furthermore, I am sure that future advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging will show that for those of us who were immersed in different languages at different times in our lives, we can best reach feelings and concepts stored in our brain by using the language were were speaking at the time we experienced and learned them.
I grew up with Spanish all around me for the first fifteen and a half years of my life back in Havana. But, ever since I came to the US in October of 1960, my education, my work and just about everything else have been in English. Over three quarters on my life have been lived in English, but most will agree that those early years represented by my Spanish quarter are pretty important years indeed.
While I speak Spanish fluently, my vocabulary and command of the language are much stronger in English than Spanish. I find it easier to read books and magazines or watch films in English. It would be very difficult for me to write this blog in a language other than English. On the other hand, for some inexplicable reason, I have trouble appreciating poetry in English, but I do enjoy Spanish poets like Jose Marti, Pablo Neruda, and especially, Federico Garcia Lorca. Maybe you have to appreciate poetry with the more primal parts of your brain, which in my case were formed in Spanish.
Similarly, while all my technical education has been in English, I typically can add numbers much more easily in Spanish because that is how I learned my arithmetic tables and undoubtedly, that is how they are stored in my brain. And then there are churros, a crunchy taste of which seems to flood my brain with childhood memories.
In addition to the people and the language, I found my week in Argentina and Chile fascinating because it enabled me to look at the major trends in the world through the eyes of the various groups I talked to in each country.
The US, from whose vantage point I generally look at the world, is clearly among the richest and most powerful countries in the world, with a population of more than 305 million and a per capita GDP around $47,000. The US is ranked number 3 in terms of population; Argentina is ranked 32 at 40 million, and Chile is number 60 with 7 million.In GDP per capita, the US is ranked around 5, behind only countries with much smaller populations, like Lichtenstein, Qatar and Singapore. Chile and Argentina with similar GDPs per capita of around $14,500 are ranked in the 50s. The world’s average GDP per capita is $10,500, placing Chile and Argentina in the top third, - upper-middle in terms of income. Both countries are viewed by the World Bank as emerging economies.
Buenos Aires and Santiago are great, impressive world capitals and urban metropolitan areas, with populations approaching 13 million and 6 millions respectively. They both seem to be doing very well by almost any measure. But it is very interesting to talk to people about globalization, innovation and the evolution of cities, the topics that dominated most of our conversations when we were not discussing the football competition currently underway to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The view of the world from Buenos Aires and Santiago is somewhat different to that from New York, London, Boston and other cities in which I usually have such conversations.
When we talk about the global economy in the US, the underlying assumption is that the country is fighting to preserve its overall innovation leadership, and thus continue to create good jobs and hold on to its high standard of living in the face of powerful new global competition, especially from emerging economies like China and India.
Argentina and Chile are not competing for global leadership except in selected areas. Among their top concerns is their role in a globally integrated economy, feeling squeezed between wealthy countries like the US and countries with lower labor costs like China and India. Given their size and resources, how can they best find their uniquely differentiated positions or niches among the global giants out there as well as among the other mid-size countries around the world which are also competing to find their own niches?
The only possible approach is innovation, which we discussed extensively around conference room tables as well as over the good dinners and excellent wines for which both countries are justifiably famous. In the industrial economy that we are now leaving behind, the competition for innovation was assumed to require designing new products and technologies and building factories to manufactures all sorts of goods. In that capital-intensive industrial economy, economies of scale have been paramount, putting mid-size countries at a disadvantage against the larger, wealthier countries like the US, Japan, Germany and more recently, China and India.But, in the emerging knowledge economy things are playing out differently. Innovation should be pursued everywhere and in everything. It is no longer just in labs and factories, but in whatever areas the country chooses to excel at and focus on.
Argentina and Chile are each blessed with good natural resources and a well educated population, and they are both quite integrated into the overall global economy. But, as is the case everywhere in the world, considerable cooperation is required between the public, private and academic sectors for a country to do well in our highly competitive world. In addition, the country needs a strong commitment to education and a healthy business environment. Open markets are critical, I believe, in order to both facilitate the creation of new companies and jobs, as well as trade and collaboration with companies and nations around the world.You cannot spend much time in Latin America and not quickly get to politics, although perhaps that is now universal given how much politics dominates discussions in the US and around the world these days. A look at their recent history will show that both countries, have had their share of dictatorships and military coups. Chile has been a stable democracy since 1990, and will hold presidential elections later this year. Argentina has also been democratic since 1983, and recently held congressional elections.
I came away with the feeling that both Argentina and Chile are poised to do very well in the 21st century. They have most of the critical ingredients, especially human capital and natural resources. Hopefully, the right partnerships will be formed between a continuing democratic public sector, a vibrant private sector, and an innovative academic community that will move each country toward a very promising future.