Patricio Navia, master teacher of New York University’s Liberal Studies Program and a renowned Chilean political commentator, discussed Thursday how Latin American countries are working to overcome historic socioeconomic inequalities.
Navia spoke to roughly 20 students in William L. Harkness Hall about the challenges Latin American countries — and Chile in particular — face in redesigning their political landscape around a growing middle class. As Latin American nations work to overcome class inequalities, Navia said “pragmatism and gradualism” will be vital in helping countries implement reform.
Latin America is at an interesting crossroads, Navia said, as poverty declines and the rising middle class demands more attention from political leaders. He added that while many commentators and authors today claim that Latin America is “taking off” economically, those who think “more critically” agree that shifting class dynamics present problems for the region.
A Chilean native, Navia is well known throughout Latin America for his columns and other published work. He attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, earned a master’s in political science at the University of Chicago, and received a Ph.D. in politics from New York University in 2003.
Though poverty has diminished in Chile since democracy was restored there in 1990, Navia said that change has not decreased economic inequality, but rather has made everyone “simply better off.” He said the middle class has not received enough attention from policy makers, who have focused on addressing the needs of the poor.
“While all models predicted that inequality should have increased [in Chile], the level of inequality has actually remained the same,” he said.
Inequality has persisted throughout the history of Chile and other Latin American countries, Navia said, but not necessarily with entirely negative implications. He noted that countries need some amount of inequality to foster competition and economic growth.
Navia said government policies can help alleviate inequality. He added that even though Chile’s improvement has been limited, the nation is moving in the right direction. He said Chile has benefited from stable political institutions since the restoration of democracy and a market-friendly economy.
“If Chile is the patient in the hospital, the patient is making some progress,” he said.
As Chile pursues reform, the country has also kept some elements of its previous political infrastructure, which Navia said has aided its efforts to implement change. By contrast, Navia said many other Latin American countries have struggled in overhauling their governments because they tend to destroy the foundations of their previous state.
The talk was met with interest from several students, many of whom are involved in the Latin American Students Organization, which sponsored the event.
“Professor Navia presented a useful historical and economic context for understanding recent political trends in Chile, and a perspective on how Chile’s current situation compares to other nations in Latin America,” Rachel Brown ’15 said.
Murat Dagli ’14 said he was happy to hear an optimistic discussion of Latin America, a region he said is often associated with violence, drugs, poverty and other negative phenomena.
The talk was held as part of Latin American Week, which ends Friday.
Correction March 30
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Latin American Students Organization.