San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Oppenheimer: Why is Latin America failing?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and celebrated Latin American author Andres Oppenheimer spent months visiting the prospering nations of China, Finland, India, Switzerland, Israel and Singapore recently. Though Argentine by birth and a current resident of Miami, Florida, in the United States, where he pens a syndicated column for The Miami Herald, Oppenheimer headed east to find out why some countries are surging in educational development while Latin America lags behind. 

Oppenheimer found that for many countries, progress is linked to investment in education. 

“None of the countries I visited have anything in common politically, but the one thing they have in common is a national obsession for education, science and technology,” Oppenheimer said Wednesday night at the Double Tree Hotel Cariari in Alajuela, northwest of San José. “They understand that economic development and education go hand-in-hand. In order to develop economically, these countries have invested relentlessly in education, and now they are beginning to see the results.”

Oppenheimer, a keynote speaker at a health and education forum organized by international consulting firm Deloitte and Costa Rican Medical Holding, spoke for an hour and a half on the relationship between educational development and economic growth in other parts of the world. He noted that countries like Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica are falling behind. 

“The reason Latin America is lagging behind is because we are obsessed with the past, while other countries are looking towards the future,” Oppenheimer said.

In characteristically wry and entertaining style, Oppenheimer pulled out a Singapore dollar to emphasize his point. On the back of the bill, the illustration included a university, students, and a classroom. At the bottom of the bill was written “education.” 

“In Latin America, our bills have images of our past, such as farmers and past presidents and historical figures,” he said. “In other countries, the mindset doesn’t look at the past, it looks ahead.” 

Oppenheimer said that countries like Costa Rica must consider further educational investment in long-term increments if it wishes to further develop economically. He said that given the four-year political system, governments are confined to thinking in the short term. For educational, technological and scientific gains to be made, Oppenheimer suggested that Costa Rica and other Latin American countries invest more of their budgets on education, create exchange programs with other countries, and establish long-term plans to promote scientific and technological advances. 

“Of the three major university educational rankings in the world, only two of the top 200 universities were located in Latin America,” he said. “If our countries are interested in keeping pace with the rest of the world, our educational institutions must be considered the drivers to take us there.” 

Oppenheimer’s speech was complemented by earlier speeches during the forum, which concentrated on improving education and training in the health field to bolster national health care and medical tourism. Christian Rivera, a plastic surgeon and president of Costa Rican Medical Holding, a medical tourism consortium, said that Costa Rica must begin to promote itself as a “blue” destination instead of solely focusing on its green image. 

“We have excellent health care here and some of our hospitals are certified by some of the most prestigious boards in the world. The problem is that not many people in the international community know that,” Rivera told The Tico Times. “For the last 30 years we have promoted this country as a ‘green’ destination: eco-tourism, forests, mountains, rafting, and nature. That is great, but we think it is time to couple the green marketing with mention of the great health care also offered here. We need to promote Costa Rica’s ‘blue’ offerings in health care as well.” 

Sheryl Cougling, a leading Deloitte researcher in the U.S., discussed a recent study about international health care and the attitudes towards medical tourism. According to Cougling, participants from the 12 countries surveyed expressed overall dissatisfaction with health care services, including costs and availability of services. 

“It seems that globally and generally, people are not super happy about medical care,” Cougling said. “There is plenty of room for improvement.” 

Cougling said the study also asked respondents about their willingness to consider seeking health care in other countries. The study found that up to 25 percent of participants said they would consider foreign medical care, though only about 2 percent actually had done so. 

“If only 1 or 2 percent of U.S. residents consider medical tourism, that is still a very large number of people,” Rivera said. “We are a small country, so attracting a larger amount of that 1 percent could provide significant gains for Costa Rica’s economy.”  

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