Annual June conference in Miami has been helping and shaping Latin America for decades | Opinion

Historically, Latin America has been characterized by highly centralized, often dictatorial, and frequently brutal governments.

However, over the past four decades, despite some highly visible occasional setbacks, Latin America has been the scene of significant efforts to build more democratic societies.

At the heart of many such undertakings have been initiatives that simultaneously sought to encourage both governmental decentralization and the strengthening of local government throughout the hemisphere. The progress has been significant. Four decades ago almost no Latin American country elected either local or regional government officials with all such individuals being appointed by the country’s president.

Today, virtually every country in the region elects local government officials and many elect regional governors. In many countries, these elections have served as the vehicles by which once monolithic, political party machines have been forced to give way to more pluralistic governing systems. In part, these efforts have been the result of local demands for more responsive, participatory and accountable governance.

They also have been very strongly encouraged and supported by various international organizations and national aid agencies as a means to improve the quality of public service delivery. In more recent years, these efforts also have been guided by a growing recognition that strong local governments have the capacity to play important roles in local, regional and national economic development.

Since the summer of 1995, each June, local and regional, as well as some national, government officials from throughout Latin America have been coming together in Miami to assess the progress being made in the building of local democracy and to develop strategies to further advance the strengthening of municipal government throughout the hemisphere as a means of both building democratic institutions and advancing the economic well-being of Latin America’s people.

Sponsored by Miami-Dade and organized by Florida International University’s Institute for Public Management & Comm Service, some 500 local government leaders from throughout the hemisphere will once again gather in Miami from June 17-20 for what will be the 25th annual inter-American Conference of Mayors and Local Authorities.

They will be participating in what has become the largest annual non-political gathering of Latin Americans concerned with the building of local government.

The conference will be kicked off with a keynote address by Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the hemisphere’s most important multinational organization, the Inter-American Development Bank.

In addition to U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo and Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto, a long time advocate of strengthening of local government throughout Latin America, conference attendees will hear from an array of prominent figures from throughout the hemisphere.

For the past 25 years, ideas and initiatives emerging from this annual meeting have significantly influenced the actions of presidents, parliaments and regional authorities throughout Latin America in terms of the strengthening of local governments and the enhancement of their role in the construction of democratic institutions.

Of particular note, the conference, in many instances, has enabled both national and international leaders to learn about the importance of strong local governments for both economic and democratic development. As the long time President of the IDB, Enrique Iglesias, frequently noted, it was through his participation in this conference that he first realized the importance of the bank working with local governments. Similarly, the conference has served as both an inspiration and a learning opportunity for those at the grass roots of democratic development.

As the then mayor of Asunción, Paraguay, one of the most democratically challenged countries of the hemisphere, commented in a Miami Herald story a decade ago, “The conference is like a great supermarket of ideas for local government officials.”

Allan Rosenbaum, a professor, is director of the Institute for Public Management and Community Service and Center for Democracy and Good Governance at Florida International University .