Ten of our students from the Belize High School attended the XIX HACIA Democracy Summit of the Americas, 2013 which was held from March 13 to the 17th in the Dominican Republic—a first time for the Caribbean, as prior to this year, HACIA Summits had been concentrated in Latin America. For Belize, our school’s participation in the event was also an historic first time—not only for us, but for our nation. HACIA, the brainchild of several Harvard undergraduate students, was founded in May 1994. Recognizing the need to establish and foster institutionalized democracy throughout the region, the founders aimed to create an educational government simulation that focused on domestic and international issues in the Americas. Based on this mission, HACIA set out to address the concerns of countries within the Western Hemisphere and to encourage both staff and delegates to explore unfamiliar but pressing perspectives affecting the region.
The International School of Panama was at the forefront of the HACIA movement, and was critical to the success of HACIA’s first conference, Expo ’95, which held in Panama City, Panama. Therefore, it is of little surprise that 10 schools from Panama participated in this year’s Summit. Delegations from Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama had attended the first conference, and in the 2013 XIX HACIA Summit, of the 33 schools that participated, most hailed from Latin America. As the push has been to include a diversity of viewpoints, HACIA has been reaching out to embrace delegates from other nations, and in 2009, welcomed a delegation from China. This year, to enrich the Latin American perspective, delegates included one school from the United States, one from the Dominican Republic and the other from Belize. The growth of HACIA has been marked, also, with the inclusion of complementing Spanish language committees.
But what exactly is involved in the work of these undergraduate Harvard students who administer the organization of HACIA? Historically, the main focus of the Summit of the Americas aims to offer delegate participants, in its annual conference, the opportunity to simulate the proceedings of the Organization of American States (OAS). According to HACIA’s mission, the conference is aimed at high school students interested in democratic advancement and development, in line with the goals of HACIA’s founding members who conceived of the organization in order to offer an educational experience that focused on domestic and regional issues in the Americas.
Based at Harvard University, the organization is staffed and entirely administered by Harvard undergraduates. HACIA also has a number of faculty advisers at Harvard who have an established academic interest in the American continent. The organization’s staff is drawn from a wide variety of intellectual and cultural backgrounds who share a common interest in Latin American and international affairs. The staff and the Board of HACIA work throughout the year to deliver a successful conference every March. In addition, participating schools and a variety of institutions in the host country play an important role in the planning of the conference.
The organizers of HACIA have stated that the collaborative arrangement between university and high school students—interested in promoting democratic ideas—is unique among government simulation conferences, as HACIA’s primary goal is to provide student participants with an opportunity to discuss and practice democracy through different forums.
As lead faculty adviser to our ten students from the Belize High School, I noted that the proceedings, employing the Organization of American States (OAS) model, simulated its stated principles of cooperation, consensus, and negotiation. With some 500 delegates from over 30 schools, the Summit delivered on its promise on many levels. Certainly, for our students from the Belize High School, this participation has been invaluable. Given our infancy as a school that has been in existence for only three years, and with an equally teething debate club, we did not expect to walk away with any awards (just our being able to participate was an achievement in itself), but rather with knowledge—not only of HACIA, but of the other participating schools and of other cultures. And, we did not come away disappointed. Our delegates had the opportunity to participate as delegates of other nations on committees that included the following: the Inter-American Children’s Institute, the Inter-American Commission on Hemispheric Security, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Development Bank, the OAS Special Mission, and the Pan American Health Organization. Other committees included Trujillo’s Cabinet, Gabinete de Pinochet, Cumbre de las Americas, and Reunión de Consulta de Ministros Exteriores de la OEA.
Returning delegates have had in some cases 2 to 4 years experience participating in HACIA Summits. I observed that, in the first place, these students have mastered, superbly, the intricacies of parliamentary proceedings. Acting very much in the personas of ambassadors from the various countries they represented, these delegates demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of current affairs, not only occurring regionally, but also, internationally. Delegates all had to submit a position paper prior at the commencement of the Summit, and their arguments demonstrated a keen understanding of key issues and the complexity of problems associated with topics such as prison reform (implications for treatment of the marginalized, and criminal justice legislation), malnutrition, gang violence, hemispheric security issues (those threatening the ‘integrity of democratic institutions’), political crises, human rights (e.g. the right to live versus the right to die), and other political and socio-economic telling issues.
Delegates were not permitted to use computers once in session, and had to present arguments on the strength of prior research that, undoubtedly, indicated wide ranging, significant and critical knowledge of topics. To ensure that delegates are being trained to think critically, they were placed in other simulated settings in which they had to reach resolutions in crises situations and to address, democratically, issues of national and international import. Simultaneously, high school students interested in journalism were integrated in the Summit. Forming HACIA’s Press Corps, they covered the Summit’s events, generating bulletins even as the activities occurred. The newest addition to HACIA’s Press Corps, was an NGO program which was comprised of delegates that had expressed a desire to give voice to sectors of the population that traditionally have not been recognized in country summits.
In the final analysis, what did our Belize High School students learn? Lessons learned are that education is about creating human capacity through the development of critical thinking skills; and, that as a nation, we need to foster models that nurture democratic participation. For, if our leaders are not trained to participate in the world stage of diplomacy, when they represent our nation, they will not be able to measure up to the region’s best trained minds who from an early age are being groomed to negotiate, lead assertively, think critically, express themselves articulately, and represent their country’s best interests on pressing issues on a global stage.
Our region’s children in Latin America are being prepped and groomed from an early age. Ambassadorial in bearing, already they demonstrate the stamp of success whatever their future choice of career. Here, I could already foresee successful entrepreneurs, doctors, attorneys, diplomats, and politicians among other professionals who lead a nation. Without a doubt, it takes money to effect such training—of the 30 participating schools only one, I understand, was a public school.
So what is our government doing to ensure that our young people who cannot afford financially to participate in such an event, do not lag behind? When I worked as a consultant to develop the National Youth Development Policy back in 2006, I observed that then, and seven years later, that as a nation we lack the wherewithal to implement actual reform for our development of our youth—who, ironically, will become our future leaders. Look at how long it took to legislate, finally, the Policy! We need to move away from partisan politics and away from paper to actualization of programs to develop our youth on levels that will enable them to participate on equal footing with the region’s best minds of trained young people. However, we cannot make any gains as a nation, if we suppress or oppress our academics. For, if at the very top of the education hierarchy our nation continues to marginalize and silence our academics, how do we expect as a nation to engender in our youth, critical thinking skills and successful leadership.
I truly was impressed to observe the proceedings of HACIA Democracy, 2013, and believe that all our youth should be able to enjoy similar training if we, as a nation, are to achieve the goals of economic, social and political development on a national platform and through strategic regional integration.
The Belize High School delegates included: Ashley Gillett, President of the BHS Debate Club; María Moh, Carissa Perera, Alexis Musa, Breannah Musa, Renee Schakron, Kristen Chamberlain, David Hoy, Brian Garbutt, and Marianna Moguel. Lead Faculty Adviser, Dr. María Isabel Tun, PhD; Faculty Advisers—Parents: Mrs. Filomena Moh, Mrs. Martha Garbutt, Mr. Carlos Perera, Dr. Inez Moguel, and Dr. José Moguel.