The 2022 Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative fellowship photo: [from left to right] Georgia Barbosa (Brazil), Facundo Cajén (Argentina), Gerardo Perez (Dominican Republic), U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Luis Villatoro Villaherrera (El Salvador), and Bevon Charles (Grenada).
That’s the phrase that popped into my head when I met U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the IX Summit of the Americas. I used the same phrase to get the attention of the team of USAID Administrator, Samantha Power, Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Minnesota Senator and former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar. I am from El Salvador, a country that elected a “cool” president named Nayib Bukele in 2019. But, soon afterwards, that so-called “cool” president kidnapped Salvadoran institutions like the Congress and Supreme Court that were supposed to defend our citizens. Just last week, he even announced he will seek re-election, despite the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms in our Constitution.
In this article, I would like to explain why I attended the Summit of the Americas, what I learned, and what my experience might mean for Hemispheric cooperation. I, along with four others, were part of a Department of State program that selected young leaders from across the Western Hemisphere to participate at high-level round tables with key stakeholders at the IX Summit of the Americas. At my round table, which covered digital transformation and innovation, I addressed an impressive group of public and private sector officials including Advisor of the Argentine President Cecilia Nicolini, Jamaican Minister of Industry Aubyn Hill, Google Senior Government Affairs Lead Eleonora Rabinovich, and MILLCOM Vice President Karim Antonio Lesina. As I heard from each participant, I was able to understand and analyze an extended perspective about the importance of infrastructure and access to internet for the general population and how those tools can connect a wider network of not just infrastructure but also people.
As each presenter laid out their arguments, I began formulating my own follow-up statements and questions. As I see it, connecting people below the poverty line to internet and giving digital tools to help them is an admirable cause; however, leaders like the ones at the round table needed to address an important issue that no one had broached: how the very same technology can have a negative impact eroding democracy and civic participation. Right now, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and no, I am not talking about COVID-19; anyone with internet access is flooded by fake news and disinformation that enhances polarization among all people in the Western Hemisphere. This disease is worldwide, and the United States had to face its late-stage effects on January 6, 2021, with alarming results. Leaders and heads of government are using the very same tactics that caused January 6 to a frightening degree.
Fake news and polarization is damaging democracy and these phenomena are especially dangerous when governments use digital tools to intentionally sow conflict—pitting “patriots” against “traitors.” For example, El Salvador’s government is currently dividing many communities, flooding people with determinations on what is and isn’t fake news. Transparency is key in every level to build a better and sustainable future, and at my round table I made a call to the private sector and specifically to the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (BCIE) represented there by Dante Mossi for them not to reward authoritarian governments for their abuses against democracy and instead use their resources to help communities at the local level. El Salvador is facing the erosion of democracy, so it is important for all sectors and industries to work together to provide a forum for open discussions and critiques so that all stakeholders to grow. Disseminating fake news can destroy people’s lives, businesses, and relationships because now more than ever, the disease is advancing and nobody knows how to regulate the conversation.
I have extensive experience in helping support democracy and transparency which gave me the opportunity to secure a seat at the IX Summit of the Americas. I am the founder of the first youth-lead organization that focuses on transparency, social control, and open data (TRACODA). In addition, I am the creator of GobData, an app that shows public information in a more user-friendly way exposing corruption and nepotism putting names, types of contracts, salaries, and job titles of different government institutions and tackling fake news and disinformation. Being part of the IX Summit of the Americas was the experience of a lifetime because it allowed me to use my voice in the rooms where the decisions are made.
After the rollercoaster of the IX Summit, I traveled to Minneapolis where I was able to work alongside different organizations that helped me learn about the systemic injustice which caused the tragic murder of George Floyd and how the black community and its allies then demanded a change in the structure and practices of policing. Hearing about the coverage of the protest and how certain media outlets casted them as “riots” or “uprisings” and what those words mean and signal to different people was fascinating.
Finally, I was part of meetings with journalists that cover police personal data surveillance to deter protestors in the city. Alongside these meetings, I observed how young people (and older folks) organized so fast in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs Wade. One of the highlights for me was learning the various chants like: “What democracy look like?” “This is what democracy looks like!” Seeing people able to express their discontent toward the Supreme Court is something I wish that we can achieve in El Salvador. The ability to go out to the streets when we disagree and use our voices to demand respect for our fundamental human rights without the fear of a government crackdown was truly inspiring to see.
I ended my fellowship with the closing forum in Washington D.C., the place to be to move our cause. I had meetings with a lot of staffers from the Department of State, including the staff directly involved with El Salvador and Central America. In addition, I had meetings with people from USAID and staff members from the Department of State, specifically from the Democratic Summit, to talk about creating spaces to engage citizens in the region and how important it is to be loud and discuss in different levels the importance of democracy.
The United States may have its problems, but its democracy is active and no one is afraid to raise their voices on the streets or question the government; however, in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba this is not the case. The governments there use their power to harass civil society organizations and journalists using fake news to smear independent media’s credibility. I learned a lot from my fellowship and gained helpful insights on topics related to fake news, leadership, democracy, and transparency. The fellowship and the meetings allowed me to open a dialogue and keep that conversation going because the key to tackling fake news, polarization, manipulative information, and disinformation is to reduce the passive indignation in our countries and look to raise our voices wherever and whenever we can.
Luis Villatoro Villaherrera is the founder of GobData and TRACODA, among the first organizations in El Salvador to use data analysis to create transparency.