I recently had the chance to attend a unique symposium at downtown Indianapolis’ historic Columbia Club, titled “Combating Anti-Americanism and Populism with Education in Latin America.” Speakers from more than half a dozen countries in North, Central and South America collaborated to present views germane to their homeland and the troubling infiltration of populism into said societies. The key question was essentially whether ignorance is at fault for the unfortunate trend toward the far left-wing corruption of a Chavez type, or if many Latin American nations (Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, etc.) are guilty of an endemic predilection toward those populist tendencies.

Presenters at the symposium (which was sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Indiana-based Sagamore Institute, and the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation) highlighted good and bad news about the progress of education and the economies throughout Latin America. Though in fact, positive trends were clearly in the majority. This was made clear during the ebullient opening comments from Atlas’ CEO Alex Chafuen, who confidently declared that most Latinos are very pro-American “although you won’t hear that on CNN.”

Maria del Carmen Ace√±a, the Minister of Education in Guatemala and the keynote speaker, presented information on the overwhelming educational concerns of the 13 million residents of Guatemala, 45 percent of whom are under the age of 15. Ninety-thousand teachers are currently unemployed in the nation immediately to Mexico’s south, which has a 40 percent indigenous population who primarily speak languages other than Spanish. Over one million Guatemalans now reside in America, where they mainly seeking work and education, due mostly to the corrupt leadership of Alfonso Portillo from 2000-2004. Under his watch, the central government grew out of control, filling his and his comrades’ pockets. Meanwhile, teachers were hired not on merit but via political “favors” to the populist regime. Education of the masses, for obvious reasons, was a non-priority.

And that was the theme of the day. Removing corrupt, populist leaders who are hostile to America, brainwash the citizenry, ignore innovation, fear accountability and are the enemy of freedom is imperative for progress in any nation. Negative attitudes and lowering the populace’s self-esteem seem endemic in certain heads of government, who too often view the rogue Hugo Chavez as a model leader.

The vicious cycle we read about in our history books may sound clich√©, but in numerous nations to our south it’s daily life. As the small percentage of wealthy citizens, often those loyal to the current leaders, constitute the private school student body, the poor become ignorant, angry and eventually supportive of nefarious politicians who blow up the size of federal programs, buy votes and engage financial corruption. The USSR has made its way southwest.

Guatemala borders Mexico directly to the south, and as Chafuen noted, the geographically closer you sit from America, the more favorable the views are of America. For the record, Chafuen stated that only Chile has low government corruption and a rising GDP; and that along with it, Uruguay and Costa Rica are the best Latin American examples of American-style democracy.

Vouchers, which the Friedman Foundation has been supporting for half a century, were shown to serve as the most prominent way to expedite quality education in Latin America. Many of these nations’ public education systems make America’s troubled schools look like New Hampshire’s prep schools in the 1950s. Most speakers stressed that only an eagerness for educational excellence will catapult not only a disdain for the autocrats like Chavez, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Ecuador’s young Chavez-phile Rafael Correa, but a yearning for American style leaders and governance.

In later sessions, Carolina Romero de Bolivar of Mexico’s economic public policy institute, “Instituto Cultural Ludwig Von Mises,” and Venezuelan Jes√∫s Eduardo Rodr√≠guez reiterated the upward march. Bolivar offered effusive praise for the election of Felipe Calderon in the summer of 2006, claiming that “while Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador are going backwards with insane candidates…five more years of Calderon will perfect democracy and improve the situation {in Mexico}.” She called Andres Lopez Obrador — the far left politician who was defeated by Calderon amidst wild, violent protests by his “revolutionary” supporters — a “poison” who fed on ignorance and would have undone six years of past leader Vicente Fox’s hard work.

Rodriguez, of the Caracas-based Centro de Divulgacion del Conocimiento Economico (CEDICE), a center also intent upon spreading economic knowledge, was terse but vehement in noting that emulating America is the best path to freedom and democracy in his country. With 90 percent of the media under government control by coercion and no opposition political parties allowed to exist, Rodriguez said informally educating the masses is key. Whether it comes from Church preachers or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which he called “one of the best invention by civilized society,” informal education is key as “people need to listen” in order to understand each week’s biased referenda from the populists in charge. They can then operate instead under a pro-free market, global society that follows America’s lead. He was rather harsh toward Hugh Chavez, and he closed by by noting “it’s a struggle for democracy each day–a living process.”

Little at the meeting changed any convictions of those nearby me that the glass is definitely half-full despite the scaremongers who predict horrific catastrophes in the so-called “Third World ” to our south. It was clear from the Rodriguez speech that a high majority of his countrymen deplore Hugo Chavez. But as is the tragic case in the Middle East, Cuba and other rogue nations, elections, government-censored television and CNN International do not publicize that.

My future in-laws hail from Colombia, which has been involved in a guerilla civil war with Venezuela since Chavez took office next door. They support the rationale behind the anti-Chavez sentiment. Seeing Chavez (or Castro’s ilk) up close puts things into perspective, as a one-day visit by Steven Spielberg can’t do. There’s clearly a reason so many Communist dissidents from the former Soviet Union and Latin America have right-leaning politics and support democracy. And there’s a reason private school educated folks like my fianc√©e and her family can come to America and succeed extremely rapidly.

Getting the preponderance of Latin Americans to a similar juncture is the challenge.

It then seemed fitting that an eternal optimist like Milton Friedman, known for, among so much else, advocating a minimal role of government in a free market as a means to create political and social freedom, had his foundation sponsor this event. And it was rather enlightening to see that in a world where American media outlets like CBS seems preoccupied with making these dictators seem friendly, my city of residence could put the resources together to have meaningful presentations and discourse on such matters of urgent importance.

Ari Kaufman currently resides in Indianapolis where he is a military historian for the State of Indiana’s War Memorials and an Associate Fellow at the Sagamore Institute. A former Los Angeles schoolteacher, he is the author of Reclamation: Saving our schools starts from within.