According to a February 2023 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Latin America is listed as the third most democratic region in the world after Western Europe and North America. Nearly all 33 Latin American countries have established some form of democratic government, and the push for democracy in Latin America is an ongoing one that has lasted for decades and is supported by people, civil society organizations, and movements both in the region and around the world.
Teresa Garcia Castro, SIS/MA ’18, grew up in Cuba and has always had a close connection to Latin America and the Caribbean; she decided to study international relations to better understand international politics, power dynamics, and human rights systems. Teresa currently serves as the Senior Program Officer for Strategy, Knowledge, and Learning for the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the Open Society Foundations—an organization that provides grants and opportunities for groups and individuals to promote democracy, human rights, and social justice around the world. We caught up with Teresa to discuss her roots, her time at the School of International Service (SIS), and how her work with Open Society Foundations contributes to strengthening democratic and just societies in Latin America and the Caribbean.
From Cuba to SIS
Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Garcia Castro knew that she wanted to focus on Latin American-US relations for her master's degree. Her keen interest in Latin American studies and US foreign policy drew her to SIS, while the expertise of the faculty offered her the best opportunities to explore her academic and professional interests.
“I think part of what makes SIS so special is that they not only provide professional skills and knowledge, but also the community, networks, and resources that you need as you enter the field and start working. Besides the prestigious professors and practitioners, I was able to build a community of peers dedicated to international service who have a deep commitment to the communities we belong to,” said Garcia Castro.
While at SIS, Garcia Castro gained skills and knowledge in various ways including skills institutes, during which students focus on honing skills in particular areas including budgeting, writing memos, or mediating in a crisis. “One of the classes that stood out to me was a course on monitoring, evaluation, and learning with Professor Susanna Campbell. I think it was one of the most challenging and rewarding classes that I had in my master's program. It provided a framework for me to learn from, and that's one of the things that I use most often in my current position,” said Garcia Castro.
Focusing on Latin America
While at SIS, Garcia Castro was able to focus her work on Latin America not just in the classroom, but also through work-related experiences like her capstone practicum. Her practicum client was the US Chamber of Commerce, and the student’s job was to produce different policy recommendations for improving US-Cuba relations. After having her interests fostered while at SIS, Garcia Castro felt empowered to pursue international affairs work focused on Latin America after graduation.
“Growing up, I always took an interest in political and social justice issues and how they can impact traditionally marginalized communities,” Garcia Castro said of her personal and professional interest in Latin America. “I think the region is going through some of the most exciting times right now in terms of social transformation which inspires both me and my work.”
Strengthening Democratic Societies with Open Society Foundations
Garcia Castro currently works for Open Society Foundations, one of the largest private philanthropic organizations in the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Open Society Foundations seek to bolster democratic change by transforming growing public concern about inequality, corruption, violence, and the climate crisis into powerful initiatives and alliances to build an open and safe society. Garcia Castro works in the Latin America and Caribbean program as a senior program officer for strategy, knowledge, and learning and supports movements, groups, and individuals advancing vibrant and inclusive democracies while holding governments accountable.
“Our efforts are shaped by the belief that democracy needs to involve the active and inclusive participation of all people,” Garcia Castro explained. “All people have the right and responsibility to be involved in different levels of decision-making. We seek to bolster democratic change by transforming public concern about inequality, corruption, and violence into powerful initiatives and alliances to build open and safe societies.”
Garcia Castro provides support across different thematic areas Open Society works in the region and explores new ways to learn and evaluate strategies and implement new ways of engaging the public. Her most recent project focuses on fostering economic justice in Latin America, one of the most unequal regions in the world.
Another project that Garcia Castro has been focusing on lately is the push to increase women's political participation: “We have continuously seen how women—particularly Indigenous, LGBT and Black women—have been underrepresented in spaces of power and politics, so seeing them come to power at the local, state, and even federal levels and spur social justice policies has been very exciting.”
Hope for the Future of Democracy in Latin America
While there are several reasons that democracies can struggle, there are two key points that Garcia Castro and the Open Society Foundations are focused on changing in Latin America. The first is creating inclusive and just social environments in which all voices can be heard and taken into consideration in democratic processes. “I think it's important to emphasize the role of communities in democracies. People who are closer to the problems should be closer to the solutions that affect their daily lives, they not only have a better understanding of their realities but should also be at the forefront of public policies,” said Garcia Castro.
The second area that Garcia Castro believes needs to be focused on is rebuilding trust in both the democratic process and democratic institutions. She explained, "When people see that democracies can deliver and governments can address their problems, then you can start to build trust from the bottom up.”