The gap between the Latin American countries that are focusing on the future and those that keep dwelling on the past may soon grow a little wider.
That was my first thought when Chile's education minister, Sergio Bitar, told me in a telephone interview last week that the first issue on the agenda of Thursday's meeting of 21 education ministers from Pacific Rim countries in Santiago, Chile, will not be the battle against illiteracy but the adoption of English as a second language.
In what may be one of the world's most significant cultural phenomena, most of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group (APEC) -- a group that includes China, South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Mexico and Peru -- are making impressive gains in teaching English to their schoolchildren.
Asian countries are way ahead of the game, which may help explain their impressive economic success over the past decade. According to a 20-page APEC study to be released at the meeting, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong have the most ambitious English-teaching programs: They start teaching English in all schools in the first grade.
China and Korea come next, with obligatory English classes starting in third grade. In China, an estimated 250 million children take four hours a week of English classes between the third and 12th grade, the comparative study says.
Latin America is way behind. The most advanced country is Chile, which last year became the first nation in the region to adopt English as an obligatory second language for all schoolchildren starting in the fifth grade, when they take two hours of English classes a week.
''The program is having a huge impact on society, especially among working-class people who see it as an instrument for social mobility,'' Bitar says. ``Our goal is to install English as a working language, which will allow every person to read, have a basic understanding and even talk a little bit in English.''
As of today, only 2 percent of all adult Chileans speak English, according to education ministry estimates. Starting this year, all Chilean schoolchildren starting in the fifth grade will have free English-language textbooks. In addition to offering computer-assisted English language lessons, the Chilean government is exploring college student-exchange programs with New Zealand and the United States to help train teachers in Chile.
Simultaneously, Chile is beginning to offer tax breaks to companies that provide English courses to their employees, with an eye to becoming a viable competitor for outsourcing operations. In January, Chile's Economic Development Agency (Corfo) created a national register of 12,000 people who were tested by the state, and who scored high enough to be put in a data bank of intermediate to bilingual English speakers.
''We have their names and telephone numbers, and they are available for any company that wants to set up operations in Chile,'' Bitar says.
In Mexico and Peru, English classes start in the seventh grade. In most other Latin American countries, there is no serious English language school program until junior high school, or high school.
How can one explain that China, a Communist Party-ruled country that has a totally different alphabet, starts teaching English in third grade, while Mexico, which borders the United States and has a free-trade agreement with its northern neighbor, starts in the seventh grade?
Mexico's education minister, Reyes Tames, told me that his country is well aware of the problem. Because Mexico doesn't have enough English-speaking teachers, the emphasis will be on computer-assisted lessons, he said.
Starting in August, Mexico will start a one-year, $100 million program to complete the process of placing a computer in every fifth- and sixth-grade classroom, he said. ''The idea is that, as students have greater access to technology, they will learn English both in school and by using the computers after hours,'' Reyes Tames said.
That's a good start. But it's a sobering sign that few Latin American countries are even discussing this issue. Unless they move beyond the political scandal of the day and start talking about the real issues that can help their competitiveness, they will continue living in the past -- and lagging behind Asians.