County supervisor takes trip as exchange student

Dimitrijevic learns South American politics, education

July 19, 2007

When she left Bay View to visit Uruguay and Argentina on June 1, County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic admittedly knew very little about either South American country.

By the time she returned on June 16, she said she had become a "mini-expert" in the two nations' politics and culture.

That's exactly what the American Council of Young Political Leaders is aiming for when it sends American political leaders between the ages of 25 and 40 on bilateral exchanges with its partners overseas. Dimitrijevic is serving her first term as 4th District supervisor on the County Board. At age 22, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the board, in 2004.

Networking is exchange goal

The goal of the council, Dimitrijevic said, is to encourage young political leaders to understand more about other systems of government and establish networks and relationships with their counterparts in other countries. The council, a bipartisan nonprofit organization, is funded by the U.S. Department of State, as well as corporations, foundations and individuals.

Dimitrijevic said her delegation to Argentina and Uruguay consisted of three Democrats and three Republicans, including delegates from Maryland, Texas and Florida and a deputy press secretary at NASA.

She said the trip was a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity. The group spent a week in each country and participated in five to 10 meetings per day with local and national elected officials and representatives of public institutions, including schools.

"I learned so much I've already brought back here," Dimitrijevic said. "I think it'll make an awesome difference ... I made about 100 friends."

The delegation visited urban and rural areas in three "departments" - roughly the equivalent of a state - in each country.

Examining politics

Both Uruguay and Argentina are investing in their citizens, Dimitrijevic said. She noted both countries have free, universal health care and offer free college education.

"In Argentina, they just implemented a program that provides a laptop (computer) for every kindergartner," she said.

Both countries have critical housing issues and struggle with poverty and unemployment, she said, and both have environmental challenges as well.

"They're concerned about developing in a sustainable way in the future," she said.

She pointed out that a "very forward-thinking" law in Uruguay does not allow any development on or near the country's beaches, because they are considered public commodities.

Dimitrijevic said she was surprised to find very few women in government, particularly at the local and state levels.

About 90 percent of the public officials she met with were men, she said, and even local politics are partisan.

Foreign policy opinion low

She said the people had difficulty understanding her position as a county supervisor because there is no similar level of government in Uruguay or Argentina; elected offices represent the city, state or national government.

The people she met had many questions about the U.S., Dimitrijevic said.

She found that, generally, they thought highly of Americans, but public opinion on U.S. foreign policy is "very low."

"Time and time again I was asked about the war in Iraq," she said. "I let everybody know that not everyone agrees with the administration."

Learning cultural norms

There were a few cultural adjustments to be made during her two-week trip. Since people in Uruguay and Argentina tend to eat dinner at about 10 p.m., Dimitrijevic found herself staying up much later than she is accustomed to.

In Argentina, where beef is a major export, meat was served at every meal, she said. Dimitrijevic is a vegetarian.

She said she hopes to to return someday to explore more of Uruguay, which she said had "fabulous" beaches.

Dimitrijevic said the delegation enjoyed a tango show in Uruguay and visiting a lemon grove in Argentina, where lemons are a top export.

"I learned about completely different governments and ways of life, but common bonds," she said. "It was a chance to step away from my work for a little while and bring back new perspectives and new ideas."

Dimitrijevic was nominated to participate in the exchange by an alumna of the American Council of Young Political Leaders, state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee).

At a glance

WHO: American Council of Young Political Leaders

WHAT: Since the organization was founded in 1996, more than 6,000 young leaders from around the world have participated in cultural exchanges. Thirty-eight alumni of the program are serving in the U.S. Congress.

WHERE: The group conducts intensive two-week study programs across the world, including Asia and the Pacific Rim, central and eastern Europe, Central America, South America, the Indian subcontinent, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Russia.

INFO: Visit acypl.org or call (202) 857-0999.

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