MONTEVIDEO, Nov 7 2005 (IPS) — If the fourth Summit of the Americas left anything clear, it is the difficulty of reaching agreement on a concept of integration in the region.
The Friday and Saturday summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina took place in the midst of bilateral tensions and disputes between various countries, the stagnation of proposals for Latin American integration, and differences that have emerged even between countries governed by like-minded political forces.
The ever-present tension between Washington and Caracas was on clear display in the resort town in eastern Argentina. While Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez attended the summit, he also took part in the massive march to protest the presence of U.S. President George W. Bush, with whom he posed later for the customary “official” photo-op.
The traditionally warm ties between Argentina and Uruguay, meanwhile, had been tested by the most serious diplomatic incident in years shortly before the summit, with both countries calling in their ambassadors for consultation after a provincial governor in Argentina criticised Uruguay’s plans to build two pulp mills on a river forming part of the border between the two countries.
No meeting was held in Mar del Plata to smooth things over.
Chile and Peru have also found themselves in the middle of a new dispute over the demarcation of their sea border, while Chile still has no diplomatic ties with Bolivia, which were broken off in 1978, and continues to refuse to discuss a solution to the demand for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean by that country, left landlocked after it was defeated by Chile in the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific.
While the leftist Chávez evoked a gallery of historic figures – from Rosa Luxembourg to Mao Zedong and Juan Domingo Perón – in Mar del Plata to lash out at Bush, Uruguay’s socialist President Tabaré Vázquez shook hands with the U.S. leader after the two governments signed a bilateral investment protection treaty.
One definition of integration refers to the process of incorporating parts into a whole. But it seems some “parts” are always left out in this hemisphere.
There has been one glaring absence at the Summits of the Americas, which began to be held in 1994 in Miami, Florida: Cuba, excluded from the Organisation of American States in 1962 for ideological reasons that eventually became political as well, as democratic governments became the norm.
The 19th century struggles for independence from European colonialism in Latin America were also marked by dreams of regional integration.
But the integration envisioned at the Summits of the Americas, a hemisphere-wide free trade zone, would be created in a complex scenario, given that one of the parties is the world’s sole superpower, the United States, while the diverse countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are united by one common denominator: underdevelopment.
Nevertheless, in the 1990s, the majority of the nations of Latin America embraced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), just as they embraced the neoliberal concepts of privatisation, the opening up of trade, and the dismantling of the state.
In what was clearly a backlash, the political changes seen in recent years in South America gave rise to the election of a number of “progressive” governments – to use a label under which it would be possible to group the administrations currently governing Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile.
In the meantime, organised civil society has been growing in size and influence in this region as in the rest of the world, saying “no” to the FTAA and holding marches, forums and workshops towards that end.
With Brazil at the head, the progressive South American governments are seeking to revive old concepts of integration “among ourselves,” which would leave out the United States, at least until it is possible to negotiate on a more equal footing.
As a launching platform, Brazil proposed regional integration based on Mercosur – the Southern Common Market, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – which has gradually accepted most of the rest of South America as associate members, while the South American Community of Nations was founded last year.
But so far, these efforts have gone no further than meetings, declarations and documents. The Mercosur trade bloc has failed to resolve problems that are crucial to reaching the most basic form of trade integration, and is plagued by continuous disputes and demands from different productive sectors in each member country, while there has been little progress in agreeing on dispute settlement mechanisms.
The two largest partners, Argentina and Brazil, are constantly sparring over what one perceives in the other as a competitive threat, and the smaller members, Paraguay and Uruguay, reap few benefits from the partnership.
In the meantime, many heads of state and government skipped the last South American Community of Nations summit, held in Brasilia in late September, and the participants produced little of note.
The “idea” of South American integration remains elusive. But that has not done anything to favour the FTAA. Despite the tensions within Mercosur, the bloc stood firmly this weekend by its resistance to the U.S.-promoted initiative, with the staunch support of Venezuela. And for the first time, a Summit of the Americas ended without any agreement on the question.
Chávez went so far as to declare that the FTAA had been “buried” in Mar del Plata.
Actually, the funeral had begun in the special summit held in January 2004 in Monterrey, Mexico, when expectations were slimmed down to an agreement widely known as “FTAA lite”, which emphasised bilateral accords and included no clear timetable.
No FTAA talks have been held for 23 months, although Washington has continued to push for bilateral agreements, signing a free trade deal with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, and negotiating a similar pact with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
With the FTAA frozen or buried, attention has turned to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The Doha Round of multilateral talks are in the final stretch, which requires a more in-depth debate on the protectionist agricultural policies maintained by powerful industrialised nations – one of the clearest obstacles to progress towards an Americas-wide free trade zone.
Something else happened in Mar del Plata: the thousands of Latin American activists taking part in the third Peoples’ Summit celebrated the death of the FTAA and claimed they had killed it. They also called for an alternative kind of integration, one that is still waiting for its moment to emerge.