The Increase in Bilateral Conflicts in Latin America: Its Consequences In and Outside the Region

The Increase in Bilateral Conflicts in Latin America: Its Consequences In and Outside the Region

Theme: Despite multiple –and more intense than ever– calls for Latin American unity, bilateral relations are starting to be affected by a variety of conflicts in a considerable number of countries in the region.

Summary: Although the calls for Latin American unity, often based on the ‘Bolivarian’ rhetoric, are more intense than ever, bilateral relations have started to run into difficulties, especially in certain hotter spots than others. This is noticeable in several cases: (1) relations between Colombia and Venezuela are going through one of their most critical moments and Venezuela’s rearmament policy is doing little to still the waters in the Andean region or even beyond; (2) the progress of Brazilian leadership in South America is failing, for different reasons, to convince either Argentina or Mexico; (3) the election of the new Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS, or OEA in Spanish), the Chilean Jose Miguel Insulza, has brought to light several problems with Peru and Bolivia, together with some disagreements with Mexico, as a direct result of his election; and (4) Cuba, whose regime is incapable of accepting any form of criticism, despite feeling legitimised to intervene in the affairs of other countries in the area, maintains more or less tense relations with Mexico, Chile, El Salvador and Peru, among others. This list highlights the cases that are currently more or less active, but does not cover all bilateral conflicts, sometimes heightened by the energy question, a critical problem, as made evident by the tension between Chile and Argentina on account of the breach of a gas supply agreement. The purpose of the following pages is to describe the state of bilateral relations in Latin America and how they can affect the regional integration processes currently under way.

Analysis: The last trip of the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to Latin America, focusing on Colombia and Venezuela, highlighted Spain’s renewed interest in Latin America. The trip was initially focused on Venezuela in order to close an armaments deal, including the sale of several non military vessels. The visit was questioned by Colombia and the US, and in order to balance things, it was decided to extend it to Bogotá. In the Colombian capital, Rodriguez Zapatero highlighted Spain’s commitment to the Colombian government’s fight against terrorism and drugs, embodied in President Álvaro Uribe’s democratic safety doctrine. One of the high points of the tour was the four-way summit in Ciudad Guayana, with the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. The Summit was to stage, with Lula and Rodriguez Zapatero as witnesses, the latest rapprochement between Chávez and Uribe, following the capture of Ricardo Granda, the so called ‘chancellor’ of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). Although Granda was arrested in Colombia, he had previously been intercepted in Venezuela by unidentified individuals and taken to the other side of the border. It would have been desirable for Rodríguez Zapatero’s speech at the Venezuelan Parliament and his firm defence of representative democracy to have had more widespread coverage.

The Spanish government had come to the regional event intending to apply the same yardstick to Colombia and Venezuela, based on the global philosophy applied to all countries in the region, which ultimately implies an egalitarian treatment for all (DT 58/2004). This philosophy underlies the preparatory work for the 15th Latin American Summit to be held in Salamanca next October, with the aim of encouraging the participation of practically all Latin American leaders. The other objective of Spanish policy towards Venezuela is to contain Chávez’s efforts to export his ‘Bolivarian’ revolution beyond his borders. This policy has been criticised both by the US and the opposition in Venezuela, although the latter should urgently regain its sense of perspective and not hand the goals of progress and social integration to officialism. The risk for Spain, as has already been seen, is that Chávez should try to use Prime Minister Zapatero for his own purposes. This occurred when he protested in his ‘Alo presidente’ programme against alleged NATO manoeuvres, under the codename ‘Balboa’, for the invasion of Venezuela. In fact, the operation was a theoretical general staff exercise carried out years ago in Madrid. In any case, and apart from this specific instance, actual conditions in the region have never before reflected such a high degree of potential conflict, although not all countries are affected to the same extent. Nevertheless, this is a clear sign of current political, economic and social difficulties and of the future obstacles to not only the regional and sub-regional integration processes that are currently underway but also to negotiations with extra-regional countries, such as Spain, or other regional or multilateral bodies, such as the European Union (EU).

The Distrust Caused by Venezuelan Oil
Oil, and the enormous revenues generated by its sale to the US, is the main driver of the ‘Bolivarian’ project throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. That is the truth of the matter, despite the project’s erratic ideological proposals, which are not very welcome in the rest of the continent despite the muted reaction of most governments in the region to Venezuela’s clearly interventionist policy in the hemisphere.

Energy has become a serious problem for a large part of the planet, Latin America included. While some gas and oil producers seem to be doing fairly well, such as Venezuela or Ecuador, despite its political turbulences, other countries are not doing so well. The paradoxical example is Mexico, whose all-powerful and emblematic company Pemex, is suffering considerably according to its income statement. Bolivia and Peru, despite their large gas reserves, are incapable of maximising their natural resources for their own benefit. Argentina, on the other hand, has shown its ineffectiveness to increase its energy production, mainly due to the lack of foreign investment in the sector. Undoubtedly, this is the result of the poor treatment meted out by the Argentine government to foreign companies with public service concessions.

Next to the producer countries are the consumers, which are starting to suffer from the effects of the high cost of oil. This is a variable that has a negative impact on the bulk of the population, as seen in Central America. In certain countries, such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, social tension has risen as a result of the increase in road transport costs, which are vital for the subsistence of broad sections of the population. Not all Latin American countries are as lucky as Cuba, which receives almost 90,000 oil barrels per day from Venezuela at subsidised prices, allowing it not only to satisfy its internal demand but also to sell part of its surplus to in the Caribbean market at international prices.

Nonetheless, Venezuela’s goal of expanding its project to build a statist, civilian-military society in opposition to the fundamentals of representative democracy, might start to generate problems wherever it tries to set foot. It has already had problems with Bolivia, despite having initially supported its demand for access to the sea against the Chileans. Chávez’s support of Evo Morales, when the country was plunging into a crisis, prompted an angry reaction from the government of Prime Minister Mesa. In view of the economic interests involved, the policy of most governments in the region is to look the other way when Venezuela’s internal political situation is mentioned, since interesting business deals are at stake.

Further conflicts are certainly possible as Venezuelan interference in the hemisphere increases. Although there were no official reactions, Chávez’s speech in Porto Alegre, at the last World Social Forum, with his categorical support to the main internal enemies of Prime Minister Lula, was not very well received by the Brazilian government. In fact, despite the good words that theoretically support what has been christened a turn to the left in Latin America, it is obvious that the biggest enemy to social and democratic development in the region is Chávez himself. This is evident from his support of the most regressive factions in the region, such as the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Martí Front in El Salvador. The same could be said about his support for Peruvian ‘ethno-cacerism’, Argentine piqueteros and Evo Morales in Bolivia (ARI 59/2005).

Colombia is the country that is suffering the most from the drift of the Chávez government. Between 1989 and 1999, official Venezuelan doctrine implied that fighting the Colombian guerrillas was a problem common to both governments (DT 5/2004), which allowed the Colombian armed and security forces to focus on the internal enemy, practically forgetting about its neighbour, with which it had previously had long-standing disputes. Hugo Chávez’s rise to power changed it all. His initial aspiration to mediate in the Colombian conflict, recognising the guerrillas as a belligerent implied, in fact, a clear leaning towards Colombia’s two main terrorist organisations: the FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN). Since the election of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, bilateral tensions have continued to increase, despite the fact that regular presidential summit meetings bring the level of confrontation down until the next run-in. In the current situation, Venezuelan rearmament highlights a possible change of scenario in the region involving a potential border confrontation between both countries. Within this framework, Colombia would have to invest resources and men not only in controlling its internal front, as it has done with good results in recent years, but also in the surveillance of its extended border with Venezuela. Hence the tough reproaches to the Spanish government from sources close to the government for its sale of weapons to the Venezuelan government and also the complaints, somewhat more discreet, to Lula’s government for similar reasons.

The Distrust Caused by Brazilian Leadership
For some time, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Mexico and Brazil, Tlatelolco and Itamaraty, have maintained a tense confrontation. To state that leadership in Latin American is at stake would not be quite true, although it would not be too far off. While Brazil tries to gain strength in South America, hence its support to the South American Community of Nations (SACN), Mexico has veered towards North America through the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which links it with Canada and the US. For Brazil, it is clear that Mexico has abandoned Latin America, a concept of which the latter’s diplomacy is not overly fond, and that by opting for the North it has cleared the way for the recognition of some of Brazil’s demands, such as permanent representation in the UN Security Council, which is also wanted by Mexico and, in a somewhat more subdued way, by Argentina. In fact, the same proposal for the incorporation of the SACN was strongly criticised in Mexican academic and diplomatic circles, as shown by the harsh words of former chancellor Rosario Green against this new attempt at integration. On the same line of excluding Mexico, we can highlight the recent summit between South American and Arab nations in Brazil.

The appointment of a new Secretary General of the OAS, after the embarrassing resignation of the former incumbent, the Costa Rican Miguel Ángel Rodríguez who was arrested for a corruption scandal, placed the two countries at loggerheads. While Brazil actively supported the candidacy of Insulza, Mexico had launched its own candidate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez, who finally had to withdraw under pressure from the US. The results of the first five voting sessions, held on 11 April, which systematically ended in a tie, along with Mexico’s annoyance at Chile’s refusal to withdraw its candidate, reflects the extent to which Mexico has suffered from this traumatic experience. The recent tour of President Fox in Bolivia, including his technical stop-over in Peru, is proof of Mexican interest in Andean gas. There is also evidence of a renewed Mexican interest in Latin America, which could point to further conflicts with Itamaraty.

However, in recent weeks, it has been Brazil’s relations with Argentina which have reached a serious pitch, giving the lie to the supposed political affinities between Lula and Kirchner. The Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rafael Bielsa, complained that Brazil was encouraging the creation of the SACN at the expense of Mercosur and that Brazil was trying to impose its leadership against the will of other countries, as exemplified by the Brazilian initiative on the Ecuadorean conflict, over which it had not consulted any of its other regional partners. Underlying the Argentine discontent with Brazil are two very distinct problems. On the one hand, economic affairs, linked to obtaining commercial advantages as a countermeasure to the invasion of the Argentine market by Brazilian manufacturers such as white brand home appliances. On the other hand, is the traditional long-standing rivalry between Argentina and Brazil for regional supremacy. Argentina’s problem is that it has not completely accepted that its current situation is not comparable with what it was in mid-20th century, when Argentina was better-placed than Brazil. Today the situation is the opposite and Kirchner’s government and Argentine society in general are incapable of recognising Brazil’s superiority and admitting the extent of their dependence on their big neighbour. Furthermore, the Bush Administration has just recognised Brazilian leadership in the area and is prepared to work with Lula in order to achieve regional stability.

There is a clear lack of a coherent policy towards Brazil at the San Martín Palace, headquarters of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What is wanted from Brazil? How far is it ready to go hand in hand with it? Is it possible to consider other continental allies such as Chile, Colombia or Mexico? How pragmatic and free of ideological ties can such a policy be? Meanwhile, things seem to be clearer in Brazil, even though its government is crossed by multiple strands that express contradictory points of view and interests with regard to Argentina. Very illustrative of this situation is the result of the meeting between Kirchner and Lula in Brazil during the summit with Arab nations. Theoretically, there was much progress in resolving the conflict, but in fact everything ended in what is known as a ‘deconversation’. In Brazilian political culture, the word ‘deconverse’ is used to define an attitude of saying ‘yes’ to everything and then doing anything but what has been agreed. Hence the advances in the Argentine demands against the European Constitution for including the Falkland Islands as British territory. It was also agreed to move ahead in certain old projects, such as the creation of a South American Development Bank to finance investment projects, the putting into operation of Petrosur, an alliance of the state oil companies PDVSA (Venezuelan), Petrobras (Brazil) and ENARSA (Argentina), and the incorporation of Telesur, a television station that should theoretically offset the avalanche of pro US news. Proof that things did not go as well as expected was the hurried return of Kirchner to his country and his statements that bilateral relations were very good but that there are disputes involving various interests.

The Distrust Caused by Chile’s Success
One often hears that Chile is a different case from Latin America, and that its successful political and economic development has caused considerable distrust in the region. Perhaps the most noticeable cases are Bolivia and Peru, who have had border disputes with Chile since the war that confronted them at the end of the 19th century and which led to Bolivia’s loss of access to the Pacific Ocean. At this point, energy (ie, gas) again comes to the fore to the extent that any destabilisation of Bolivia could have considerable consequences for all South America.

Bolivia has important gas reserves that, during the rule of President Sánchez de Lozada, were to be exported through a Chilean port. The President’s overthrow and substitution by Carlos Mesa changed the scenario and today the nation is debating the approval of a more than confusing hydrocarbon act. Meanwhile, the new administration has made nationalism one of its rallying cries in order to curry popular favour, making the traditional anti-Chilean claims a priority once again, as proved by the heavyweight Bolivian diplomatic offensive in numerous multilateral forums. In this context it is obvious that any proposal aimed at favouring the Chilean option to export gas against the Peruvian alternative is doomed to failure, despite its clear economic advantages.

The process of electing a new Secretary General of the OAS revealed Bolivia’s position, as it not only did not support the candidacy of Insulza, who was initially presented as the South American candidate, but openly campaigned against him. Such is the Bolivian opposition, that when Condoleezza Rice obtained broad support for Insulza after convincing Derbez to withdraw that Bolivia decided to abstain from voting.

For several reasons Peru’s position is similar, although this time it is internal problems that are at the root of its conflict with its neighbour. President Alejandro Toledo faces a difficult situation, cornered by the fraudulent signatures presented to legalise his party, which has led the government to vent its discontent against Chile. In this case, the problems mentioned include the sale of weapons to Ecuador during the 1995 war and a video about Lima and public safety, projected by the airline Lan Peru, controlled by Chilean capital, which was considered humiliating by the Peruvians. The tension reached a point that forced the suspension of all kinds of bilateral cooperation, starting with the 2+2 meetings (Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence), which were to have been held recently. Peru issued a blank vote at the OAS meeting.

To date, Mexico maintained excellent relations with Chile, strengthened when both countries held a seat at the UN Security Council during the worst moments of the Iraq crisis. Their position contrary to military intervention without first trying all legal options available remained firm. However, the race for the position of Secrtetary General of the OAS affected the relations between the two countries. Another factor that could be the source of potential conflicts is energy, as Mexico’s aim of guaranteeing its supply of Bolivian and Peruvian gas would represent a blow to Chile’s objectives.

Traditionally, the position of Latin American governments condemning Cuba’s human rights record has been a source of conflict with the Castro regime (ARI 75/2004), as highlighted by the clashes with Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay at different times during recent years. The arrival of left-wing or popular governments, such as in Uruguay and Argentina, has helped to deactivate certain sources of conflict, given the traditional pro-Cuban stance of these administrations. However, the consolidation of the alliance between Cuba and Venezuela could be the preamble to certain difficulties, especially if Castro gives in to ‘Bolivarian’ expansionism. In fact, pressure from the US on Brazil and Argentina has put the governments of Lula and Kirchner in an uncomfortable situation with regard to Chávez, and Chávez ultimately means Castro. On the other hand, Castro’s overreaction to the election of Insulza, who he called bobito (‘nitwit’) and other similar names, indicates the difficulties that could arise in the event of a relaunching of the OAS and for any aspirations regarding the enhancement of the organisation’s role in the defence of representative democracy and individual freedom.

Conclusions: It is clear that the first question emerging in light of the situation in Latin America is just how serious and deep bilateral problems are. While not giving credence to Brazil’s explanation, aimed at minimising their importance by stating that they are merely stories cooked up by the press, it is clear that we are not on the verge of an irreversible confrontation. However, beyond the immediate factors that have generated the tension, there are in many cases long-standing disagreements that are worth looking at more closely. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Latin America is the strong ‘voluntarism’ of most political and social players, from governments to individual citizens. This ‘voluntarism’ explains the appearance of widely dissimilar projects for regional or sub-regional integration with no preliminary debate as to their advantages and disadvantages or of the obstacles that could hinder their progress. Once again, the catchphrase ‘if theory and reality do not coincide, too bad for reality’ is all too true for the situation in the region.

The underlying logic of the region’s conflicts is very different. Complaints in Peru and Bolivia towards Chile are motivated by internal matters and are a means to conceal their own problems. However, as the spectre of nationalism grows, it is difficult to know what the limits are of such agitation. There are other confrontations, between Argentina and Brazil, for instance, which have to do with a historic agenda of grievances and diverging interests. Argentina has not managed to digest Brazilian dominance and refuses to admit to its likely leadership. In this case, as in others, the heart of the matter is the lack of suitable mechanisms to resolve disputes. Returning to the idea of ‘voluntarism’, everything is left to presidential diplomacy, in the belief that presidential chemistry and the greater or lesser ideological affinity will be able to resolve any pending matters. But as we have seen repeatedly and in the words of the Spanish saying, this is ‘food for today and hunger for tomorrow’.

The tensions between Colombia and Venezuela are more serious, since they involve not only a return to their age-old border conflicts, but also the Colombia Plan and the US involvement in the fight against terrorism and drug smuggling, on the one hand, and Venezuela’s desire to spread its ‘Bolivarian’ project throughout South America, on the other.

This is a scenario that Spain must not ignore in its attempt to tighten its ties with Latin America. It is not a matter of dramatising the situation but of drawing attention to a number of real problems that affect any policy towards the region. If Spain wants to participate in Latin American matters and play an increasingly important role, it must design its policies in accordance with its interests, the actual conditions in the region and the values it claims to represent. Above all, it must be able to choose. That is precisely the question in such difficult matters as these, where the subcontinent is increasingly losing the homogenous image that many wish to see in it.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst, Latin American Area, Elcano Royal Institute