The recent Special Summit of the Americas, held in Monterrey, Mexico, awoke considerable interest among the international press. But press accounts of what took place relied more on commonplace than on analysis; journalists present proved better at description than serious reflection. Among the various platitudes expressed on the results and conclusions of the conference we list these: 1) the summit was a failure; 2) it witnessed the resurgence of anti-Americanism, embodied in a more independent stance by Latin American countries vis-à-vis the US (ie, the meeting was another North–South confrontation); and 3) it produced a new Latin American left-wing axis, Caracas–Brasilia–Buenos Aires, focused on social issues in contrast to the materialistic interests of Washington. The purpose of this essay is to take a closer look at some of these readings, in the hope of shedding light on what is actually going on in western hemispheric relations.
The international conference of North, Central and South American political leaders held in Monterrey, Mexico, on 12-13 January brought together representatives from the 34 countries that form part of the Pan-American system. Cuba did not take part because it is not a member. It was thrown out of the OAS (Organisation of American States) in 1961 when, as a result of the revolution, the Cuban regime was deemed to be incompatible with the region’s institutions. The conference agenda contained a long list of items, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), hemispheric security, the fight against terrorism, the defence of democracy, the struggle against corruption and social inequality, and the need to combat poverty. As well as plenary sessions and intense bilateral negotiations (the nitty-gritty of the meeting), it was agreed to draw up a final statement, to be known as the ‘Declaration of Nuevo León’, containing the consensus view of all those present. It was no easy task aligning such conflicting positions as, for example, those of the US and Venezuela, with the result that the statement was somewhat less than hard-hitting. Nevertheless, the discussions were frank and relevant, and they succeeded in reopening pan-American dialogue, of which very little had been heard since 9/11.
Not unexpectedly, the Summit of the Americasof the Americas summit was a wishy-washy affair. None of the main issues originally proposed –FTAA and an end to tariff barriers; corruption; security and terrorism; social policies– was addressed head-on in the final declaration and no steps to implement conference conclusions were put forward. In reality, all agreements had been sufficiently watered down by behind-the-scenes deals and generous dollops of conference rhetoric. No country sent an economics minister to the meeting, so no one knew what anything being talked about might actually cost. The likely outcome, as on other occasions, is that it will all be put down to good intentions, thereby confirming President Chávez’s views on the usefulness –or lack of it– of such events.
Yet despite the scepticisms of the Bolivarians, the summit should not be written off completely. In the first place, it is worth noting the context in which it took place. The Monterrey conference followed close on the heels of the meeting of economy ministers in Miami in November of last year and not long after the sudden about-turn in US foreign policy as a result of 9/11, when Latin America was put on the back burner for more than two years. It also took place at the outset of President Bush’s re-election campaign, one in which the Hispanic vote will be crucial. The US President could not afford open confrontation with Latin America or returning from Monterrey empty-handed; hence the offer of a deal for President Fox on illegal Mexican immigrants and the need to repair bilateral relations following the collateral damage they suffered on 9/11. In early March President Fox will thus visit Bush’s Texas ranch, a venue reserved for real friends.
So the Monterrey summit should not be read solely on a regional or bilateral basis; it had domestic content, too, and not just for the US. It is now standard practice for Brazil’s President Lula and Argentina’s President Kirchner to use international relations (essentially an anti-US stance) to appease their nationalistic caucuses. This is what lies behind Brazil’s decision to make US visitors undergo stringent identity checks and the eleven-hour arrest on 15 January of a US military aircraft for entering Brazilian airspace without permission. With port and airport controls in the pipeline, Brazilian military personnel now know they are expected to stick rigidly to the rule book. Although this kind of patriotic tub-thumping has not yet affected bilateral relations, the noise could become offensive. It may, for example, have an untoward effect on the decisions of foreign investors.
A serious assessment of the results of the Monterrey meeting must place it in perspective. Only time will tell if it succeeded in reviving US interest in Latin America, but that in itself would be a major step forward, however rhetorical the final statement. It is also worth looking at the event from the standpoint of the countries present, as reported by their local press. Almost without exception, Latin American presidents were seen as the victors. Perhaps the most fulsome praise was that lavished by Cuban television on what it described as President Chávez’s ‘brilliant colossal participation’ in the Monterrey summit. Yet Chávez was not the only participant sporting a laurel wreath. Presidents Bush, Lula, Kirchner, Mesa, Gutiérrez, Uribe and Fox, in fact, almost all the leaders who took part, were given triumphal welcomes back home.
North–South or South–South Summit
A closer look at what went on makes some of the initial impressions look slightly hazardous. For example, not everything at the meeting was an expression of North–South confrontation, or Bush versus almost all the rest. Aligned alongside the US, particularly on trade and on the fight against terrorism, were Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and the Central American States. Not in vain was President Lucío Gutiérrez of Ecuador denounced as a ‘traitor’ by the leader of the indigenous movement Pachakutik. President Fox went on record saying, ‘We must respect a free market. We must champion regional policies, even if they benefit the United States, even if they generate adverse reactions’.
Nor should we forget that Latin America is rife with bilateral animosity, much of which was voiced openly at Monterrey. Chile, for one, despite the track record of its government and the sure helmsmanship of President Ricardo Lagos, got a real drubbing, none of its justified. President Chávez, the ‘animator’ of these events in the absence of Castro, accused Chile of being behind the failed coup in Venezuela of 11 April 2002, which temporarily deposed him. Next in the queue was President Carlos Mesa of Bolivia, who accused Chile of preventing his country from obtaining an outlet to the sea. It is curious the extent to which this particular issue, with its obvious nationalistic overtones, overshadows all the country’s other woes. Naturally, the dispute between Colombia and Venezuela or, rather, between Uribe and Chávez reared its head once again. Other differences, such as that between Presidents Kirchner of Argentina and Batlle of Uruguay, were played down, despite their increasing gravity.
For various reasons Bolivia has become the talk of the continent. The possibility of Evo Morales becoming the next President is disquieting not only for the US but for Bolivia’s powerful neighbours, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. It was rumoured that the Commanders-in-Chief of these three countries held a meeting specifically to discuss the problem. The Bolivian question came up at various bilateral meetings, such as that between Presidents Bush and Fox. Fox agreed to play a more dynamic role in the region, an initiative that has full US support and which may help to improve Mexico’s deteriorating relations with Washington. Despite Chile’s efforts to silence discussion of Bolivia’s outlet to the sea, agitation by La Paz ramped up the decibels ensuring it a prime place on future summit agendas.
Given his political isolation, Bolivia’s President Carlos Mesa understands that nationalistic rabble-rousing is his surest ticket to survival given the strength of some of the country’s anti-system movements, such as that led by Felipe Quispe. Evo Morales, meanwhile, who sees this imminent collision as working in his favour, has adopted a lower-key stance. What this means in practice is that the attacks on Chile’s defence of the status quo will multiply in the months to come, when elements other than extreme populists will add their weight to the argument. For this reason it would be sensible of the Chilean government to reappraise its stance and offer to discuss the matter. To mollify Chile’s own nationalists, willing and able to discomfort Lagos in the coming presidential elections, it would be no bad idea to take up negotiations where Pinochet and Banzer left off in the 70s.
Another ‘axis of evil’?
If we allow ourselves to be guided by the domestic and international press, the Monterrey summit broke new ground in forcing the US to ward off a new geostrategic threat led by Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil beneath a banner of social as opposed to economic reform. This ‘left-wing’ block is said to voice a genuine Latin American language and sensibility, diametrically opposed to US hegemony. Naturally, it is understood to include Cuba and, in the not too distant future, Bolivia. On the other side of the fence, countries such as Ecuador, whose President, Lucio Gutiérrez, began his term by flirting with populism, are now proceeding in the opposite direction, making free-trade agreements with the US their prime concern. It was interesting to note that other than the Bolivarian rhetoric about Latin American unity, regional integration was scarcely even mentioned at the Summit.
The weight of the Monterrey summit should not be borne solely by the US. The Latin American countries should have been more aggressive and active in defence of their own democracies and in combating corruption, despite the deep-seated and long-lived anti-US attitudes prevalent in the region. Hence, it is to be regretted that the summit made no explicit reference to corrupt governments and the possibility of ejecting them from the Pan-American system. But we are still at a stage in which fear of the US is greater than the need to defend democracy. Only when this changes can there be any hope of steadier regional progress.
While still on the subject of confrontation between Latin America and the US, it is worth stressing once again how much Latin America lost by 9/11. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Latin America ceased to figure on Washington’s agenda, crammed with anti-terrorism business. Europe, whose attention was focused on its own political and economic enlargement, became equally oblivious. Many Latin American recriminations about the disdain shown by the Bush Administration can be attributed to this lack of US attention. It was clearly the underlying theme of the closing speech, given by Néstor Kirchner, Argentina’s rumbustuous first executive. Warmly received by those present, it particularly pleased Hugo Chávez: ‘the trip to Monterrey would have been worthwhile just to hear this’, he exclaimed. After a harangue on the ill treatment afforded Argentina by the IMF and other multilateral financial organisations in the tough negotiations on that country’s national debt, Kirchner promptly called for a new Marshall Plan for Latin America, ie, another hand-out from Uncle Sam. These are the contradictions of a President who is happy enough to call European businessmen names, as though he could do without them, and who ends up by demanding a windfall from Washington.
At bottom the question is this: to what extent do Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil really constitute an anti-American bloc and acted like one at the Monterrey summit? My own feeling is that the existence of ‘axis of evil’ comprising three such very different countries and presidents is unlikely, and that such an idea only benefits Chávez and his ally Castro. Once back home after the summit, Kirchner announced the cancellation of his projected trip to Cuba, scheduled for next February. Almost simultaneously, the three-party Venezuela summit of Kirchner, Lula and Chávez, originally given a fanfare treatment by Caracas, was scrapped also: evidently, the three are less in unison than pretended by some.
Another useful insight into the significance of the summit is provided by the approach to FTAA, a major topic at Monterrey. While President Chávez (together with Castro) is totally and openly hostile to any trade agreement, Lula and Kirchner take a more pragmatic stand and favour an FTAA that opens US markets to Brazilian and Argentine farm produce. In fact, whereas Brazil and Argentina signed the final declaration in full, Venezuela was the only country to qualify it, obliging those present to add a long footnote saying, ‘Venezuela enters a reservation with respect to the paragraph on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) because of questions of principle and profound differences regarding the concept and philosophy of the proposed model and because of the manner in which specific aspects and established timeframes are addressed. We ratify our commitment to the consolidation of a regional fair trade bloc as a basis for strengthening levels of integration. This process must consider each country’s particular cultural, social, and political characteristics; sovereignty and constitutionality; and the level and size of its economy, in order to guarantee fair treatment’. For Kirchner, Lula and Chávez, shared aims do not imply shared paths. As Bush underlined to Kirchner, in a clear reference to Chávez and Castro: ‘I don’t care what side you’re on, so long as its democracy’s side’. To judge by his actions to date, Kirchner appears to have taken the hint.
The Summit of the Americas at Monterrey was neither a stunning success nor the total disaster that some press sources would have it. There were more novice Presidents there than on any previous occasion, nearly a dozen. In the final analysis, it will be judged on whether it succeeded in putting Latin American back on Washington’s agenda. It will also be interesting to see how it is eventually interpreted domestically, within each of the countries represented: for example, in Colombia, with its fight against terrorism and drug trafficking; in Argentina and its ongoing negotiations with the IMF on solving its debt problem; and in Mexico, in putting bilateral relations with the US back on an even keel. Brazil succeeded in imposing its arguments on the question of the FTAA. From the domestic standpoint, therefore, there was something in the summit for everyone.
The meeting was not the North-South clash over free trade that Hugo Chávez was yearning for. The FTAA is a complex issue and, with regional integration, one on which there is no collective Latin American position. What was apparent at the conference was the number and seriousness of the South-South disagreements, which are sometimes much more vocal than criticism of the neighbour in the North. However, fear of US power continues to hamstring the political action of Latin American countries, as was clear from the debate on corruption. Latin America should rid itself of this weak-heartedness and adopt firm policies in favour of democracy and political stability.
Lastly, there is the question of the alleged axis linking Caracas, Brasilia and Buenos Aires. Any attention paid to this is senseless propaganda on behalf of Castro and his sidekick, Chávez. Much more divides than unites the Presidents of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, and I am not referring simply to the obvious differences in personality and style. National interests are starkly opposed. The Bolivarian dream is no more than that, a dream. Any attempt to make it a reality would be a nightmare for the entire continent.
Senior Analyst, Latin America
Real Instituto Elcano