Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Latin America at the United Nations: Individual Interests and Regional Cooperation

After the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, it is worthwhile to draw some conclusions about the Latin American countries from their speeches of this week. While these statements do not capture the entire domestic and international policies of these countries, they can be taken as an indicator of their main concerns and the developments in different areas. Thus, climate change issues and the preservation of the environment are almost a common denominator within the concerns of the countries of the region. Similarly, there is almost a general consensus on the need to reform the United Nations and, in particular, its Security Council. Other topics of common interest to governments in the region are the international financial crisis and the well-known issues in Haiti, Israel, Iran and Cuba.

Regardless of the impact that each Latin American country may have on these issues, the concern for them is commendable and is also a proof of their cosmopolitan character which is the raison d'etre of the United Nations. However, there are other kinds of phenomena on which the positions of the governments of the region are much more varied; I am referring those events that transcend national borders but on which each of these countries do have a direct impact. That is, it is not the same a small country talking about global warming or the attack on the flotilla headed for Gaza, that this country's finding common problems with its neighbors and its developing of cooperative projects to solve them.

There are two clearly identifiable groups with this criteria: those countries going from global interests to purely domestic problems and successes, and those that are in an intermediate position whereby their individual and global problems have a point connection: their region. At one end of this spectrum lie countries like Argentina whose President goes from attacking the Washington Consensus and the International Monetary Fund, to remembering her concern over the Falklands and the terrorist attack in 1992 against the Embassy of Israel by a group of Iranian militants. She discusses the changes in Argentina's economic policy in recent years and the benefits it has brought, but makes no mention of regional integration processes, the exploitation of opportunities through projects with neighboring countries or the progress made in these areas. A similar situation is seen in the case of Mexico, which, according to the speech, does not seem to be suffering the consequences of issues in which their neighbors to the north and south play an important role.

Sign in Honduras in this group whose discourse revolves around local issues, and when talking about international cooperation considers only richer countries elsewhere in the world. Another case of this nature is that of Bolivia, whose speech goes from the effects of the nationalization of oil fields to take a trip through Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine, reaching issues of migration in the United States and Europe, but does not touch issues involving its neighbors or major trading partners. Similarly, Nicaragua appears here -except for a brief mention of ALBA- and it is also the situation of Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay and Chile. Regarding the latter its president said it is isolated geographically from the rest of the region and the world; however, more than the idea of geographic isolation what remains floating in the air after hearing the speech, is one of political, social and economic isolation.

The second group of countries are those that find in the region a cause of their problems and also a source of opportunity to overcome them. The undisputed leader of this group is Brazil whose speech highlights the links being drawn with other countries in the region, the strengthening of Mercosur and UNASUR, and its role in resolving conflicts between other Latin American countries. Colombia is also part of this group by its  highlighting of the opportunities of the region and its proposal to represent it thanks to the experience gained in the fight against drugs and terrorism -pervasive problems in the continent. A similar case occurs for the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, which are primarily concerned with regional problems such as drug trafficking, the violence generated by drug cartels and arms trafficking. Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela emphasized the need for regional integration considering it a space for reducing inequality and strengthening democracy, while highlighting the importance of South-South cooperation. Peru underscores the progress in its relation to Ecuador which includes the construction of roads and bridges between the two countries, the integration of their social security systems and the establishment of binational consulates and embassies.

Social sciences emphasize the importance of horizontal links between members of a community as one of the keys to their political and economic performance. At the risk of falling into the trap of extrapolating national conditions to an international context, I dare say that those countries that develop links with other similar countries are, in the medium and long term, in a better position than those who only develop vertical ties with more developed countries. Evidences of this are the birth of the European Union, in the first case, and the Latin American dictatorships over the twentieth century, in the second.

As I said earlier, the speeches this week do not represent the totality of the policies of any country; far from it, of course. However, by giving us an idea about their priorities, we see a group of countries that either concentrate solely on their domestic problems, identify their interests with those of richer countries, or just look in the developed world a responsible for their poor results. At the same time, these speeches show another group of countries that, after identifying problems at the regional level, are working together to solve them, and to seize the many opportunities that the region also offers.

It is important that the experience of previous models whose failure was due in large part to the lack of recognition of the importance of horizontal links between countries with similar situations, serves as an example for the politics of the coming years and, thus, the regional cooperation model prevails. However, in many cases it is easier for each country to develop cooperation mechanisms with richer countries than promoting cooperation with their counterparts, which makes regional integration even more difficult. The determined attitude of countries like Brazil generates some optimism, so it is necessary that other countries in the region follow suit. It is time to stop looking north to, finally, develop a regional project that will allow Latin America to compete with the other blocks that are being formed around the world.

With regard to the coherence of the discourses and visions of Latin Americans, it is interesting the perception of the region by its northern neighbor. Given the many problems around the world, it is not surprising that Obama's speech had only one mention of the region or any of their countries. What does seem like black humor is to see what that mention was. Towards the end of his speech the U.S. president said that "we also celebrate the courage of a President in Colombia who willingly stepped aside", to the astonishment of the Colombian delegation. Do not know those who write Obama's speeches that Uribe was unable to stay in office by a constitutional court ruling, and not by his "own will", or is it that some people are already interested in re-writing history? I would like to think that Obama was being sarcastic, but no one really understood.

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