Latin America: Summit Seeks Full Regional Integration

 (IPS) – This week’s summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil aims to pull regional integration processes out of their current stagnation, reaffirm the region’s interest in integration that does not exclude any nation, and contribute to overcoming bilateral tensions, analysts say.

The Dec. 16-17 meeting in Costa do Sauípe, a tourist resort near Salvador, the capital of the northeast state of Bahia, is yet another sign that "Brazil is taking seriously the leadership role to which it has long aspired," said Maria Teresa Romero, a Central University of Venezuela graduate studies professor.

The Brazilian government is pursuing this leadership by assembling the countries of the region in "this initiative that is apparently aimed at creating a democratic left-wing alliance, to stand in contrast to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA — which groups Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela) and advance a different regional policy than the one promoted by the radical left," she added.

Cuba will benefit the most from the Salvador summit, where "for the first time ever the 33 countries (of Latin America and the Caribbean) will be able to debate without the supervision or direction of foreign powers like the United States or European nations," said Cuba’s official newspaper Granma.

The summit is in itself "an unprecedented event, as it includes neither the U.S. nor Spain," said Diego Ventura, a professor of international affairs at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Until now, the heads of state and government of all the countries of the region had only met at Inter-American and Ibero-American summits.

As the only country excluded from the Organisation of American States (OAS), Cuba has a great deal to gain from the summit, which also provides an opportunity for it to earn recognition and respect, and secure an explicit rejection to the nearly five-decade-old U.S. embargo, said Marcos Azambuja, a former Brazilian diplomat who has held several high positions in Brazil’s foreign service, including ambassador to Argentina and France.

Raúl Castro will take part in the summit, on his first official visit to Brazil since he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel as president of Cuba.

On Thursday, Dec. 18, Castro will be in Brasilia, returning the visit paid by his Brazilian counterpart, left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in October, and expressing his appreciation for the support lent by Brazil to the Caribbean island nation’s demand that the U.S. lift its embargo.

Castro is seeking closer ties to Brazil, as this country offers "political conditions to support and facilitate the global reinsertion" and industrial development that Cuba wants to achieve so that it "will not fall again under the influence of the U.S.," said historian Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, who has written several books on the history of Latin America-U.S. relations.

The Cuban leader views Brazil as a more important ally than Venezuela, despite the current oil aid provided by the latter, the historian added.

Cuba maintains full diplomatic relations with 30 of the 32 Latin American and Caribbean nations that will be represented at the summit. The two exceptions are Costa Rica and El Salvador. But its greatest problem is the conflict with the U.S., which dates back to the early 1960s, shortly after the revolution led by Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Analysts consulted by IPS said that now was a good time to resume a process aimed at forging firmer ties with the entire region, in spite of the upcoming change of U.S. administration, the global economic crisis that originated in the U.S., and the Latin American and Caribbean region’s current fragmentation into several different integration blocs.

The region needs to devise a more or less common agenda with respect to its relations with Washington, and this is especially important at this time of transition in the U.S., Moniz Bandeira said.

It will be useful to have proposals ready to discuss with the new U.S. administration that will take over from George W. Bush, whose "transition actually began with Barack Obama’s victory" in the Nov. 4 presidential elections, said Cristina Pecequilo, a professor at the Ibero-American University Centre in São Paulo, Brazil.

In addition to bringing together leaders from all over the region and intensifying Brazil’s policy of both South-South and North-South dialogue, the summit will contribute to improving conditions to better prepare the countries to face the global crisis, she added.

"The time has come for our second independence," said Marcelo Gullo, a political scientist at the National University of Rosario in Argentina. He went on to say that the meeting convened by President Lula only makes sense in this "strategic context, as we can now rightly say that absolute U.S. global hegemony is coming to an end."

"We are heading towards a multi-polar international system where countries that are unable to group together in a continent-wide bloc will become objects and not agents of history, states relegated to a permanently subordinated position, mere indistinguishable segments of the global market," Gullo said.

In this sense, the summit comes as a reaction to the evident stagnation that is bogging down other regional integration processes such as the Rio Group (a political forum comprised of 21 Latin American and Caribbean nations), Mercosur (the Southern Common Market made up of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay), and the Summits of the Americas (a series of gatherings organised by the OAS to discuss multiple issues), said Paz Milet, a professor at the University of Chile’s Institute for International Studies.

Nor is any progress being made by the latest regional integration initiative, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which brings together the 12 countries of South America through an idea that originated in Brazil, but was later modified under the influence of Venezuela.

Brazil is seeking to "reposition itself in the region," according to Milet, who highlights energy integration as "one of the issues that must be discussed in a multilateral forum."

Another possible outcome of the Salvador summit could be the "ironing out of certain differences," such as the Santiago-Lima diplomatic row triggered by anti-Chilean remarks made by Peruvian army chief Edwin Donayre, or the Brasilia-Quito incident sparked by Ecuador’s expulsion of a Brazilian construction company and its refusal to pay back a Brazilian loan that it says was contracted illegally.

Ecuador put itself in an awkward situation with its neighbour when it decided to default on a debt contracted under the Reciprocal Payments and Credit System of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), "the only financing system that is not dependent on U.S. or European backing," Moniz Bandeira said.

But according to the Brazilian historian, one concrete result that this week’s summit could deliver is the signing of the South American Defence Council Agreement, which has already been successfully negotiated.

While the summit comes at a good time, it multiplies the already large number of integration schemes and exacerbates the proliferation of processes and summits, former ambassador Azambuja said. Brazil is playing on too many fronts and it should simplify and concentrate its efforts, he added.

Nonetheless, the seasoned diplomat hopes that the summit will "bring harmony and balance" to the numerous subregional blocs formed in Latin America and the Caribbean.

While there are definitely benefits to be gained from diversifying alliances and strengthening regional leadership, Brazil cannot lose sight of the fact that "South America is its priority area for integration," Professor Pecequilo argued.

In Mexico’s case, the participation of conservative President Felipe Calderón in the summit does not change the fact that "it keeps itself at arm’s length from the region," and "not just the government, but the country as a whole," as is evidenced by the absolute lack of coverage on the summit in Mexican news programmes, Ventura said.

* With contributions from Daniela Estrada (Chile), Diego Cevallos (Mexico), Humberto Márquez (Venezuela), Marcela Valente (Argentina) and Patricia Grogg (Cuba)