Latin America at the crossroads

Local disputes and differing attitudes toward the US divide nations in the region

By Raul Alfonsin  / 

Wed, Jan 04, 2006 - Page 9

Last year witnessed a decisive turn in Latin America. A growing number of countries in the region now seem determined to pursue their interests regardless of what the US desires.

Jose Miguel Insulza's election as secretary general of the Organization of American States, in which he defeated the candidate supported by the Bush administration, emphatically demonstrated the decline of America's continental leadership. The US not only lost control of the organization, which generally serves US interests, but also failed to persuade last year's Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, to endorse unanimously a declaration supporting US economic and political stances in the region. That setback was all the more striking, given that the summit was structured to defend and promote US positions.

Attempts throughout last year by the Bush administration to discipline Venezuela's government also failed. US President George W. Bush was simply unable to get other governments to back the policy of isolation that he sought to impose on President Hugo Chavez's administration. The US has also been frustrated in its effort to obtain regional support for its policy of direct involvement in Colombia's internal strife.

Of course, not everything is going against the US. The election of Colombian Luis Alberto Moreno as president of the Inter-American Development Bank had clear US backing. This means that the bank is likely to continue its orthodox, neoliberal policies. But a clear line in the sand has been drawn between Latin American countries that want to pursue regional integration on their own terms, and those that favor hemispheric integration under US direction.

Led by Brazil and backed most enthusiastically by Argentina and Venezuela, the project of one group of Latin American nations is to construct the Community of South American Nations. The nations of the so-called Mercosur regional economic group -- which includes Brazil and Argentina as well as Paraguay and Uruguay -- seek to protect their respective national interests and promote a more just and democratic international order. They do not seek confrontation.

In the second group of Latin American nations, the countries that pursue a direct relationship with Washington, there are two trends. Some countries, such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, act individually, while others, notably the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, act from a regional perspective. They have aligned themselves with the policy already initiated by Mexico and, to a lesser extent, by Chile.

But it is the ideological picture that presents the starkest contrasts. Indeed, there could be political consequences affecting the entire region if the confrontation between Venezuela and the US worsens, and if the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional wins an electoral victory in Nicaragua. The US is likely to consider the eventual formation of a triangle linking Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as a direct threat to regional stability, putting Latin America in a dangerous position on top of the Bush administration's security agenda. The triumph of Evo Morales's Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia will only fan this anxiety.

To be sure, one should not view Latin America only in terms of the region's relations with the US. There are also deep concerns about the internal situation in many countries that suffer almost permanent political and institutional crises, such as Haiti, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Unfortunately, the structural causes that prompted these crises cannot begin to be resolved by next year.

Indeed, local problems are likely to increase regional tensions. Last year, Chile and Peru faced off over their maritime borders. In Bolivia, there are mounting revanchist pressures for recovering sea access, which was lost to Chile in the 19th century, and to use gas exports as a pressure point. The dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over navigation on the San Juan River, and the heated jurisdictional arguments between Colombia and Venezuela, also act to raise regional tempers.

All these tensions pose the threat of a new arms race at a time when the region's worst problems are poverty, inequality, and the marginalization of indigenous people. If these problems are ignored, destabilization will undoubtedly grow.

Finally, massive migration is contributing to the region's anxieties. The problem is not just illegal migration to the US. Migration, triggered by dire economic conditions and, especially in the past, large-scale violence is also occurring between Latin American countries. Maintaining a peaceful movement of people will pose a serious challenge to the region's leaders in the months and years ahead.

Throughout Latin America, if poverty and violence are not ameliorated, tensions are bound to grow.

The region is truly at a crossroads: this year may well determine whether it lapses back into the sad days of the chaotic past or finds a new maturity to strike out in conditions of liberty and democracy and take on its own path to growth and stability.

Raul Alfonsin was Argentina's first democratically elected president following the fall of the country's military dictatorship.

Copyright: Project Syndicate