Brazil hosts Latin American summit on economic crisis

From Dec. 15 to Dec. 17 Latin American and Caribbean countries held overlapping meetings of several regional groups in Costa do Sauipe, a luxurious tourist complex near Salvador in the eastern Brazil state of Bahia. The overall intention was to increase regional cooperation and integration in response to a growing world economic crisis and the waning influence of the US.

The regional groups included: the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), a trade block in the Southern Cone made up of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay with Venezuela in the process of admission; the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a four-year-old combination of Mercosur with the Andean Community (CAN) trade bloc and other South American countries; and the Rio Group, which was formed in 1986 as a successor to the Contadora Group and includes 23 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The main event was the Dec. 16-17 First Summit of Latin America and the Caribbean (CALC), the first to include all of Latin America and the Caribbean without the presence of leaders from Portugal, Spain or the US. The CALC was attended by 33 heads of state. The only leaders in the region who were absent were Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe and El Salvador’s Antonio Saca, both close US allies; the other main US ally, Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, participated.

The decisions made at the meeting were mostly symbolic, but the regional leaders considered them significant. UNASUR formalized the establishment of a regional defense council. The Rio Group voted on Dec. 16 to include Cuba, which had previously been excluded; Cuban president Raúl Castro was present for the summit, the first he had attended since replacing his brother Fidel Castro as head of state. The day also included a one-hour meeting between Castro and Mexican president Calderón, continuing a process of improving relations between the countries.

The summit was less united on economic issues. Left and center-left governments now dominate the region, but Calderón promoted “free-market” approaches, warning that leftist policies would cause foreign investment to dry up even more in the recession. The summit’s final declaration didn’t include Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez‘s proposal for a $5 bilion regional reserve fund, but it did approve a proposal he made with Bolivian president Evo Morales and Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa for a regional currency. It is to be called the sucre—the Spanish initials for Single System of Regional Compensation and also the name of Simón Bolivar’s close collaborator, Antonio Jose de Sucre.

Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the meeting’s host, emphasized that Mercosur had now made preferential tariff agreements with India and the Southern Africa Customs Union, composed of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland. Mercosur has also decided to offset a US decision in November to suspend some trade benefits for Bolivia worth about $21 million; this was meant to punish the country for its alleged failure to cooperate in the US-sponsored “war on drugs.” Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said Mercosur would absorb duty-free up to $30 million in Bolivian exports next year.

In a sign of the region’s growing independence, the leaders joked openly about outgoing US president George Bush and a Dec. 14 incident in which an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. The other leaders laughed when Lula threatened to throw Celso Amorim’s large-size shoes at President Chávez if he spoke too long. Chávez, known for speaking past time limits, smiled and finished in five minutes. (La Jornada, Dec. 17, 18; Bloomberg, Dec. 17; IPS, AFP, Dec. 16)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 21

See our last posts on Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador, Cuba, and Latin America’s alternative integration.