South American summit in Bolivia sets integration challenges
By Odeen Ishmael
December 3, 2006
BOLIVIA’S President Evo Morales in late October released a paper advocating steps the fledgling South American Community of Nations (SACN) should take to deepen the continent’s integration process.
This document, circulated earlier to all South American presidents, proposes that the second Summit of the Community, to be held in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on December 8-9, must “pass beyond declarations to deeds”. President Morales challenges his colleagues to “advance towards a treaty which makes the South American Community of Nations a true South American bloc at the political, economic, social and cultural level.”
Indeed, the overall objective of the SACN is to evolve itself into a union with strong political and economic clout. But the community is handicapped from moving purposely in this direction because it has no established central secretariat or an administrative structure manned by international civil servants.
There are some South American leaders who want the SACN to move rapidly to such a union since this will provide effective political and economic advantages. But President Morales warns about moving too fast and proposes that the process of integration should evolve at varying speeds since levels of political, economic, social and cultural development vary from country to country.
Significantly, the integration process was spurred just last week when the continent’s Foreign Ministers reached an agreement for South American citizens to travel throughout the continent without visas.
And to promote development financing within the community, the summit will also examine the feasibility of setting up a “Bank of the South”, a proposal initiated by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
The Bolivian president outlines specific goals and mechanisms to be applied at the social and cultural, economic, environmental, and institutional and political levels to create the “South American bloc”. Many of his views are not new, and it is significant that his ideas on economic, social and cultural issues mesh closely with those of former Guyanese President Cheddi Jagan (1918-1997) for a New Global Human Order, which is currently championed by Guyana in the international arena.
On the sidelines of the presidential summit, the Bolivian government is organising a parallel “social summit”, expected to attract 1,500 participants, to discuss various issues pertaining to migration, the environment, justice and impunity, indigenous peoples, health, education, employment, the exercise of democracy, and respect for cultural diversity.
Co-sponsored by leftist trade unions and farmers’ organisations allied to President Morales, it expectedly will reject neo-liberal policies while condemning all Washington-encouraged free trade agreements.
Actually, the topic of free trade features prominently in President Morales’ paper. In speaking out against free trade as advanced under the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), he expresses a preference for “fair trade”.
At the summit, trade concerns are anticipated to generate intense discussions and, obviously, also differences in views since some South American countries are actively negotiating free trade agreements with the United States. It is no secret, too, that Bolivia is a strong supporter of the Bolivarian Alternative to Free Trade (ALBA), the anti-FTAA initiative promoted by Venezuela.
In previous SACN discussions, the idea of a convergence of the Andean Group and Mercosur to form the basis of the South American political and economic union had already gained some sort of a consensus.
Chile has already recognised this fact and recently rejoined the Andean Community as an associate member. This leaves out Guyana and Suriname from gaining from such a convergence since they do not belong to either group.
Certainly, it now becomes essential for them to take steps in associating themselves with one of these two groups, preferably Mercosur.
One important aspect of integration that the leaders will review is the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA).
As one of the main integration planks of the community, IIRSA has already developed comprehensive plans for establishing transportation links across the continent. However, concerns are being expressed about the objectives of the IIRSA road projects, including their effects on the natural environment.
As President Morales puts it, these projects must “take into account the concerns of the people who want to see highways in the framework of poles of development and not highways through which containers pass for export in the midst of corridors of misery and an increase in external debt.”
With regard to environmental issues, these remain as top priority especially when most of the countries form part of the large Amazon basin. In these countries, the forests form a great part of their national environmental heritage which they have to protect.
Since 1994 at the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, Guyana suggested the creation of a regional “forest monitoring fund” to assist the countries in managing their forest resources, to train forest rangers, and to conduct scientific studies of forest products and their sustainable development.
The South American leaders should revisit this idea which can surely aid in the “environmental integration” of the continent.
It is expected that this summit will have to move the South American integration process another step forward. At this moment, the people of the continent want to see some tangible actions to improve their standards of living and cement growing unity at the political, economic and social levels.
Certainly, this is a stiff challenge considering the ideological differences among the various presidents and the bilateral disagreements existing between some of the countries.
However, if the leaders agree on a plan of action, even if it has limited objectives but geared towards closer integration, the decisions of this summit will be regarded as very positive.
In this respect, President Morales will feel satisfied that his ideas on South American unity are taking root.
(** The writer is Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)