Globalist Paper

The Rocky Road to Latin America's Integration (Part V)

How does one distribute the enormous costs of the struggle to suppress international drug trafficking?

Latin American politicians at a MERCOSUR event in 2006. Read Part IV here and Part VI here.

Takeaways


  • Allowing others to come to their own conclusions in their own time about what is best for them is what Brazil calls "strategic patience."
  • Leaving it up to the average Cuban — as the OAS has done — to decide whether they wish to nudge their leaders along the reformist road is grassroots democracy at its most radical.
  • A rational debate on the pros and cons of foreign investment in strategic natural resources — mind you, from within Latin America — often becomes impossible.
  • Colombia's traditional emphasis on a purely military solution to the FARC insurgency reflects a fundamental fear of foreign interference in its home affairs.
  • Globalization's centrifugal forces — which take on an increasingly Brazilian (and Chinese) face, especially in South America — reinforce the ethnic, social and cultural fault lines in many of these countries.

Recovering control of a nation's sovereign wealth resonates powerfully with many people in Latin America, and transnational enterprises are often caught up in this bind.

Behind the red carpet unrolled for companies bringing in capital, technology and jobs, there often lurks an undercurrent of nationalistic discomfort.

Especially in the aftermath of overzealous privatization programs that were part of the region's erstwhile neo-liberal euphoria, the institutions and expertise required to set and oversee public policy in crucial sectors have either been dismantled or weakened.

A technically well-informed and politically rational debate on the pros and cons of foreign investment in strategic natural resources — mind you, from within Latin America — often becomes impossible. Dialogue is overtaken by sloganeering regarding longstanding grievances in countries whose national identity and sense of indigenous pride are strongly tinged with a sense of outrage against past exploitation.

This conspiratorial environment helps explain a long history of social unrest and war in Latin America, and the region's half-hearted lip service to regional integration.

Clearly, globalization's centrifugal forces — which take on an increasingly Brazilian (and Chinese) face, especially in South America — reinforce the ethnic, social and cultural fault lines in many of these countries. How can we ensure that Brazil's neighbors do not see integration as just a local expression of globalization at its most perverse?

A revamped vision of regional integration that takes into account these sensibilities lies behind Brazil's proposal for a Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The Union was born in 2007 out of a novel commitment on the part of member states to forge effective mechanisms to deal with the multiple challenges that should unite — but often divide — the region.

It represents the first tentative institutional scaffolding to foster awareness of these shared interests and the potential benefits of tackling common problems together.

This sense of a regional identity embodies a faith in the potential of a continent with vast energy resources, but where blackouts are commonplace. A continent that boasts the world's greatest biodiversity, but where the environment is under constant threat. A continent that is a major breadbasket, but where children still go hungry, and where vast mineral wealth has done little to eradicate widespread poverty.

South America must take active "ownership" of its problems if outside actors are to feel less obliged or tempted to fill the policy or security voids that result from letting these problems fester. UNASUR's decision to set up a series of regional mechanisms to deal with defense, health and drug trafficking issues is a key step in this direction.

The urgency of taking effective ownership of the region's problems becomes immediately obvious when it comes to dealing with Colombia's leftist insurgency. After all, how does one distribute the enormous social, political as well as economic costs of the prolonged struggle to suppress the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the international drug trafficking that banks it?

As for the drug trade, the bill has fallen disproportionably on Colombia and its neighbors, their law and order institutions and their youth. This is now beginning to change because, for the first time, U.S. consumers are no longer the only voters whose opinion is at stake.

Grassroots democracy means that voters in Latin America increasingly expect end-users in developed countries, foremost in the United States, to shoulder a greater share of this (drug trafficking) burden. It is to be expected that public opinion in the region will increasingly call on the United States to focus on containing demand — and on Latin American authorities to have a hard look at decriminalization back home.

On the issue of the FARC, Colombia's traditional emphasis on a purely military solution to the FARC insurgency — despite short-lived attempts at dialogue — reflects a fundamental fear of foreign interference in its home affairs.

Calls for a negotiated solution with international mediation were rebuffed for fear of exploitation at the hand of domestic political rivals and ideological foes outside the country. As a result, no real attempt was made to deal squarely with the spillover of the insurgency into neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela in search of sanctuaries from Colombian repression.

Issues of national sovereignty and ideological controversy finally exploded into saber-rattling and war-mongering in the aftermath of Colombian punitive attacks into Ecuadorian territory in early 2008.

The UNASUR summit held in late August 2009 was focused on dealing with this and other regional security concerns, from arms acquisitions, U.S. use of Colombian military bases and overseas military alliances.

The event itself represents a favorable harbinger for a region finally willing to deal openly with issues at the heart of latent rivalries and suspicions that have long bedeviled South America — and for that matter, all of Latin America.

For regional leaders to debate on public airwaves about who is paying the cost for whose war, and for whose addiction, is truly a sign that democracy is being given a chance.

As with globalization, true democracy — involving much more than just Latin America's educated classes — is liable to reinforce some of the worrying trends that it is supposed to reverse. This has resulted in much squabbling among neighbors. It is, however, the willingness to bring differences out into the open that gives the integration process a new lease on life.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), in particular, has allowed the region to translate its longstanding adherence to the fundamental tenets of non-intervention and peaceful settlement of disputes into effective and actionable commitments, rather than hiding behind imagined threats and personal rivalries.

More intra-South American coordination by no means excludes constructive engagement with the United States on hemispheric issues in which it has a legitimate interest, such as the fight against terrorism, transnational crime and drugs.

To the contrary, setting relations with the United States on a new footing will also help defuse anti-Americanism and its role in feeding suspicions and animosities among regional neighbors.

However, U.S. reluctance to embrace grassroots democracy in the hemisphere means that this will not be easy. Cuba offers a major litmus test.

The OAS' April 2009 repeal of the suspension of Havana's membership in the organization challenged Washington's long-standing insistence that democracy on the island could only come through economic destabilization of the Castro regime.

The OAS decision opens the door to re-entry, but puts the onus on the Cuban leadership to justify its rejection of the organization's democratic clause. It will be up to the Communist hierarchy to explain to the Cuban population what is so unacceptable about "bourgeois" democracy.

Leaving it up to the average Cuban — as the OAS has done — to decide whether they wish to nudge their leaders along the reformist road is grassroots democracy at its most radical. Yet, the maintenance of the embargo makes this all the more unlikely and suggests that Washington still feels strongly that it knows what is best for Cubans.

In contrast, allowing others to come to their own conclusions in their own time about what is best for them is what Brazil calls "strategic patience."

Except under truly extreme circumstances that make multilaterally authorized engagement inevitable, this requires respect for the sensibilities and historical idiosyncrasies — even when they conflict with one's own perceptions and immediate interests.

Yet, this is still not enough. Grassroots participation in regional fora is critical to defusing a sense of de-legitimacy and disenfranchisement towards policy formulated through strictly bureaucratic channels.

The MERCOSUR Parliament in particular aims to avoid the institutional paralysis the European Union is going through as a result of a perceived “democratic deficit” in its decision-making process.

To this end, beyond electing its members through direct elections, MERCOSUR has developed a series of consultative fora open to civil society — of which the Cities Forum is the best developed — to ensure that all sectors of society are heard.

Editor’s Note: Read Part IV here and Part VI here.

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