By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies
Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.
The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.
The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe. Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.
Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.
And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.