Mercosur: Diversifying Partnerships

By Andrés Serbin*

Mercosur Summit

A seminar at the 53rd Mercosur Summit. / Sabrina Pizzinato / UCIM / Creative Commons

Mercosur’s signing of a memorandum to increase economic and commercial cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Commission (EAEU) signals the trading bloc’s interest in diversifying its trade and political relationships beyond the western hemisphere.  The presidents of the Mercosur countries – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay –signed the agreement at the 53rd Mercosur Summit, held last month in Montevideo.  At a ceremony at which he accepted the rotating presidency from Uruguay, Argentine President Mauricio Macri emphasized the need for Mercosur to open not just to the Pacific Alliance, but also to Central America, Asia, and Africa.

  • Proposals for closer cooperation with the EAEU have been under study for many years, since Russia first created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) from among the former Soviet republics (except the Baltic countries) after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The CIS was intended as a post-Soviet space under Russia’s leadership that would reconnect its members within a “Eurasian” geopolitical region distinct from both Europe and Asia.  The EAEU, formalized in 2015 under the leadership of Russia and Kazakhstan, now also includes Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.  Mercosur ministers agreed to sign the memorandum during meetings immediately before the summit, stating that enhanced cooperation and coordination with the EAEU – with which Mercosur would account for a combined 6.5 percent of world GDP – was consistent with efforts to strike a similar arrangement with the European Union.
  • Mercosur’s decision comes amid international tensions over trade and protectionism, but it cannot be divorced from the ideological, cultural, and geopolitical elements of the vision for “Great Eurasia” of which Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken (and which Chinese President Xi Jinping has shared). The tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and Western pressures in retaliation, were a key driver of Moscow’s push for formalization of the EAEU as a potential interlocutor with the European Union while at the same time putting a brake on U.S. presence in the region.  Western analysts have debated the power of “neo-Eurasian” identity as a tool of geopolitical projection beyond the creation of a new economic bloc.  China is also a factor in Russia’s calculations.  The “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (OCS) fostered by both countries and Beijing’s “New Silk Road” project, through Central Asia and to the EU, have also increased the salience of “Great Eurasia.”  Russia and China have increased cooperation in trade, in technology (including military) and against terrorism and extremism.  Through the EAEU and OCS mechanisms, they have extended contacts all the way to India and Pakistan and, potentially in the future, Iran and other countries.

Mercosur’s trade with the EAEU is asymmetrical in favor of the Latin American countries, with the exception of Brazil (with which it is more balanced), according to EAEU officials.  The EAEU has high internal tariffs and limited internal trade – except in bilateral trade between Russia and Belarus – but there are already tariff exemptions for Mercosur members.  Food appears to be the biggest Mercosur export to the region.  Experts believe that trade between the two blocs can be significantly increased, and that a free trade agreement can be signed before the completion of the EU-Mercosur FTA, which has been under negotiation for 20 years.

Although many Western analysts remain doubtful about the success of efforts to form a “Great Eurasia,” Mercosur apparently has determined that engagement with it is low-cost and potentially beneficial.  Beyond the possibility of expanded trade, the memorandum of cooperation signed in Montevideo suggests Mercosur sees a geostrategic interest in signaling openness to such collaboration.  The right-leaning governments of Latin America and the Caribbean are likely to remain generally aligned with the United States, but they have learned the importance of trade diversification over the past two decades.  Setting tradition and ideology aside, most are trying to interact with whomever can bring good deals to their countries in terms of trade, investment, and cooperation.  In the context of Russia and China’s interest in a “Great Eurasia,” Mercosur’s increased outreach to EAEU also reflects an important piece in a strategy to undertake the necessary diversification of its foreign policy in a changing world.

  •  The United States may not appreciate the wisdom of Mercosur’s approach. Eurasia is a blind spot for Washington, which focuses on Russia’s actions in Europe and China’s in Asia – but not in Central Asia itself or as a bridge to India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world.

January 7, 2019

* Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a network of more than 70 research centers, think tanks, NGOs, and other organizations focused on Latin America and the Caribbean.  This article is adapted from one published by Perfil.com.

Southern Cone: Rapid Transition to Non-Conventional Renewable Energy

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Edificio Alexander

Edificio Alexander, a building in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that produces wind energy on its roof. / Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr / Creative Commons

South America’s Southern Cone is undertaking a transition to non-conventional, renewable energy resources – that is, production not dependent on fossil fuels or large-scale hydropower – that creates the opportunity for a historic regional consensus on energy policy.  Uruguay and Chile are at the forefront.  Both lack significant fossil fuel reserves and have experienced crises when droughts detrimentally impacted hydro-supplied electricity.  For them, the rapid shift to other forms of domestically sourced renewables is as much a means to guarantee energy security as to combat climate change.  Approximately a third of Uruguay’s electricity is currently generated from wind power (up from only one percent as recently as 2013).  Similarly, about a third of Chile’s electric power – depending on the time of day – is sourced from the sun and the wind.

  • Brazil has also made significant strides in incorporating wind, and to a lesser degree, solar power into its energy matrix. The primary motivation is the need to offset carbon emissions from the burning of rain forests and the country’s greater use of natural gas.  Brazil has long enjoyed the cleanest energy of any large economy in the world because of its heavy reliance on hydropower, which still covers some two-thirds of the country’s electric needs.  Brazil was also a pioneer in the development of more environmentally friendly sugar-based ethanol (as opposed to corn favored in U.S. ethanol production); most passenger vehicles today have flex-fuel engines.  Paraguay gets almost all its electricity from hydropower (and exports the bulk of what it produces).
  • Argentina, while increasing exploitation of its large shale gas and oil reserves, in 2017 expanded renewable energy projects nearly 800 percent over the previous year, according to reports. President Mauricio Macri has created a more inviting investment climate for the private sector, rapidly increasing natural gas output, especially from the Vaca Muerta shale reserves in Patagonia.  He is also encouraging the expansion of renewable energy beyond large hydro by, among other things, allowing long-term power purchase agreements in U.S. dollars as a hedge against currency devaluations.  Furthermore, large industrial consumers face penalties if they do not meet increasing thresholds set for renewable energy use.  Current laws require that at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from non-conventional renewables by the end of 2025, and they include tax exemptions, import duty waivers, and a special trust fund called FODER, created in 2016, to provide subsidized loans and other assistance.

The rapid expansion of the renewable energy sector in the Southern Cone will enable countries to export excess production to their neighbors, facilitated by a robust regulatory framework to facilitate the cross-border trade in energy resources.  In addition, by creating a fully integrated regional market in renewable energy products, a crucial backup is established for resources such as wind and solar power that are inevitably prone to interruptions during the day.  It would also mitigate the impact of droughts on hydro-generated electricity, which are likely to worsen with global climate change.  Accordingly, there are strong incentives to revive efforts begun by MERCOSUR in the late 1990s to integrate energy markets that collapsed with the Argentine energy crisis at the start of the 21st century.  The fact that all the Southern Cone governments are now ideologically aligned in favor of market-oriented economic and investment policies facilitates achieving a regional consensus on energy for the first time.  Governments in the region now need to move beyond the discussion phase to turn all this into a concrete reality.

October 19, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and currently teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto and Santiago, Chile.

Paraguay: Stormy First Month for New President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Mario Abdo Benítez

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez. / Marcos Corrêa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over a month into his five-year term, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez is already being challenged by corruption scandals – including allegations against himself – and internal party squabbling, but he is continuing efforts to build his image as an ambitious reformer.  While emphasizing continuity with the previous administration’s economic policies – focusing on export-fueled growth, low taxes, and domestic investment – Abdo Benítez’s push for certain reforms is ruffling feathers.

  • In the wake of protests against highly publicized corruption and influence-trafficking cases involving national legislators and top judges, Abdo Benítez based his campaign on a pledge to fight government and judicial corruption though deep reforms. In his inauguration speech, he called for immediate priority to be given to comprehensive reform of the national judicial system.  Three days after taking office, he called on all political parties – including those without representation in the National Congress – to join a national debate on constitutional reform.

The president, however, faces a number of challenges to his image and leadership.

  • During the campaign, he distanced himself from the legacy of his father, who was a top aide to Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), but a visit he made to his father’s grave after voting on election day and his use of Stroessner’s white Chevrolet on inauguration day fueled apprehensions about his commitment to democracy.
  • He is being buffeted by allegations that he has ties with drug traffickers. Social media have publicized a picture of the president in his home with his arm around drug kingpin Reinaldo Javier “Cucho” Cabaña, who was arrested earlier this month.  He has denied receiving money from Cabaña and said that he did not recognize the man – that he had taken “millions of photos” with sympathizers who came to his house to express support during the campaign.
  • One of his closest allies in the congress, Ulises Quintana, was also indicted this month for alleged involvement in “Cucho’s” international drug trafficking network. Another close ally facing corruption charges is Miguel Cuevas, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who stands accused of illicit enrichment while in office and who has become the new main target of the anti-corruption protest groups.
  • A faction within his party, the Cartistas —allies of former President Horacio Cartes – has been holding back on support Abdo Benítez’s reforms. They claim his call for inclusive debate, rather than negotiating directly with them before opening to other parties, was a sign of bad faith, and they have not agreed to join the talks.
  • The president also faces challenges from the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), whose leader says he supports reforming the constitution, even drafting a new one, but that it should be based on a “national agenda” – not only Abdo Benítez’s priorities. PLRA and other parties are concerned that a key purpose of the reforms is open the way to presidential reelection, which has long been a goal of the Cartistas.  They also claim the president is appointing cronies to positions that require technical expertise, such as management posts at the Itaipú power plant on the Brazil-Argentina border.

Abdo Benítez’s commitment to reforms may be mostly rhetorical – his bottom line seems mostly about continuity – but the political threats that they entail could get out of control and spark protests.  Six weeks into his presidency, he seems unlikely to rally the domestic support necessary to enact deep reforms to make the electoral, political, and judicial processes more open and transparent.  He may find some comfort in the fact that neighboring presidents – Michel Temer in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – all have their hands full too, and that, if anything, the region’s turn to the right during elections since 2015 means that he is not likely to be isolated politically.  As a new president, however, Abdo Benítez has to be wondering what the next five years hold.

September 27, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

The Impact of Falling Oil Prices on the Western Hemisphere

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The sharp drop in the benchmark Brent crude price of oil from just under US$115 per barrel in June 2014 to its current perch around US$50 has important ramifications for the Western Hemisphere.  For Venezuela, which earns some 95 percent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports, it is a potential disaster.  Underlying political tensions will be exacerbated if there is no money to continue funding social welfare programs or heavily subsidizing gasoline.  It probably also spells the end of PetroCaribe’s generous repayment holidays and what are in essence below-market interest loans for Caribbean and Central American nations.  Sharply lower oil prices also put at risk major energy projects such as the development of Brazil’s pre-salt reserves, which require a minimum price of $50 to $55 to be economically viable.  Equally tenuous are Argentine efforts to regain energy self-sufficiency by exploiting its vast shale oil and gas reserves and Mexican plans to attract foreign investors to participate in deep-water oil exploration and drilling.  The minimum price for a barrel of oil below which new investment projects in Canada’s oil sands are no longer attractive is around $65.  Shale oil producers in the United States are also being squeezed by low petroleum prices.

On the other hand, net energy importers such as Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay benefit from sharply lower oil prices.  Although being weaned off  PetroCaribe will be painful for the Caribbean and Central America in the short term, they will be able to seek oil at the lower prices elsewhere.  The pressure on the Obama administration to lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, in response to a glut of domestic shale oil production, could also redound in favor of the Caribbean and Central America by lowering international oil prices further through increased global supply.  Already, 2015 began with U.S. companies authorized to export an ultralight crude called condensate.

In hopes of rallying OPEC to stabilize oil prices, Venezuelan President Maduro last weekend rushed off to lobby Saudi Arabia, which just two months ago refused to decrease production in order to raise prices, but oil industry sources say there’s little chance of a policy change.  Meanwhile, the environment may turn out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lower oil prices.  Less investment in shale oil production reduces the risk of leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as decreases flaring.  Similarly, slowing down oil sands production in Alberta and Saskatchewan means that the very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting crude oil from bitumen (not to mention the negative impact on water resources) is diminished.  Although lower fossil fuel prices traditionally have undermined incentives to move to greater reliance on renewable and non-traditional energy resources, this may no longer be true.  For one thing many governments around the world are now embarked on ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions by, among other things, raising the costs associated with petroleum usage through cap and trade regimes that force companies to buy government-issued pollution permits.  Still others have enacted outright carbon taxes on utilities and large factories per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions.  In addition, the heavy initial capital investment that was previously associated with things like wind, solar and geothermal power are falling.  For example, a combination of technological advances and Chinese overproduction have resulted in much lower prices for solar panels so that the cost of generation from a large photovoltaic solar plant is now almost 80 percent less than five years ago.  Geothermal energy may be the renewable that most benefits as drilling rigs idled by lower oil prices are now available at a lower cost for geothermal projects.  

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at the Villanova University School of Law.

January 13, 2015

Paraguay Coup: Setback to Democracy Even if Technically Constitutional

 

Photo by: Juan Alberto Pérez Doldán, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/38384810@N02/3531158719/

President Fernando Lugo, struggling to consolidate power since taking office in 2008 in Paraguay’s first meaningful transfer of power in 60 years, was removed from office on Friday by the same elites who had resisted him all along.  In a series of lightning actions, the Senate convened an impeachment process – giving him only two hours to prepare a defense – and voted him out of office.  Opposition leaders cited the government’s mishandling of a squatter protest earlier this month, resulting in 17 dead, but they had been undermining him from day one of his administration.  By Friday afternoon, Lugo accepted his removal and left the Presidential residence.  His vice president, Federico Franco, was sworn in and subsequently declared, “The country is calm. … Activity is normal and there is no protest.”

International reaction was slow at first, as the region focused on an environmental summit in Brazil.  But Brazil, Argentina and the ALBA nations condemned Lugo’s ouster and threatened sanctions.  President Dilma Rousseff urged immediate suspension of Paraguay in Mercosur and UNASUR, and Brasilia and others have withdrawn their ambassadors.  The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” at first and then urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles.”  The OAS held an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council and sent a fact-finding mission to Asunción.

As President Lugo said, the action was as much against “Paraguay’s history, its democracy” as it was against him.  Like the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago, the action was intended to stop a popular president and influence elections scheduled in coming months, but Zelaya was removed and exiled by the military, and the Congressional documents sanctioning it were fabricated after the fact.  The events in Paraguay pose an important challenge to the democracy clauses of the various regional charters (Mercosur, UNASUR, OAS) as well as the leadership of the region’s biggest democracies, including Brazil and United States.  At this early point, the Paraguayan elites probably judge that they can weather the storm because the U.S. and Brazil – with the diplomatic tensions about the Honduran coup, elections and reaccession to the OAS still fresh – have few options for restoring Lugo to presidency.  Insofar as entrenched elites sense that Washington will react mildly to the removal of democratically elected presidents they can cast as “leftist,” coups like those that have taken place in Honduras and Paraguay will continue.