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March 21, 2009

Peru Restarts War of the Pacific with UN Lawsuit against Chile

Southern Affairs (March 21, 2009) -- Peru, home of the ancient Incan Empire, is trying to win back by reason what it lost by force. On March 19, Peru asked the United Nations to settle a century-old dispute with its southern neighbor Chile over some of South America's richest fishing grounds.

Jose Garcia Belaunde, Peru's foreign minister, wants the UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague to hear its claims to an area of about 50,000 kilometers of ocean off its southern coast claimed by Chile since the 19th century War of the Pacific. Chile is having none of it.

"Chile will continue to exercise sovereignty over maritime areas under Chilean jurisdiction," Mariano Fernandez, Chile's foreign minister said on March 19. However, in an interview the day before Peru presented its arguments to The Hague, Peru's Garcia Belaunde said, "the Chileans have to accept that it is the court that decides this.

If the UN accepts Peru's plea, at one time Spain's most powerful American viceroyalty, it would put Chile in a difficult spot. "It's a complicated situation," said Eduardo Araya, director of the history institute in Chile’s Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. "If Chile doesn’t accept the ruling, it would create problems in their legal relations. However, the Chilean government risks a strong political backlash if it ever agreed to cede territory to Peru. No one would risk it."

Chile took control of the territory in 1881 after its Navy occupied Lima during what is known as the War of the Pacific, Araya said. Chile claims the current border was established by treaties in 1952 and 1954 that also establish Peru's border with Ecuador. Last year, Peru’s President Alan Garcia filed a lawsuit seeking rights to the fishing waters saying the dispute was never settled.

While both countries want to minimize collateral damage, Garcia Belaunde said Chile could retaliate to force Peru to withdraw the suit. Chile "could impose sanctions against Peru," Garcia Belaunde said, but "our idea of submitting this to international jurisdiction is to avoid the issue affecting our economic relations."

Southern Affairs -- www.southernaffairs.org

March 10, 2009

Unasur Defense Ministers Play Down Regional Conflicts at South American Summit

March 10 (Southern Affairs) -- Unasur's defense ministers met again in Santiago today to kick off the South American Defense Council. Amid handshakes and congratulations, the ministers emphasized the historic nature of the meeting which they say will help ensure peace and democracy throughout the continent.

What the ministers did not discuss publicly was how they planned to reestablish functional relations between eight of the 12 nations of Unasur. While the thundering applause the ministers gave each other on "a job they can be proud of" left no doubt as to the goodwill between the women and men sitting around the table, the nagging question of how to resolve old and new conflicts took a back seat to the apparently more pressing need to "reaffirm basic principles," like sovereignty, peace, and democracy.

The lack of any comment on a possible resolution to the conflict and rupture of diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador following Colombia's March 1, 2008 attack against a base camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, in Ecuadorian territory was a sign of the group's lack of real power.

According to Ecuador's Defense Minister Javier Ponce Cevallos, he did not meet with his Colombian counterpart today, and Ecuador is not yet willing to reestablish relations until Colombia meets a series of demands, primarily a public retraction of statements saying that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's government had ties with the FARC.

The only problem is that most of the evidence says Correa's government did. His former Under Secretary of Political Coordination Jose Ignacio Chauvin was indicted yesterday by an Ecuadorian Anti-Narcotics prosecutor as an accomplice to the Ostaiza Brothers cocaine cartel, a group that allegedly helped the FARC smuggle drugs through Mexico and into the United States.

Chauvin admitted to meeting with the FARC several times and said that his old boss and close Correa ally the former Security Minister Gustavo Larrea, had also met with FARC representatives. Add Correa's curious expulsion of two U.S. diplomats in the last two months for pressuring police officers to testify about links between his government and the FARC, his campaign to close the US anti-narcotic air base in Manta, and still unproven claims that the FARC donated to Correa's election campaign and more questions surface.

"I've never denied my friendship with Edison Ostaiza," Chavin was quoted today by Quito-based El Comercio as saying. "I will never deny my status as a revolutionary. I will never deny that I met with Raúl Reyes." Reyes was the FARC's number 2 leader killed in the Angostura attack.

With such a public confession coming from a former member of the administration confirming Colombia's claims, what leg is Correa standing on?

Such are the gaps in the positions of the two countries that it isn't difficult to see why a consensus-based organization like Unasur's defense council is forced to steer clear of polemic discussions in favor of reaffirming basic principles. The ministers wouldn't want to wade too deep into someone's sovereign territory.

By Nathan Gill -- www.southernaffairs.org

June 27, 2008

Unasur Defense Summit Unable To Reach Consensus

(June 27, 2008) One month ago the presidents of South America formally created the Union of South American Nations. While no one was fooled by the momentary goodwill for very long, the proposal to create a South American Defense Council did raise heads. Well, those heads can go back to whatever it was they were doing earlier; South America has proved once again that it is all talk and no walk.

At the Defense Council Summit, held on June 23 and 24 in Santiago, Chile, representatives of all the South American nations except Colombia were unable to agree on any of the basic issues outlined in the Brazilian proposal. Some of the topics discussed included the sharing of best practices and past experiences, combined military exercises, and more cooperation in peacekeeping missions like the one in Haiti.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the summit was the fact that it was even called in the first place. Given the wide-spread and in some cases escalating conflicts that have prevented any real progress since integration talks began in 2000, it seemed too far-fetched to believe that a region where governments are still arguing over 19th century border wars would be willing to share military secrets.

Why then was the council proposed in the first place?

My best guess is that it was a mixture of wishful dreaming on the Brazilian military industrial complex's part and a jab at the US government's decision to reactivate the Fourth Fleet, a World War II era command structure responsible for U.S. Navy ships, aircraft and submarines operating in the Caribbean and the waters surrounding Central and South America.

If the presidents of South America thought that creating a defense council, with no short term possibilities of success, would somehow raise their international profile, this week's summit changed that assumption. Instead, the Council was so unimpressive it didn’t even receive news coverage in Santiago, the city where the summit was actually held.

Perhaps the most regrettable result of the summit's failure is that it reinforces the widely held notion that Latin America is too unstable to merit serious attention. This is not the case. Many Latin American countries are already serious global players and looking forward into the 21st century, the region will certainly play a major role in international relations because of its massive human and natural resources, to mention just two of its numerous virtues.

This summit is a sad reminder of the cheap rhetoric that has come to define South American politics. Leaders seem unable to realize that they are often the biggest roadblock to their own development. If they only meant what they said and did what they promised we would be on the verge of a real revolution. Until then we are left with Bolivarianism - not much of a substitute.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs

June 25, 2008

Democracy Strikes Again: The End Of 21st-Century Socialism?

(June 25, 2008) The resignation of the President of Ecuador's Constitutional Assembly Alberto Acosta on June 23 is the latest in a series of setbacks for Latin America's 21st century socialists. With political conditions deteriorating in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, it makes sense to ask – what happened to Latin America's socialist revolution? Where is the change their leaders promised to bring?

Acosta's resignation comes just five weeks before a national referendum to approve the new constitution he and his party have spear-headed. Citing a disagreement with the president and his governing political party Alianza Pais (AP) over his concerns that the constitution was not ready for a national referendum at the end of July, Acosta said in an interview with Reuters that he had been asked to step down by AP party officials.

The announcement came on the same day that the southern Bolivian province of Tarija approved a referendum for greater autonomy, distancing itself from the President's socialist/indigenous party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) and deepening the political crisis there. Tarija is the fourth Bolivian department to hold and approve a non-binding referendum demanding greater provincial autonomy.

When you combine these events with the deteriorating social conditions in Venezuela, it would seem that 21st century socialism is on hard times. What happened to the people's revolution?

According to Jorge Castañeda, former foreign Minister of Mexico, Latin America's so called "left turn" began in 1998 with the election of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Influenced by the political theories of Heinz Dieterich [1] a German sociology and economy professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, Chavez began what he called a socialist 'Bolivarian revolution' using oil subsidies and hard currency from national oil profits to support other supportive governments around the region.

By 2007, seven South American countries were governed by self-proclaimed socialists or left of center governments; however, it was only in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that radical populist candidates were most successful. While Argentina has not changed its traditional Peronist roots, the other three countries have elected political neophytes who promised to overthrow the traditional elite through revolution.

So far only Venezuela has approved its new constitution while citizens in Bolivia and Ecuador yet agreed on a solution. In these countries, disagreements between the ruling and opposition political parties have delayed constitutional referendums, leaving citizens, business, and foreign interests in limbo, with no recourse to the rule of law, until the new constitutions are approved. In the meantime politicians cannot go about instituting further reforms or solving the everyday needs of the populace. The political turmoil also means that neither Bolivia nor Ecuador, both major energy exporters, have been able to take advantage of the soaring price for oil and natural gas in global markets.

A major roadblock in these countries is Latin America's tradition of zero-sum politics where a gain for one party automatically means a loss for the opposition. The refusal of the ruling parties to consider the interests of the former political elite is a classical fallacy and ironic twist on the traditional politics in these countries where a relatively small wealthy minority has ruled without much concern for the interests of the disenfranchised majority. Now that the situation is reversed, the new ruling powers seem happy to continue this legacy of exclusion.

In Bolivia's case, Morales has complicated his efforts, although with the apparent majority's support, to reform the nation by refusing to listen to opposition groups' concerns, mostly in the gas rich eastern lowlands. Consequently, four of the nation's nine provinces, all in the lowlands, are in open revolt against his government.

Ecuador's president has shot himself in the foot by insulting many who become obstacles; indeed, judging from opinion polls, his capacity to be offended seems to be his greatest charm. He has so far managed to alienate many of the nation's major interest groups by attacking the media, accusing the military of plotting with the CIA against him, challenging the powerful CONAIE indigenous party by saying he didn’t need their support, and by refusing to meet with the leaders of the major commercial sectors. Perhaps not surprisingly, recent opinion polls show Correa's popularity and support for the new constitution are declining. The resignation of Alberto Acosta will almost certainly make this situation worse.

Another problem with today's socialism is its negative political ideology. It is a movement based on a rejection of the status quo but doesn’t offer viable alternatives of its own. This is the case in Venezuela where government policies have caused a shortage of basic food supplies and critical machinery for oil drilling, high inflation, and the creation of a parallel black market commonly used to get around the state's Kafkaesque currency controls. Add a wave of violent crime and it's isn’t hard to understand why people are growing impatient.

Finally, the strategy of generating political support by blaming the country's problems on the United States seems worn thin and makes it more difficult to move the agenda forward. The US is, at its current best, a reliable trading partner and largest market for Latin American exports as well as the home of millions of Latin American immigrants. Socialist narratives that the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus were 100 percent responsible for the economic crises at the turn of the century fail to explore the role of incomplete political reforms and the endemic corruption on a national level. This omission makes the next steps all the more difficult.

It remains to be seen whether popular discontent with 21st century socialism continues to grow. It may be that the new socialists' greatest contribution is their challenge of the status quo, reminding the traditional elite that indifference to the vast inequalities between the haves and have-nots is a recipe for disaster.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs

[1] Dieterich, Heinz. "Socialismo del Siglo XXI" Mexico City, 1996.

June 15, 2008

Interview About Unasur With KALW 91.7FM San Francisco

This is a link to a radio show about Unasur and the state of US-South American relations called Unsure about Unasur.

The show's guests are Larry Birns, founder of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and Nathan Gill, publisher of this page. It was produced by Your Call KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco on Thursday, June 12, 2008.

This show focuses on the perceived "left-ward" trend in South America and the implications of current events in the region for US interests. While I would have liked to talk more about Unasur, recent events and the summit in May, the conversation focused mostly on US relations and the region's growing independence from Washington.

June 9, 2008

Peru's Halts Jungle Highway Construction After Investigation Shows Design Wasn't Done

June 9, 2008 (Southern Affairs) -- Peru's Transportation and Communications Minister Verónica Zavala announced May 27th that Unasur's highest profile project, an inter-oceanic highway connecting the Brazilian Atlantic with the Peruvian Pacific, was being investigated after discovering that it did not have a budget or engineering plans.

The minister told a Congressional Committee that while construction on the highway had already begun, it was unclear how much it would actually cost because engineers had plans for only five of the total 1000 kilometers. The 2004 contract estimated that the highway would cost US$810 million but the contractor has since revised its estimates upwards claiming that it will take an additional US$569 million to complete the project. It is unclear what the figures are based on though, given that engineers have yet to finish designing the project. The revelation raises serious questions about how South America plans to integrate the continents infrastructure. The current plan, called IIRSA (a Spanish acronym for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration), was approved in 2002 and calls for the construction of four strategic continental corridors: Peru-Bolivia-Brazil, Venezuela-Guyana-Surinam-Brazil, Porto Alegre-Asuncion-Jujuy-Antofogasta, and an Amazon River transportation

In October Brazil's Environmental Ministry Executive Secretary Joao Paulo Capobianco said, "It's necessary to examine how [development in the Amazon Rainforest] will be done, on what scale and in what areas. In theory, there are methodologies and technologies that allow this activity without environmental damage." However, Zavala's announcement seems to confirm fears that regional governments are moving forward without considering the environmental impacts associated with their projects.

As the second largest Amazonian country, decisions made in Peru also have an effect on the rest of the world. As more and more of the rainforest is lost, less carbon is removed from the atmosphere, further increasing damage from global warming. The highway is expected to cut across sections of virgin forest and bring further development from colonists, ranchers and loggers who will use the road to reach previously inaccessible land for exploitation.

Peru's Congress has initiated an investigation into Proinversion, the government agency that approved the project.

By Nathan Gill -- www.southernaffairs.org

June 7, 2008

Unasur 2008 Summit: All Circus No Bread

June 7, 2008 (Southern Affairs) -- It is unclear what the recent Unasur summit in Brasilia actually accomplished. Six months late and set against the backdrop of the worst regional conflict since the 1990s, the 12 presidents of South America tried hard to hide the growing divisions between their governments with lofty rhetoric of fraternity and integration but were unable to conceal the fact that after eight years of "integration," the continent was further from this goal than when it began.

Underscoring the union's inability to unite is the fact that the so called "constitutive" charter signed on May 23 was actually the second one the group has signed in just four years. When you consider that South America's presidents have been meeting on an almost annual basis since 2000, Brasilia's fireworks seem somehow out of place; especially given the fact that the 2008 charter effectively killed the idea of uniting the Andean community and Mercosur into one regional economic block.

When the presidents first met in 2000, they agreed to merge CAN and Mercosur by 2002. In 2002 the issue was given top priority but postponed. In 2004 it was admitted that economic integration was more complicated than previously thought and now in 2008 the union not only decided not to unite the two blocks, it now looks as if the Andean Community could dissolve over disagreements about economic policies.

In terms of political organization, the 12 presidents of South America nominated Rodrigo Borja, a former President of Ecuador, in 2007 for the position of Executive Secretary of Unasur and asked him to propose a formal institutional structure that would help Unasur achieve its objectives.

Borja proposed that the administrative branches of Mercosur and the Andean Community be united under the jurisdiction of a regional executive secretary with greater powers to push the regional agenda. Although the proposal follows the stated goals of the union to reduce the "spaghetti bowl" of overlapping layers of bureaucracy, the presidents were unwilling to cede any authority and instead approved an executive branch with 24 members. Decisions must now be made with the approval of at least eight of the 12 national delegates and all of the 12 member presidents.

In an interview with the author in February, Borja said he would only serve as secretary if the group agreed to "terminar con esa retorica espumosa que no sirve para nada." On May 22 he publically rejected the position saying he would not serve under the new terms proposed by the union.

The rejection of Borja's plan is just one manifestation of the distrust and lack of consensus that still exists between members. Ecuador and Venezuela's deployment of troops to Colombia's border in March is another example. To these could be added the Argentina-Uruguay paper mill conflict, Peru's border suit against Chile in The Hague, Bolivia's demand for Chilean territory, and Venezuela's claim to more than two thirds of Guyana.

Looking forward, it will take some pretty profound changes in South American relations before Unasur will function as envisioned. If the past is any judge of the future, we can probably expect a new union that promises to do just that in 2012.

By Nathan Gill