15 November 2007

The Other Iberoamerican Summit

Besides the now famous spat between President Chavez and King Juan Carlos and the evil empire bashing of the People's Alternate Summit, what actually happened at the Iberoamerican Summit that took place in Santiago last week? Why did the leaders of 33 countries go to so much trouble to meet together for three days of intensive reunions in Chile?

Leaving aside the drama, the intended theme was social cohesion. The choice was made by Chile in its capacity as the host of the summit and is a clear reflection of the priorities of the Bachelet administration's emphasis on long-term social planning.

The concrete fruit of the reunion were eleven documents; a declaration, a plan of action, and nine special communiqués. The combined focus of these documents can be reduced to five categories; human development, economic development, the environment, defense and security, and political dialogue.

Human development received the most attention, specially emphasizing the role of the region's youth in long term development. There was a clear enunciation of the challenges of the 21st century and a clarion call made to invest in the future through improved public education systems, increased educational exchanges, gender parity in government, minority inclusion, and women's and children's rights. The summit reaffirmed the region's goal of meeting targets set out by the millennium challenge by 2015.

Climate change and environmental management were also big issues discussed at the meeting. With the recent flooding in Tabasco and Chiapas as well as the brutal hurricane season in the Caribbean and Central America, the specter of global warming hung like a proverbial heavy cloud over the conference. Concerned that man made pollution was increasing the severity of these natural disasters, leaders agreed to promote energy conservation and improve local environmental laws to help curb pollution. Mexico proposed the creation of a regional emergency response team with the capacity to coordinate relief efforts in affected areas as well as the creation of a rainy day fund for natural disaster relief.

In terms of economic development the issues were similar to those expressed in other regional forums. The obligatory declarations were made about the need to improve infrastructure, combat corruption, enact fiscal reform, and overhaul regional tax systems, but no concrete measures were approved or even proposed to begin doing this. It was only agreed to call attention to the issue and lend moral support to those countries daring enough to take these practical steps on their own.

Security and defense were a minor part of the talks, but they were brought up. Two symbolic resolutions were passed urging the United Kingdom and Argentina to come to an agreement over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands dispute and another condemning the US-Cuban trade embargo. The group made a symbolic statement rejecting the use of terrorism, as well as the need to increase cooperation in the field of crime reduction and military defense cooperation.

Perhaps the most important result of the meeting came not in the form of a specific resolution, but through the restatement of core regional values emphasizing the need for a human focus in regional development. The recognition of youth and their role in the success of this movement as well as the need to focus on long term social solutions like improved education, health care, social welfare, and increased spending on research and development, infrastructure, and interconnectivity were all important parts of the message that came out of the summit.

By highlighting the ways in which increased cooperation can improve the quality of social services and reduce the combined cost of development, the reunion served to call attention to regional needs without losing site of the bigger picture. The inclusion of "soft" social issues in debates over political and economic growth ensures that leaders do not forget that the real purpose of development is not abstract economic success but the improvement of human lives.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs