The myriad of Heads of State and Government summits and integration processes which extend through Latin America and the Iberic Peninsula is well known to many, yet one has been of special interest in the past weeks: The Ibero-American Conference which groups Latin America countries and their former colonial metropolis (Spain and Portugal) plus Andorra, who will hold the next summit in 2020. The 26th Ibero-American Conference of Heads of State and Government was recently held in the colonial city of La Antigua, Guatemala, from the 15th to the 16th of November 2018. The summit granted a unique window into the state and dealings of Ibero-American politics. To a certain degree the summit reflected its venue: a beautiful colonial UNESCO World Heritage enclosed by active volcanoes, one of which tragically erupted mere days after the summit. Ibero-American politics holds both the paramount of international cooperation and the perilous friction of realpolitik.
On the surface, the summit seems to be a success, not only for its host and the participants but for international politics in general. In a time in which the main proponents of the post-war liberal international order seem to renege its institutions and benefits, the extension of confrontative and isolationist discourse throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and significant segments of society in Germany, Austria, and Italy, among other European countries, threaten the foundational agreements which led to the era of peace and prosperity after World War II. Ibero-America was united under the motto “Prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Ibero-America” (“Iberoamérica próspera, inclusiva y sostenible”) endorsing multilateralism, international cooperation and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in the final declaration.
The fact that a major region in the world holds, at least discursively, multilateralism and cooperation in high praise is a major relief. This particularly holds true for a region such as Latin America which seems to be largely resistant to major geopolitical threats which menace other regions of the world: it is a denuclearised region thanks to the Tlatelolco Treaty, without major extremist movements or significant military tensions. As a result, the very fact that leaders of these nations bound by cultural, linguistic and economic ties sit at the same table to talk, negotiate and cooperate is worthy.
However, Latin America is probably the region which is most in need of strong cooperation and multilateralism in order to improve the lives of its inhabitants. The region is the sad holder of many global records. It might not be the poorest region of the world, but it is by far the most unequal, with a Gini coefficient of 0.466 in 2014 according to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Poverty affects 26% of its population and more than 100 million people live in urban slums (21% of the region’s population). This situation creates a vicious circle of poverty and crime which is another record of the region: holding only 8% of the world’s population it is the host to over 33% of its homicides. It is a well-known correlation between poverty and inequality and crime and it is made even worse by the extension of organised crime aided by corrupt government officials. Within this grim landscape, it is undoubtable that cooperation is an indispensable tool without which the progress of the region is untenable.
Consequently, the UN Sustainable Development Goals resonate effectively throughout the region and the recent Ibero-American Conference is a testament to this desire to push the implementation of policies to reach them. In particular, South-South Cooperation has been of great value to the region with over 7000 projects being implemented in the past 10 years alone. Moreover, the summit enabled the necessary consensus to sign 19 international agreements in various areas such as education and justice. Yet most important of all was the commitment to sustainable development under the UN SDG’s. The region is in desperate need of economic development as we have already seen, and climate change is a factor which is having dire economic consequences in the region. Tackling this global issue is thus key to improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans. In this sense, the Summit has proven traditional liberal scholars right. Cooperation and multilateralism can thrive for the general benefit.
However, beneath this rosy portrait a much more complex and tense set of power struggles lie which would attest the centuries long insights of realist thinkers. In this regard, the institutional weakness of Latin American nations is well known, leaving no choice but to let political affinities take the reins of regional integration processes. Evidence of it importance abounds, it is no wonder that Mercosur developed in the 90’s when market reforms were the main paradigm but slowed down during the early 2000’s. The same can be said by the Bolivarian-led processes of ALBA and Unasur which skyrocketed in the first decade of the century but have stymied since the wave of left governments in the region faded.
Currently, the region is highly fragmented and polarised resulting in diverging affinities with each country. On one side a number of governments maintain their affinity to the leftist movement of the 2000’s, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, among others. In contrast, a number of former allies have moved away from this group such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador. While a historically more market-oriented governments such as Chile and Colombia remain. Last but not least, we have the cases of Brazil and Mexico, one moving to the far right while the other presents a left-leaning programme. The fact that the presidents at the summit representing the two largest nations in terms of GDP in the region, will be ousted and replaced by radically different personalities.
As a result, the thorniest issues have not been mentioned in the Summit, much less resolved thus sweeping dangerous tensions under the carpet. For instance, the wave of authoritarianism which, to different degrees, is extending through countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. The political and humanitarian situations, particularly in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are untenable and a regional response is required. However, they went unmentioned throughout the summit, expect for the unsurprising no-shows of Maduro and Ortega. Furthermore, the extending authority of Evo Morales who is seeking to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019 as a President of Bolivia flew by unmentioned. As a result, regional democratic institutions seem to be incapable of upholding the frail democracies in many of its countries.
Another issue which was not mentioned and harms democratic performance is the extent and pervasiveness of corruption in the region. Operation Car Wash in Brazil uncovered a network of corruption, kickbacks and bribes which amount to over USD 750 million payed by Odebrecht across 12 Latin American nations. The scandal has not only toppled governments in Peru and Brazil but probably also brought on the new wave of populism in the region. Yet, this time populism is not economical but based in injustices. It is no wonder then that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO, in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil triumphed over former political parties in power which were stained by corruption allegations. Even though Bolsonaro and AMLO are opposites in the political spectrum, they both played hard on anti-corruption promises on the campaign trail. In a region where democracies are historically fragile, and polls feature a high disappointment and appreciation for non-democratic forms of government, it is a failure of the Summit not to have been able to address these key democratic issues.
Finally, the elephant in the room during the Summit was migration, and the much-announced Migrant Caravan heading towards the US border. Even though the Summit Declaration expresses solidarity and the reaffirmation of migrant human right, it did not seem that these words would be translated into actions. In particular, (former) Mexican President Peña Nieto did not even mention the migrant caravan or the how President Trump has taken advantage of the situation politically. The state of these people’s human rights is worrisome as it is, the fact that Ibero-American nations are choosing not to address the issue will surely have only a negative effect. Moreover, this view of migrants has prejudicial effect on the open, democratic and inclusive nature of the region, which has historically embraced peoples from all origins. As a result, it is clear that the Summit has not lived to the expectations of promoters of the liberal order.
The ideologists of the liberal international order saw in Summits and multilateralism the key tool for international cooperation and mutual benefits between conflicting nations. To some degree the 26th Ibero-American Summit proved this tradition right. The signed cooperation agreements are sure to benefit many inhabitants of the region, and the renewed commitments to multilateralism are welcome. However, to which extent will they actually be executed? Will these good intentions be turned into action? If history is any indicator, cooperation will prosper in the side lines. The “softer” issues such as culture, education and justice, among others, have many positive implications and more chances to gain support to cooperate. Nonetheless, “harder” issues such as democracy, migration, trade and corruption are sure to find a harder path to cooperation.
The summit presented an interesting picture of Latin American politics taking both into account what was mentioned and what was purposefully omitted. It is positive that this Summit continues to exist, however we must not forget the Ibero-America is at the periphery of power politics in the international arena. Perhaps the great power would do well to sit down more often as Ibero-America does, yet recent world summits have not proven much more successful. At the end of the day, these Summits are only as productive as the participants want it to be: no more, no less.
Gonzalo Casais holds a MA in International Political Economy from University of Warwick (2018) and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina (2016). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover photo: Meeting of Heads of State and Government during the 26th Ibero-American Conference in La Antigua (Source: Secretaría de Comunicación Social de la Presidencia del Gobierno de la Rep. de Guatemala).