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Research Memo: Rio Group Makes a Big Statement

www.coha.org
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 03.27
30 May 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

Rio Group Makes a Big Statement-

But Will it be Heard in Washington?

- Rio Summit meeting in Peru fails to salvage Peruvian president's popularity, but succeeds in establishing a "Latin American agenda," which distances member nations from U.S. policy, and sends a message of renewed solidarity among the 19-member group. Partnership between the Rio Group's two largest members, Mexico and Brazil, is destined to be an increasingly important factor in the inter-American relationship.

- The Group expresses its unconditional support for the United Nations, and encourages a reinvigoration and reform of that body. Heads of state in attendance achieve a consensus in requesting an increased UN role in Colombian conflict, as opposed to the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, which is being exclusively directed from Washington.

- The so-called Cusco Consensus agrees on a regional approach to security, democratic governance, and alleviating poverty, and thereby broadly challenges the U.S.-promoted Washington Consensus that has dominated U.S.-Latin American relations, as well as having largely defined for several decades Latin America's relationship with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

- Recent developments in Latin American electoral politics have combined with the recent conflict at the UN - and the White House's continued benign or malign neglect toward the rest of the hemisphere - to place U.S.-Latin American relations at a crossroads. The diplomacy of the next year could decide, among other things, the direction and even fate of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In Cusco, in the highlands of southeastern Peru, an increasingly unpopular Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo, played host May 23-24 to the seventeenth summit of the 19-member Rio Group. Founded in 1986, the Group has become the preeminent all-Latin American forum on hemispheric issues, and an institution that may have been significantly strengthened by its most recent gathering.

The dignitaries attending the Cusco summit were brusquely greeted by rowdy protests led by Peru's Union of Education Workers. Helmeted police officers held off hoards of protestors attempting to march on the city's impressive colonial-era Plaza de Armas. Police intermittently volleyed tear gas into the crowd, which had gathered in the former capital of the Inca Empire, Peru's foremost tourist attraction. The protests were a reminder that the issues before the summit are very real, as governments throughout the region are being forced to deal with acute problems of lapses in the rule of law, deepening social stratification and troubled economies, leading to dramatically lower standards of living.

Consensus of Independence?

The teachers and protestors were certainly not the only ones demonstrating against paternalistic indifference. A theme of the meetings was the need for a "Latin American agenda" of cooperation that could counter overweening U.S. influence over the region.

Predictably, it was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who spoke out most forcefully against inviting any sort of unilaterally propelled outside military intervention in Latin American conflicts. He found his sentiments later incorporated in the newly named Cusco Consensus, which the assembled body proudly distributed at the close of the meeting. The Consensus pointedly promised its support to the United Nations and suggested that the Charter be strengthened to ensure the further vibrance of the organization.

In bringing in what could be dramatically new ideas regarding the ongoing civil war in Colombia, however, the Rio Group leaders may have made their strongest statement. As an alternative to ritualistically announcing their support for the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia, the Consensus notably asks that the United Nations - and not the United States - take a more prominent role in resolving the Colombian civil war.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva extended the snub of U.S. influence when he expressed his warm regard for absent Cuba - in the wake of Washington's recently stepped-up efforts to isolate Havana in response to its crackdown on dissidents. He expressed a desire to see Cuba - who has never taken part in the Rio Group's meetings since the organization's founding in 1986 - attend the next meeting, "at least as a special guest."

New Dogs, New Tricks

Among the heads of state present, this particular summit certainly had a more independent tone than recent meetings of the Rio Group. In the month prior to the meeting, the presidents of Costa Rica, Peru, and Brazil (the troika which is taking its turn as chair of the Rio Group) had shared a warm meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promised that the visit would usher in a new era of political and economic partnership between Russia and Latin America.

The assembled body in Cusco was no doubt emboldened in its solidarity by the previous year's electoral results throughout the region, which saw the election of several populist candidates and the expansion of opposition to neo-liberal economic reforms by new political movements.

The Rio Group meeting was set against the backdrop of Washington's continued neglect of the Western Hemisphere over the past year, and, more generally, the refocusing of the Bush administration on its war on terror. In this context, the past year witnessed the continued chilling of U.S-Mexico and U.S.-Chile relations as a result of the Iraq war, as well as the revival and reinvigoration of the Chávez administration in Venezuela after an effort to economically asphyxiate his administration by the middle-class opposition narrowly failed, and the election as president of former Brazilian trade union leader Lula.

New Friends

Lula and Mexican President Vicente Fox - presidents of the Rio Group's two largest member nations - met before the formal meetings commenced and apparently found considerable common ground: both have had long careers as opposition party leaders in their countries, and they seem to have found a natural rapport with each other. Both acknowledged that the two countries, which share the largest volume of trade between any two countries in the Group, should further intensify their relations. Fox, in particular, would like to finalize trade agreements between Mexico and Mercosur (a trade community that consists of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay). Both presidents agreed that the United Nations should be reformed, and would like to see that one or both of their delegations be given a permanent seat on the Security Council. The two will together attend the upcoming G8 Summit in Evian, France, when they will request that the creditor countries consider their proposal that they reinvest some of the debt service payments they receive from Latin America back in the region.

Led by the example of Fox and Lula, the heads of state present at the gathering adopted projected regional integration measures among the Rio Group countries - and not necessarily including the United States - as a major theme of the meetings. Much of the final agreement, in fact, can be interpreted as a manifestation of regional solidarity in denouncing the Washington Consensus, which has dominated Latin America and the Caribbean and has been predicated on the supremacy of the White House's operational ties with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While they did seek to create "by consensus a Latin American free trade zone," the Rio Group heads declined to discuss the larger Free Trade Zone of the Americas. If they had, the drift of their economic plans to deal with issues of debt and poverty would not necessarily have been congruent with the designs of the Bush administration: various leaders at the gathering, particularly Lula, railed against the developed world, and the Consensus focused on decreasing poverty throughout the region, emphasizing government expenditure, by utilizing debt relief savings and short-term loans to boost employment.

The Upshot

On Tuesday, the era of good feelings continued, as a number of leaders adjourned to Buenos Aires to meet with newly inaugurated center-left President Néstor Kirchner. These included Toledo, Chávez, Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Jorge Batlle of Uruguay, Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador, and Cuba's Fidel Castro - all of whom championed Latin American cooperation, including Kirchner in his inauguration speech. As its representative in Buenos Aires, the White House sent Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez - rather than a higher-ranking official whose presence might have served to deliver a stronger message of support to the new president. The snub, intentional or not, was not lost on the Argentine media or the Latin American leaders present.

Elsewhere, Lula spoke candidly about the summit's conclusions and talked of creating "balanced globalization" that will benefit the global south as well as the north. His country now assumes the presidency of the Group, and Lula appears poised to use his new pulpit to advance the cause of Latin America and the developing world. Due to the anticipated strong leadership he will offer, and given Washington's continued low hemispheric profile, next year's Rio Group summit in Brazil could serve to culminate a year of real change in the region's relations with the United States, particularly if the Colombia situation has come to a head by then. By this time next year, a meeting of Latin American heads of state could serve as a pivotal moment in determining the fate of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In a broader sense, next year's meeting could very well further the hemisphere's regional movement toward autonomy from U.S. dominance.

This analysis was prepared by Charles Willson, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 30 May 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email coha@coha.org.


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