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LATIN AMERICA: &#39Development Must Be Inclusive"

Interview with SELA Secretary José Rivera

CARACAS, Apr 16 2008 (IPS) - The Latin American Economic System (SELA) will promote a regional secretariat on social inclusion, "based on the idea that development, to be worthy of the name, must be inclusive," said the regional body’s new permanent secretary, José Rivera.

The secretariat "should articulate the efforts of governments, regional entities, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and other social agents, to share information on what is being done in terms of social policy in the region, achievements, experiences and proposals to improve living conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean," Rivera said in an interview with IPS correspondent Humberto Márquez.

The 61-year-old Mexican economist, formerly assistant secretary of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), was unanimously elected this month by the SELA ministerial council to head the regional body made up of 26 Latin American and Caribbean states, until 2012.

Founded in 1975 with the aim of promoting regional cooperation and coordinating Latin American positions in international economic forums, SELA was the first regional body to admit Cuba after it was excluded from the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1962.

With regard to Ecuador’s suggestion of the creation of an organisation of Latin American states, to study regional questions without the presence of the United States and Canada, both of which are members of the OAS, Rivera says that when such a regional entity is discussed, "they are describing SELA, which has already existed for 33 years."

IPS: In what regional initiatives would you like SELA to get involved?

JOSÉ RIVERA: SELA can be a support for the analysis of social policies and a boost for the network of proposals. We believe it can build a secretariat of social inclusion, to make available databases, documents, forums for reflection, proposals and projects at the service of the member countries. Development must be inclusive, and to achieve that, the voices of the people, of all social actors, have to be heard.

IPS: In what way has the integration seen up to now fallen short?

JR: Regional integration as it stands satisfies no one. It has moved slowly, hesitantly and with setbacks. For example, the idea of a Latin American common market began to take shape 50 years ago, at the same time that Europe had the idea to create a common market. But the very different speeds and progress are all too obvious.

Europe is a solid integrated zone, with powerful regional scaffolding. We, in the meantime, have had to seek alternative spaces for integration in order to achieve some goals, and we don&#39t even have a regional dispute settlement mechanism.

IPS: Will an inclusive focus on integration be favoured by the presence of the larger number of leftist and centre-left governments in the region?

JR: There is broad agreement in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean that integration must be the route to development with equality.

The integration sought is no longer only in the area of trade, but covers different areas and different dimensions. If we can advance in areas like educational integration, and in regional literacy, health, housing and food sufficiency programmes, we will be talking about a kind of integration that has more than a merely trade-related dimension.

IPS: When you were elected permanent secretary, you said Latin America is still a poor region with very little equality. Does Latin America have the resources to set out on the adventure of leaving that situation behind and overcoming poverty?

JR: There are a number of requisites for reducing poverty. A major one is the challenge of generating employment, which is the first answer to addressing problems of poverty. And the generation of jobs is based on more active foreign trade and drawing investment. In that sense, Latin America is making an effort, but the efforts must be strengthened in order to overcome the poverty that affects us all.

IPS: But does the region have the necessary material and financial resources, or do we inevitably depend on capital and cooperation from abroad?

JR: By definition, this region has an abundance of natural resources. It is privileged because it has energy, minerals, food, water resources and a series of other economic foundations to improve its current condition. Active public policies are needed to generate stable, well-paid jobs – an issue that governments in the region are focusing on to a greater or lesser extent.

IPS: You also called for more vigorous, coherent action in areas like finance, trade and social cohesion. Is that a criticism that you are directing at subregional integration schemes like the Andean Community and Southern Common Market (Mercosur)?

JR: I would not say it is a criticism, but a constructive proposal to be able to talk about how these issues are interrelated: how much investment we are seeking, and in which sectors, how much trade and in which areas, and what policies must be stimulated in order to have a positive impact on people’s needs.

SELA could organise a high-level meeting in that sense, to seek the interconnections and evaluate the effects, with the aim of reducing social exclusion.

IPS: Another of your proposals is to weave new "productive alliances" with Russia, China, India and Southeast Asia, besides strengthening the region’s traditional relations with North America and Europe. What form would these alliances take?

JR: Our thinkers, the fathers of Latin American economic thought like (Raúl) Prebisch (1901-1986, the Argentine economist who guided the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – ECLAC – from 1950 to 1963), who came up with the centre-periphery theory and dependency theory, talked about how developing countries were trapped in exporting raw materials to the world’s industrial centres in exchange for manufactured products from those developed countries.

But today we are exporting raw materials to other developing countries, like India and China. The theories of Prebisch and ECLAC explained and helped us understand the mechanisms by which we exported primary products only to buy them back, transformed by industrialised countries.

Now we are doing that among developing countries: we import their manufactured goods, which means there should be a possibility for developing countries to come together, join forces, create connections among ourselves and establish productive alliances based on complementary strengths, weaknesses and needs. SELA will develop projects and proposals for moving in that direction.

IPS: With respect to mechanisms and methods, will SELA revive the "action committees" that used to bring together member countries interested in a specific issue?

JR: Yes, that is a possibility. There are areas that in my view are obvious, such as developing a Latin American and Caribbean programme for the software industry; that would mean a significant advance for the region in the knowledge economy, and in transforming our productive structures.

Another of the areas where an action committee could be created is in the protection of traditional know-how. For example, the knowledge of herbs or natural medicine that exists in many of our countries is frequently managed, transformed and commercialised by large global corporations, and the countries that discovered, used and developed this natural medicine over the course of centuries have no way to protect this ancient heritage. Several of our countries would have to come together, exchange experiences and generate initiatives for protecting our resources.

Another proposal is for new or complementary working methods. For example, if two or more countries want to establish cooperation programmes or strengthen their integration mechanisms, they should be able to find, in SELA, a place to hold informal consultations, without necessarily generating commitments for everyone, obligations or resolutions, or obtaining the required vote of all 26 members.

IPS: Developing an attractive and ambitious agenda like this one requires resources. How can SELA obtain the necessary funds, if member countries have long been in arrears on their payments?

JR: SELA is an inter-governmental body made up of 26 Latin American and Caribbean nations. We are sure there is interest in strengthening the regional institutions, and that funds will arrive. And in time, SELA’s financing problems will be resolved.

IPS: So there are reasons to be optimistic?

JR: Yes. I am optimistic about the future of SELA because it has provided, and continues to provide, an effective service to the region.

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