Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Mexico Dusts Off Leadership Role

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Feb 23 2010 (IPS) - Below the surface, discussions about the international aid effort for Haiti hide undercover jockeying for position between Latin American countries wishing to consolidate or attain dominance in the Caribbean region.

Mexico has made a masterly move into the limelight by organising the First Mexico-Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit Meeting in the southeastern tourist resort of Cancún, where aid for Haiti was a major item on the agenda.

The Mexico-CARICOM Summit was immediately followed by yet another meeting of heads of state of the Group of Rio, dubbed the Summit of Unity of Latin America and the Caribbean, held Monday and Tuesday and attended by 25 national leaders.

They agreed to form a new body from which only Canada and the United States, of countries within the Americas, are excluded: the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, announced Tuesday.

“In Central America and the Caribbean, the countries that have traditionally wielded influence are Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia,” said Adalberto Santana, a professor at the state National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“But recently Venezuela’s influence has risen, and Mexico has to all intents and purposes turned its back on the San José Agreement,” he told IPS.

Mexico and Venezuela signed the San José Agreement, an energy cooperation programme for Central American and Caribbean countries, in 1980. They agreed to sell 160,000 barrels of oil a day to Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Panama.

Under the agreement, payment of 20 percent of the cost of the oil may be deferred and made available to the respective governments as a low interest loan for development projects.

But in 2001, the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez instituted a rival mechanism in parallel with the San José oil facility: the Caracas Energy Agreement, which paved the way for the 2005 Petrocaribe initiative.

Under the Caracas accord, financing was available for 25 percent of the cost of the oil. There was a one-year grace period, after which repayment was spread over 15 years at two percent interest. Under the terms of Petrocaribe, even more generous financing is available over 25 years at one percent interest, and part of the cost can be met with other products, such as bananas, rice and sugar.

Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Granada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Venezuela are parties to the Petrocaribe scheme. Honduras was another, but the authorities that took power after the June 2009 coup d’état withdrew from the arrangement.

Aid coalition

“I am calling for a great coalition of the forces that are giving us aid. Please help more than one million Haitians who are sleeping on the streets every night,” said Haitian President René Preval, speaking at the Mexico-CARICOM Summit.

The Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas may have killed up to 300,000 people, Préval told the meeting. The known death toll is already at least 217,000, but tens of thousands of victims could still be buried in the rubble, he said.

Mexico was one of the countries that reacted most promptly to the crisis caused by the earthquake, sending humanitarian aid and experts in fighting natural disasters to Haiti.

“What we must do is not rebuild the country, but refound it, based on greater justice,” said the Haitian president.

In their official declaration on Haiti, the Mexican and CARICOM heads of state recognised “the urgency of contributing to international aid efforts for the reconstruction of Haiti and its long-term development,” and agreed an immediate cash donation of 25 million dollars, over and above other short and long-term support.

In an 18-point summit declaration, the presidents and prime ministers also addressed the fight against organised crime, and climate change mitigation.

Conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón promised to cooperate with the newly-formed Special Unit for CARICOM-Haiti Assistance and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), with the aim of designing a regional strategy to cope with natural catastrophes.

The Second Mexico-CARICOM Summit meeting is scheduled to take place in Barbados in 2012. The 15 CARICOM countries are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

Looking toward the Caribbean

At this first summit meeting with CARICOM government leaders, the Calderón administration has made efforts to widen its sphere of influence, beginning with aid for Haiti, in a region where its profile has dimmed in the last decade compared to other countries, like Venezuela.

Historically, Mexico has been closer to Spanish-speaking countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Cuba, than to the English- and French-speaking communities.

Therefore the disaster in Haiti has opened a window of opportunity for the Calderón government to assert a new leadership role in the Caribbean.

“The Mexican government has woken up and taken a much more pro-Latin American stance since the earthquake in Haiti, and it has played a leading role in the relief work. It has seized on Haiti as a means of filling the vacuum that has existed since the late 1990s, because it failed to implement a more active and high-profile policy,” Santana said.

Mexico did not join any of the Latin American blocs formed in the 1990s. It has not become a full member of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela in the process of acquiring full membership.

Neither has it joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), founded in 2004 as an initiative of Cuba and Venezuela, and now also comprising Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

In 2009 Venezuela sold the members of Petrocaribe 105,000 barrels of crude oil a day, and financed an average of 40 percent of the cost of the shipments.

Petrocaribe’s terms offer financing for between five to 50 percent of the value of the oil, payable over 17 to 25 years at an interest rate of one percent if the oil price is above 40 dollars a barrel.

However, Mexico does belong to the Association of Caribbean States, which has 29 member countries.

At the session with his Caribbean counterparts, President Calderón gave no specific figures for the amount of aid he intends to send Haiti. On the other hand, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is due to visit Haiti Thursday, and he has already committed 15 million dollars in aid, as well as offering to build a hydroelectric power station.

Brazilian officials are in charge of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Repairing the earthquake damage in Haiti will cost about 14 billion dollars, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Support for the reconstruction of the country was in fact the first issue discussed Monday, at a closed session of Latin American and Caribbean heads of state and government, on the first day of the Summit of Unity in Cancún.

But how the reconstruction effort should be organised appeared to be a potential source of friction between leaders at the meeting, as governments of countries like Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia oppose its management by the United States, whose troops have been in Haiti since the earthquake, displacing even MINUSTAH personnel from some locations.

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