Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIO GROUP: The Only Latin American Forum for Political Dialogue

Mario Lubetkin

ASUNCION, Aug 25 1997 (IPS) - The Rio Group demonstrated at its 11th summit that it is still Latin America’s only forum for political dialogue, which offers a space for the discussion of unresolved bilateral and multilateral issues.

The Rio Group – comprised of South America’s 10 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries as well as Mexico, Panama and rotating representatives of Central America and the Caribbean – made it clear in Paraguay over the weekend that it still has a specific role to play at a regional level, above and beyond diplomatic rites and the unexpected suppression of part of the summit’s agenda.

“This is the only forum we Latin Americans have left,” summit host President Carlos Wasmosy of Paraguay told IPS.

While Latin American countries participate in three regional, hemispheric or Iberian-American political forums, only the Rio Group is comprised exclusively of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

The Rio Group “will continue to serve as the centre for channeling the region’s main political problems. No one has proposed a reduction of its role,” said Uruguayan Foreign Minister Alvaro Ramos.

Several sensitive questions were debated during the summit, which Ramos described as “part of a logical process.”

“The important thing is to have a highest-level forum for political discussion to directly tackle all these questions, avoiding dead-end alleys,” he stressed.

The key item on the Summit agenda was education for democracy. Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera underlined that Latin America was facing a race against time, and that it was necessary to educate the population to enable it to compete with peoples farther along the path of globalisation.

But bilateral and multilateral meetings concentrated on the thorny questions of a possible arms race in the wake of the lifting of a 20-year U.S. ban on advanced weapons sales to the region, privileged military relations with the United States, the site of the first Rio Group-European Union summit and permanent representation on the U.N. Security Council.

A diplomatic row broke out late last week when Menem expressed his opposition to Brazil’s aspiration to a permanent seat on the Security Council. But during the summit, the presidents of the two largest members of the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur) denied any distancing between the two countries.

“Nothing is more important than the fact that Brazil and Argentina were, are and will remain united” in Mercosur, said Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while his Argentine counterpart Carlos Menem stressed that “there is no problem. We are tackling all the issues that have to do with the consolidation of Mercosur.”

Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares, whose country will occupy the rotating Rio Group Secretariat next year, urged that a number of aspects of the organisation be redefined in order to make its activity more effective.

Perez Balladares questioned whether the Rio Group “carries out tangible actions” which people can understand, or if they are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of its deliberations.

But Menem insisted that the Rio Group was a valid forum for dialogue for resolving or eliminating rumours about differences between countries in the region.

Mexican diplomats said the fact that the Mercosur, Andean Community and Group of Three trade blocs all met separately at the level of presidents or foreign ministers during the summit demonstrated that “there is a clear equilibrium between subregional activities and the regional political context” represented by the Rio Group.

The summit participants decided that after Panama, the rotating secretariat would go to Mexico in 1999 – the year the summit with the European Union is planned – and to Colombia in the year 2000. The fact that we have projected “three years ahead demonstrates our medium-term vision of the Rio Group,” said Uruguayan Foreign Minister Ramos.

But many of the issues brought up at the Asuncion Summit were left unresolved. Future gatherings will test the Rio Group’s capacity not only as a forum for frank dialogue but also for the resolution of touchy political problems.

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