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Q&A: “EU Should Place Greater Importance on Latin America”

Mario de Queiroz interviews MARIO SOARES

LISBON, Oct 23 2008 (IPS) - Mario Soares, two times president and three times prime minister of Portugal, says he is sorry that the European Union has not yet understood the importance of strengthening relations with Latin America.

 Credit: Mario Soares Foundation

Credit: Mario Soares Foundation

The EU should make relations with that region a real priority, “but from my point of view it has failed to do so sufficiently or concretely,” the longtime leader of Portugal’s Socialist Party says in this interview with IPS correspondent Mario de Queiroz.

Recognised even by his adversaries as the “father” of Portuguese democracy since the end of the country’s decades-long dictatorship in 1974, Mario Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares first became politically active at the age of 17 when he joined the clandestine opposition to the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970).

Carrying his nearly 84 years lightly (his birthday is Dec. 7), the charismatic Soares is an adept politician who has a good rapport with reporters.

For obvious historical, linguistic and cultural reasons, Portugal’s ties with Latin America have traditionally focused on its largest former colony, Brazil, which is currently governed by Soares’s old friend, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

But Soares believes that Portugal must look towards the region’s Spanish-speaking countries as well.

When he recommends deepening political, cultural, diplomatic and economic ties with the countries of Latin America, however, he is not only referring to Portugal, but to the entire European bloc.

IPS: So your suggestion is not limited to your country. MARIO SOARES: Spain and Portugal are obviously closer to the Americas, due to questions of language and culture. But I am referring to the EU as a whole, which must understand the importance to the bloc of relations with those countries. The countries of the Iberian peninsula must convince the rest of Europe that this should be a priority.

Lisbon and Madrid have long been in favour of forging stronger ties between the EU and the Mercosur (Southern Common Market, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela in the process of joining) trade bloc, which have been modest so far.

Closed in on itself as a result of its own selfish interests, the EU has failed to give Mercosur the response and support that it could have. One notorious example of this is the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP, which establishes subsidies and other protectionist measures for EU products).

Another bad example is very recent. Two countries, Haiti and Cuba, have been in particularly dire straits since the passage of hurricanes Ike and Gustav. On a strictly humanitarian level, the EU has a duty to help these two countries. Curiously, note where the first aid came from: Russia.

IPS: Politicians in Portugal look almost exclusively to Brazil, and a bit to Venezuela, due to the half million Portuguese who live in that country. But they largely ignore the rest of Latin America. Of course that is not true in your case. MS: It is well known that I am a great admirer and friend of Brazil, our great sister country, which is home to the largest number of Portuguese-speakers in the world: nearly 200 million.

But I am also a friend of Spanish-speaking Latin America, with which I am relatively well-acquainted and where I have many friends, some of whom have high-level positions in their respective governments.

Let me explain. I have been an admirer of Latin America since 1970, when I first visited the region. I admire the great Latin American authors, who differ greatly among themselves: Jorge Luís Borges (Argentina), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Darcy Ribeiro (Brazil), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) and Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), to cite just a few of those who I have personally met.

They belong to a mosaic of different, extremely original, cultures, which have two common languages, Spanish and Portuguese, whose speakers have the advantage of understanding each other without learning the other language; a more or less shared religion, Christianity; and an extremely rich ethnic and cultural foundation that differs from country to country.

IPS: How do you see the Latin America of today, where a number of innovative political processes are occurring, described by some as ‘change’, and by others as ‘populist’ or ‘leftist’? MS: When I gave a conference on Oct. 6 at the 10th anniversary of the Casa da América Latina (Latin America House) in Lisbon, I spontaneously gave it a title that, in retrospect, I could have taken a bit more care with, as I think it was somewhat inappropriate: “The Peaceful Democratic Revolution in Latin America”.

IPS: Why inappropriate? MS: Because of the ambiguity of the word “revolution”, which has different connotations and meanings, to which I added two adjectives that are also somewhat ambiguous: “democratic” and “peaceful.”

What we are seeing today all over Latin America is a widespread desire for autonomy vis-a-vis the United States. That is one of the essential characteristics of what I was referring to as the “peaceful, democratic revolution.” This is true in the case of the more radical Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, as well as the more moderate Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Of course there are nuances and different positions in Latin America. Venezuela, with its “Bolivarian socialism” (named for independence hero Simon Bolivar), is more radical than (President) Lula’s Brazil, which is more moderate. But the two leaders get along particularly well, as I was able to see for myself first-hand, talking to them.

IPS: The common view among analysts worldwide is that Latin America is in the midst of a period of virtually unprecedented change. MS: The situation is definitely very different from that of the Latin America that I visited for the first time at the start of the 1970s, with the curiosity of someone from Portugal whose political awakening occurred in the fight against the dictatorship of Oliveira Salazar.

At that time, most of the countries of Latin America were governed by military dictatorships inspired by the “Chicago School” (an economic approach that advocates a totally unregulated market).

But although U.S. dominance was felt all around the region to a greater or lesser degree, the people themselves were manifestly “anti-gringo”, the derogatory term used to refer to them.

Paradoxically, it has been during the two terms of President (George W.) Bush – while the United States has been engrossed in the wars waged in Afghanistan, with the ill-conceived support of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), and in Iraq, which was based on a unilateral decision, with all of the consequent negative results – that Latin America has stopped being the “backyard” of its big neighbour to the north.

Many Latin American countries have thus acquired effective autonomy with respect to the United States. Perhaps it was for that reason that Washington recently decided to reactivate the Fourth Fleet to patrol Latin American waters from (the U.S. Southern Command) headquarters in Florida.

It is interesting that Brazil reached an agreement with France for the transfer of technology to build Latin America’s first nuclear-powered submarine, for – as it was explained – “the defence of the country’s extensive coastal area,” where huge oil reserves were recently discovered.

IPS: So in your point of view, there is a widespread feeling of autonomy with regard to the United States, in vast areas of South and Central America, to a greater or lesser degree. MS: Yes. For example, Brazil and Argentina have decided to carry out bilateral trade in their national currencies rather than in dollars, which is a symptom of that.

And at their recent (Union of South American Nations – UNASUR) meeting in Santiago, Chile (in September), it was Bolivia’s neighbours that kept that country from falling into civil war, by helping to pave the way for an agreement between (President) Evo Morales and the opposition, without any interference by the United States – another important signal.

The Bank of the South, an idea of (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chávez; turning (the central Brazilian Amazon city of) Manaus into a hub for land and river corridors that will connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans; and the creation of UNASUR are other notable examples of the region’s growing autonomy.

IPS: And if Barack Obama is elected president, could that guarantee that the United States will not interfere with these changes? MS: Latin America is one of the world’s richest regions in terms of natural and human resources. It is destined to play a prominent and even decisive role, in every respect, during this already troubled 21st century.

You never know with the United States. But Obama, although he is not a leftist politician, will never fall into the errors committed by the administration of Bush, the main protagonist of a black period in the history of the United States. The new president will certainly want to recuperate that country’s lost prestige.

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