Skepticism Prevails at Trade Talks

Attending the Summit of the Americas in the seaside Argentine town of Mar del Plata are, from left, Argentine Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Argentine Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez, Argentine cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Attending the Summit of the Americas in the seaside Argentine town of Mar del Plata are, from left, Argentine Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Argentine Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez, Argentine cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Handout Via Reuters)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 6, 2005

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina, Nov. 5 -- In Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's version of Latin America, the leaders who concluded a two-day summit Saturday are poised to ignite a unified, region-wide socialist revolution that rejects U.S.-style capitalism outright.

But if the summit proved anything, it was that there is more to Latin America than Chavez.

Instead of backing their Venezuelan counterpart's rallying cry to bury a U.S.-backed proposal that would link markets throughout the Western Hemisphere, the leaders reluctantly agreed to discuss the proposal again during future talks. Cautious skepticism -- not Chavez's tone of enraged dismissal -- emerged as the strongest unifying force in a region exploring the possibility of greater independence from U.S. influence.

"Yesterday was very interesting," Chavez said Saturday about the differing opinions aired at the summit. "Some defended free trade, while we proposed various alternatives beyond the mirages of a free trade agreement."

It is not that most of the leaders do not want to be a part of a global economy, it is just that they say they want more input in defining the terms. Many share Chavez's desire for more expansive state-run social programs, but unlike the Venezuelan president -- whose economy is benefiting from record oil prices -- they are hesitant to alienate trading partners, including the United States, that might help fund those programs.

"We must create a kind of globalization that works for everyone," President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina said Friday, "and not just for a few."

In the past five years, a wave of populist or socialist leadership has spread across much of South America. Voters have veered left during the most recent elections in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile. In Ecuador and Bolivia, street protests urging more independence from free markets helped oust presidents this year.

Brazil, the dominant economy in South America, opposed the free trade pact on the grounds that farm subsidies unfairly benefit U.S. businesses, but it also distanced itself from Chavez's fiery proclamations that his South American colleagues would dig a grave for the proposal this week.

"We don't want to bury the agreement," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, "and we don't want to resuscitate it, either."

Since Brazilian voters elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2003, the country has blurred the traditional lines between socialism and capitalism, incorporating a little from each. Like Chile's socialist president, Ricardo Lagos, Lula has championed free trade and fiscal discipline as ways to pay for the social programs -- community health clinics, literacy programs, educational centers -- that both say define their brand of social liberalism.

Most of the current generation of South American leaders -- including Lula, Kirchner, Lagos and President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay -- came of age when the region was controlled by military dictatorships, and they formed their political identities by opposing the governments of the 1970s and 1980s. Because the United States backed many of those dictatorships in an effort to stop the international spread of communism, many of today's leaders have long questioned and criticized U.S. intentions.

"U.S. policy not only generated misery and poverty but also a great social tragedy that added to institutional instability in the region, provoking the fall of democratically elected governments," Kirchner said at the summit Friday.


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