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5 Reasons Why Latin America Should Care about Upheaval in the Middle East

May 6, 2011

by Christopher Sabatini

Latin America’s new global profile and trade and diplomatic connections mean that it will increasingly be affected by and can positively affect world events—in this case the popular rumblings in the Middle East and North Africa.

If Latin America has truly arrived—as the World Bank and many have proclaimed—we need to understand more the region’s relationship with the world and its events.  Leave aside for a moment legitimate concerns that Latin America’s arrival are overplayed and the fact that these grandiose sweeping statements do not apply the entire region.  (Venezuela, as much as it wants to be a global player, is stuck in some combination of Bolivarian fantasy and 1970s retrograde project—making it just basically a sad, deluded nuisance.)  

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What it does mean is that increasingly, whether its economic policymaking in China, drought in Africa or the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America has a stake—often underestimated but real.  It’s time to stop imagining Latin America as an isolated region, like a bug trapped in amber.  

Let’s take one example: the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (and the repressive reaction in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen).  Here are five ways they affect Latin America and in which Latin America can play a positive diplomatic and economic role in shaping their outcomes.

1. The Shifting Sands of Relations: During the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Brazil and Mercosur built closer trade and diplomatic relations with the Middle East. Economically, the last two years have seen a flurry of trade negotiations between Mercosur and the Middle East and North Africa that have produced framework agreements and pending FTAs: a framework agreement with Morocco in 2010 an FTA with Israel in 2010, a still pending FTA with Egypt signed in 2010, and a framework agreement with Jordan in 2008 to name just a few.  In addition, the Lula Administration created the Summit of South American-Arab Countries to better coordinate policy between the regions and serve to deepen trade ties.  

Diplomatically, in 2010 President Lula tried briefly to breathe life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions—though the effort failed.  And of course later the same year, Brazil and Turkey negotiated with Iran in an attempt to head off a tightening of international sanctions against the Iranian regime for continuing its nuclear program.  We can debate the merits and results of Brazil’s forays into the region, but they clearly indicate a desire to assert itself into diplomatic deadlocks.  With popular protests now changing the composition of governments in the Middle East and North Africa, will those same desires extend to negotiations between citizens and autocratic governments?   Exchanges with newly elected governments?  From the wave of democratic transitions in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s Latin America has experience in giving autocrats the boot and electing and sustaining democratic regimes.  Can they help?  Or will they continue to play broker to autocratic regimes?  One area that represents an opportunity now is in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.  With the recently announced accord between Hamas and Fatah, Brazil could leverage its relations there to try to broker negotiations at a time when the U.S. and Israel appear increasingly marginal.  Doing so, however, will require Brazil to accept and push for the acceptance on the part of the Palestinians of the basic conditions for discussions: the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel by the Palestinian authorities on the other side of the table.

2. The Power of Trade: Whether it was the promise of Spain’s accession to the European Union or Paraguay’s membership in Mercosur, locking countries into trade agreements or blocs has helped to bolster democratic forces within countries and block would-be coupsters.  Now is the time for Brazil and others to leverage their trade relations with countries in the Middle East and North Africa to offer a real carrot to transition regimes and a stick to recalcitrant autocrats.  This is particularly true for the countries that are becoming the world’s bread (or soy bean) basket: Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.  Argentina has a particular interest given its history of terrorism in its own borders.

3. With Power Comes Responsibility:  Ok, it’s a cheesy line from Spiderman, but it’s true.  Increasingly, as Latin American countries assert themselves on the world stage they will need make difficult choices.  One of those came to a head in the UN vote on whether to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to protect protestors. In the vote, Brazil abstained, citing its concerns with intervention.  Fair enough for a region that has endured U.S. intervention and the brazen overthrow of popularly elected governments (as in Guatemala in 1954).  But what would Brazil have done if it didn’t already have the other main powers voting in favor? Would it have allowed the strafing of civilians by a lunatic autocrat?  Brazil’s action in the UN was, in effect, a cost-free abstention because the motion was going to be approved. If it hadn’t been assured, would they have been so cavalier?  Would Brazilian citizens have wanted the same attitude by the world community when it was under military rule?  The events in the Middle East and North Africa are only the beginning of difficult decisions that aspiring global actors in Latin America will have to face.  Facing them with moral consistency will require shedding age-old (and legitimate) visceral reactions against intervention.

4. The Subtleties of Diplomatic Recognition: Let’s be clear, the prospect of a governmental change in Libya and Syria opens up the risk of ethnic strife and collapse of nation states as we know them in the region.  Here, collaboration among Latin American governments with U.S. and European governments can help establish the diplomatic goals and contours of the world’s positions toward the popular revolutions sweeping the region.  In these areas, much as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and others did with the recognition of Palestinian state (whatever your opinion of those actions) Latin American states can use the incentives of recognition--with the responsibilities on the part of the receiving state that come with them--to constructively engage and shape the course of events in the Middle East and North Africa.

5. Been There, Done That: With the exception of Cuba, Latin America has already undergone its own people revolutions with the third wave of democracy.  For countries like Egypt and Tunisia, which have already forced the stepping down of authoritarian leaders, the democratic experiences of countries like Brazil, Chile and Mexico are illustrative.  In all of those cases, far from a radical change, structural change and reform was largely incremental, negotiated.  And despite the handwringing over the “reserved domains” of the past autocratic regimes, the practice of democracy over time and the gradual trust and consensus building that came with electoral competition and political representation allowed for the rolling back of authoritarian prerogatives and autonomy.  While there are still obstacles, these cases demonstrated that democratic consolidation is a slow, incremental process that can occur even within the framework and even limitations established under authoritarian regimes.  It’s a lesson worth sharing.

To be sure, there are other relationships as well: the price of oil as it affects Latin America and the price of foodstuffs.  At a diplomatic level, however, the events in Middle East and North Africa present an opportunity for a region that is coming of age to assert it own economic, political and diplomatic knowledge and muscle.  If this is the age of Latin America, it is also the time to consider the region outside the hermetically sealed confines of the hemisphere.

*Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Brazil, Venezuela, Mercosur, Free Trade, United Nations, ALBA, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Middle East, Democratic Governance

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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