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.)
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.
The Argentine government officially recognized Palestine as a free and independent state, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman said on Monday. In a letter to the president of the National Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recognized Palestine’s borders as they were defined in 1967, before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza during the Arab-Israeli War. Argentina’s announcement follows a similar statement of recognition made by Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations last Friday.
Only months after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed over settlement issues, Argentina and Brazil’s statements were drew both praise and condemnation. The Palestine Liberation Organization said the support from the South American powers sends a message of respect for international law and against colonialism. The Israel government, on the other hand, condemned the recognition of Palestine as deceiving, lamentable and counterproductive to peace negotiations.
Several Middle Eastern nations have been working to build stronger diplomatic ties with Latin America. Perhaps the best example is the relationship between Brazil and Iran which is centered on energy cooperation. Uruguay, a sovereign member of Mercosur along with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, has publicly announced its plans to recognize Palestine in early 2011. However, Israel remains a key partner for Latin America, and is the first non-Latin American nation to sign a free-trade agreement with Mercosur.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday in the latest of a series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders. In an effort to expand his country’s role as a peacemaker, Lula also hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres for a four-day visit to Brazil last week.
Peres invited the South American leader to join the Middle East peace process in the first visit by an Israeli president to Brazil in 40 years. Abbas also welcomed Brazil’s participation in negations with Israel. Lula agreed to be an instrument in the peace process and stepped head-first into one of the region’s many contentious issues, with a statement that Brazil "understands that any new settlement in Palestinian territory should immediately be halted."
Just as Brazil begins to further engage the region, Lula said the United States has no place as a broker in Middle East peace talks. “As long as the United States is trying to negotiate peace, there won’t be peace…” he said and went on to emphasize the need for the United Nations to oversee negotiations.
Also on the Middle Eastern front, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will land in Brazil next week as part of a tour that also includes visits to Bolivia and Venezuela. Much of the international community has condemned Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but Lula has been a vocal proponent of Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy. It is an open question whether Lula’s controversial visit with the rogue leader could rift U.S.-Brazilian relations or tarnish his reputation in the international community.