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Rio Group Strengthens Itself and Looks at Social Issues
by Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, April 2007

Caracas, 22 March 2007: The successful Rio Group summit held early this month in Guyana, in addition to discussing many pressing regional issues, set out a strategy for strengthening the organization in the light of the evolving relationships and cooperation among the member states.

At this summit, the Rio Group also projected a new direction in highlighting the vital issues that affect the people of Latin America and the Caribbean. Unlike previous summits, this one concentrated on the social and human concerns of the region’s people. As President Barras Jagdeo of Guyana, the summit’s host, noted, previous discussions by regional leaders were always dominated by topical issues such as globalization, trade liberalization, drug trafficking, crime and natural disasters. While agreeing that these would continue to be important matters, he urged the summit to “focus on some of the issues that will not only improve the quality of life of our people but will [also] ensure our region’s long-term viability and competitiveness in relation to other regions of the world.”

In this regard, the summit was directed to the realities of the region’s problems, particularly the stark poverty stifling a very significant proportion of the population. It also expressed concern over the social inequalities which have persisted over the past two decades, and which are now becoming worse according to the latest statistics. For instance, 41 million children below the age of 12 years are living in extreme poverty, while 100 million of the region’s people lack access to basic health services.

Despite these depressing figures, the seven attending Presidents, two Vice-Presidents and other heads of delegations were heartened by the progress some countries in the region have made in reducing poverty levels over recent years. But they recognized that for a majority of member states the elimination of poverty and hunger would continue as a challenge to be addressed with even greater intensity and focus.

With this is mind, they agreed that in order to respond to the challenges posed by poverty and hunger, efforts must be focused on the most vulnerable in the region’s population. As a result, they unanimously agreed that governments must increase efforts in providing universal education and basic health care, while safeguarding the welfare of children and women, and pushing programs for gender equality and for the empowerment of women and young persons of both sexes.

On the question of economic development, the Rio Group leaders pledged to ensure that this matter remains as a main plank on the international agenda, and to press the developed countries to fulfill their commitment to devote 0.7 percent of their GNP to Official Development Assistance.

Significantly, the Rio Group also re-examined its own administrative structure aimed at strengthening itself and improving its role as a more politically effective regional and international mechanism. Up to the time of the Guyana summit, the Rio Group was managed by a “troika” comprising the current, past and next Chairs of the Group. However, based on a proposal by Mexico, the Group – now chaired by the Dominican Republic – adopted a new formula by which this “troika” would be expanded to include also one country from Caricom, one from Central America, two countries that presided on at least two occasions, and three other countries that volunteer to be members on this enlarged committee.

In addition to this organizational change, the Rio Group also took a major political decision which will allow the expanded “troika” to activate what it defined as its “12-hour position”. This provision is enabled if any urgent regional or international matter requires action by the Group. In such an event, the “troika” will determine the course of action after exhausting a 12-hour period of consultation with members of the Group.

As Caricom’s representative, Guyana – the immediate past Chair – continues to serve on the expanded “troika” and has declared its intention to apply for full membership of the Group. Since this announcement, views are being expressed in the Caribbean sub-region that the other members of the Caricom may eventually decide to join the Group as individual members, as Belize has already done.

Undoubtedly, the Rio Group has played important roles in the political history of the Latin American and Caribbean region. Working closely with Caricom at the United Nations, it was able to ensure the establishment of the United Nations Mission to Haiti in the 1990s, and more recently it lobbied successfully for the continuation and expansion of this Mission. And with regards to defending democracy in the region, it was the Rio Group’s Foreign Ministers who demanded an urgent special meeting of the OAS in April 2002 following the disruption of the constitutional process in Venezuela when President Chavez was removed from power. The Group has also taken on a leadership position on international economic matters as reflected in its regular consultations with the European Community.

While this political and economic leadership role in the international arena remains very crucial, the Rio Group must also take stock of the rapidly evolving social and economic situation in the region. And since the social and economic realities have direct effects on political developments and security situations in member countries, it becomes imperative for the Group to show greater concerns for the social and human issues affecting the region’s people and to find remedies for the growing problems affecting them. The summit in Guyana has now pointed the Group in that direction.

The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.

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