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Is the Rio Group Reflecting the State of Politics in Latin America?
By Odeen Ishmael

The annual summit of the Rio Group of countries should have been held on August 25-26 2005 in the Argentine mountain resort town of Bariloche. However, because only 9 of the 19 Presidents signaled their intention to attend, the meeting was postponed and is now expected to be rescheduled for December 2005.

The decision to postpone the summit followed consultations between Argentina, Brazil and Guyana, who currently are members of the Rio Group “troika”. Argentina is the temporary chair of the Group while Guyana will be the site of the summit next year.

The Rio Group leaders were expected to use this summit to coordinate their positions with respect to November’s fourth Summit of the Americas for which they are still hoping to present a minimum joint position on the agenda. In their place, the Group’s Foreign Ministers met in Bariloche on August 25-26 to iron out agenda matters and other issues expected to be raised at the Summit of the Americas. This larger forum, to be attended by 34 heads of state and government, will also take place in Argentina.

The Rio Group summit would also have touched on issues to be discussed at another upcoming forum – the summit of the Community of South American Nations – scheduled for Brazil at the end of September. Eleven of the Group’s members belong to the South American Community.

As a collective effort to help bring an end to the then existing conflict in Central America and also for consultation on Latin American affairs, the Rio Group was established in 1986. Its members are the 16 Spanish-speaking Central and South American countries, as well as Brazil, Dominican Republic, and Guyana as the Caricom representative.

Clearly, the postponement of the summit is a reflection on the state of domestic politics in the Latin American region. Of the 10 leaders, who signaled they could not have attended, many are currently taken up with pressing political and economic issues at home. For them, the domestic agenda is obviously regarded as being of greater priority.

In Argentina itself, President Nestor Kirchner is trying to strengthen his position in the up-coming congressional election in October and is very busy organizing his Peronist allies in the campaign.

Then in Peru, President Alejandro Toledo is currently confronting another political crisis, this time trying his best to handle one resulting from a recent cabinet reshuffle including the removal of two Foreign Ministers in two days.

Colombia, with the government fighting guerrilla rebels, and Nicaragua, whose president is battling congressional opponents trying to oust him, continue to experience unsettled times. Media reports indicate that the governments of those countries feel that their presidents should not attend meetings abroad at such a time.

Furthermore, there are growing pains in Ecuador and Bolivia, both of which are facing crises of varying proportions. Ecuador recently removed yet another president after popular street demonstrations, but his replacement is facing opposition in the nation’s oil belt where people are complaining that they are not seeing economic benefits from the windfall resulting from the rising prices for Ecuadorian crude oil.

Bolivia remains shaky following removal of presidents in relatively short periods also as a result of popular street protests. Added to this, the country is now taken up with a bruising presidential election campaign.

And over in Brazil, President Lula da Silva, even though he had planned on going to Bariloche, is struggling to defend his government from allegations of corruption, including a cash-for-votes scheme in his nation’s Congress.

The current unsettled state of affairs in some South American countries is certainly a sign of political instability. But at the same time, it can also be regarded as the teething pains of the developing democratic process which was re-injected in many countries of the region only over the past 15 years or so. It is possible that the traditional “ballot box” democracy is not viewed as being sufficient for the purpose of good governance. Greater grass-root awareness of politics and economics – which is a form of “participatory” democracy – has led to popular uprisings resulting in changes of leaderships and governments even before elections are held. Since the successions have generally followed constitutional norms, this trend may be seen as a further evolution of the democratic process.

In preparation for the now postponed summit, Rio Group Foreign Affairs ministers convened on 21-22 July in Pilar, Argentina, and discussed, among other matters, the serious situation in Haiti where United Nations peace forces, including troops from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, are trying to organize national elections by year end. The ministers expressed concern that the upcoming municipal elections in October and the presidential and congressional elections in December would generate more violence.

In terms of development aid, the ministers also noted that only one-third of the agreed UN funding had reached Haiti. More aid has since been delayed because the impoverished and politically volatile country has not developed the administrative structure and capacity to properly utilize the available funds.

Examining other pressing issues, the Ministers debated at length strategies for the “war on poverty” which they declared should be the chief agenda item for the Summit of the Americas. They agreed that Rio Group nations would jointly back new initiatives to fight poverty as a step for further strengthening democracy in the region. In this regard, they unanimously agreed that the support for consolidating democracy and safeguarding democratic institutions across Latin America and the Caribbean must be of paramount importance.

In addition, they considered Belize’s request for admission to the Group and the summit was expected to formalize this new membership. Other topics included new financial mechanisms for sustainable development of the region, improvement of consultation devices and political agreement.

All of these positions were expected to be consolidated at the Foreign Ministers’ forum in Argentina this past week.

With the expected rescheduling of the Rio Group’s summit, speculation now arises as to the timing of next year’s meeting to be hosted by Guyana. No actual date has been fixed for that event, but it is now believed that Argentina, as current chair of Group, may request to serve out a sizeable part of next year in that capacity before the position is handed to Guyana.

Caracas, 25 August 2005
(The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela.)

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