The Geopolitics of Latin America


By kind invitation of Emma Reynolds MP, The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host a discussion with Carlos Mesa, former President of Bolivia.  One of Latin America’s pre-eminent politicians, Mr Mesa presented a fascinating and important set of insights into the geopolitical realities of today’s Latin America. Drawing on a wealth of experience in both journalism and politics, Mr Mesa offered his perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of Latin America and its ever-more important relationship with the West. 

Thank you very much.  Good morning, in the following fifteen minutes I am going to be talking about the political panorama or political context in Bolivia and also the wider Latin American region.  There were two words used normally to describe the situation in Latin America which were, ‘crisis’ and ‘uncertainty’; perhaps those words have to be put into context in the wider geopolitical situation.  Today Latin America is enjoying what could be called a raw materials bonanza due to the prices of raw materials in the international markets and Latin America capitalising from that.  However, I would say that Mexico and Central America have a different situation with regards to China, which is based upon the production of their industries.  In the last few years South America has managed to diversify a little bit more economically.  There is less bonding in terms of economics with the United States although it still has it, a lot of commerce going out between the South American countries, and an increase in exports to Asia and Europe.  Those factors are generating two different speeds at which the two countries are growing.
In the immediate future it seems that the situation and the dynamics of geopolitical and economic forces are not going to change within a timeframe of 2- 5 years.  This allows for the development of the political scenario in Latin America and would explain why Latin America and South America could be defined in three clearly marked different lines.  I shall be using the concepts of left, right and centre to define the three different lines that I am trying to describe, however these words or terms may not have the same meaning as they have had in the past.  On the left we are going to use the example of Venezuela which some people have described as a populist regime.  On the centre-left I am going to be using the example of Brazil, basically because of the continuation from Fernando Cardosa, to Lula and now on to Rousseff.  And on the case of the right we could use Chile, Colombia and also Peru.  What do they have in common and what differences do they have?
What they have in common is something very important; macroeconomic stability.  The only exceptional case is Venezuela, but the other left countries in the region, Bolivia and Ecuador, also maintain a macroeconomic stability.  From the point of view of the process of democracy or how people use democracy, it is very uncommon amongst those countries.  What they have in common is that they are democratic governments that are legitimate in origin, but they are not necessarily legitimate in the exercise of power or the manner in which they govern.  There is a clear distinction between the countries considered from the centre and the right in which they have or share pluralism in the exercise of democracy, and the changing of power.  In the case of the countries aligned to the left we see that there is one party rule, there is no alternative power, and there is authoritarianism.
Within that context what we see is democratic forms that in reality are not very well implemented, and this is something that needs to be understood in order to explain the way the government is exerted in Latin America.  Sometimes we think that democracy and macroeconomic stability are associated with normal democratic countries, but if we see the examples of North Africa we see that that is not precisely the case.  If we were to compare North Africa to Latin America we would see that there are obviously many details that are different from one to the other.  So whereas there are democratic problems in Latin America and it could be defined as a democratic region, there are certain elements that need to be properly assessed in order to identify how democracy is played out.  I shall finish talking about Latin America by saying that the prices of raw materials will indeed help develop the region, but the dependence on these raw materials for economic growth makes us lose the opportunity to diversify other aspects of our economy.  Evidently Brazil and Bolivia are different cases but in terms of providing a framework for the analysis I think it’s a valid comparison.  It could be said that in general trans-Latin America leads on democracy but it is important to highlight authoritarian models of four or five countries in the region.
I will now spend a few minutes looking at the case of Bolivia.  The most important aspect generated with the ascent to power of President Evo Morales is that for the first time in one hundred and eighty years we have an indigenous president and this implies a dramatic change in politics.  In the past the country worked to incorporate indigenous voices into the democratic game, and it was crucial for someone in power to actually represent the indigenous groups rather than having a spokesperson or representative who didn’t do that.  Hence there is an historic moment, both pre and post the ascent to the presidency in Bolivia of Evo Morales.   Another crucial element is the road to the decentralisation of the government in Bolivia and the giving of autonomies to different regions of the country which results in two crucial changes.  One is the incorporation of the indigenous voices and the second is the decentralisation that has been carried out in the nine regions of the country.
The new constitution includes a couple of noble elements that differentiate it from those in the Western world.  The first point is the origin of citizenship.  We do not have the Western concept of one man, one person, and one vote.  What we have are different contemporaries in the constitution that discriminate along the lines of origin, language and ethnicity.  This is a crucial element in the new constitution that marks a clear change, specifically for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.  The second element is justice.  A new justice system has been created in Bolivia; the republican system of justice- equivalent to the one in this country, and the indigenous system of justice which in the constitutional term has the same value as the other justice system.  Both of them have the same hierarchy in the body of the laws of the constitution.  The republican justice system is based upon Napoleonic laws, and the other is based upon oral customs and on precedent, but it is a precedent that is not written anywhere.  Another element is that today Bolivia recognises thirty-six indigenous nations or groups within the country.  The question is are we going to have thirty-six different justice systems?  This is a process that is evolving and we are now at the moment of developing all the laws and legislation that are to do with these systems.
I will now give brief consideration to the government of President Morales.  President Morales started a government that was very popular and had a lot of back support from the people and indigenous groups that were brought along with him.  It was thought that he was nationalising the oil and energy industries, but we realised in December last year that that wasn’t the case, that his nationalisation drives were not as he proposed them to be, because of his willingness to increment or increase the price of energy.  Politically President Morales manages the government in an authoritarian way.  In fact the country is governed in a one-party manner which is effectively the mass movement or the Socialist movement which belongs to President Morales; in part because of the authoritarian ways of the government, and in part because the opposition has basically done an appalling job.  One of the worst problems is that the government actually controls all the powers of the state, which in Bolivia are four.  The electoral power is also a branch of power; however the worst thing is that the government controls the administration of justice, or the justice branch.  The President appoints directly the judges of the Supreme Court and the heads of the constitutional tribunal.  This has resulted in the persecution of his political enemies through the constitutional tribunal by politicising the cases.  While it has to be said that he has brought positive changes to the country, his rhetoric of enemy and friends has brought a lot of problems within the country.  That was a very brief panorama of the situation in Bolivia, but the translation is taking a lot of time!
With regards to comparisons with Venezuela, I think it is very dangerous to try to establish a very simplistic relationship between Chávez and Evo.  Obviously they are ideological soul mates in a way, and there are ideological similarities between the two, but I don’t think that the success or failure of Evo is dependent upon Chávez.  The difference is that Evo thinks that he could generate a leadership among the indigenous peoples of Latin America which is evidently not the case with Chávez.  What is evident is that the intelligence apparatus of Bolivia is controlled by Hugo and Venezuela but that does not necessarily mean that its success or failure depends directly upon these actors.
Another point I would like to make is that there are no differences among the two justice systems, and in fact any crime can be judged by the community justice system.  This is very complex because previously it was only the ordinary justice that was administering justice and certain kinds of crime were judged under the communal justice.  But now even though the two of them have the same hierarchical status among the constitution they don’t know which of the two is going to have jurisdiction over which types of crimes and which justice system will be applied to whom.  In fact the new constitution establishes that the new justices will be elected by direct vote, as is the president or any other elected official in the country.  But there is an interim period at this moment in time.  A date has not yet been established for the election of these new authorities.  What has allowed the President to decimate or appoint all of the justices of the court, 60% of the justices of the constitutional court?  I will give you a personal example, five of the last presidents and vice-presidents of Bolivia have currently opened cases with the constitutional court that were started by the current administration.  The person who actually opened these cases or issued the legal suits was Evo Morales when he was a deputy and congressman, and Evo Morales also appointed the judges who will see through the cases that he brought when he was a congressman.
With regard to my former presidency, I would say that there are three aspects that I personally consider worthy of my legacy.  The first of which is my absolute respect for human rights and that was the reason why I decided to renounce my presidency because I did not want to maintain myself in power due to the killings that were taking place at the time.  The second was the referendum that was taking place under my mandate; the energy laws which allowed the Bolivian government to increase the taxes from international corporations who were operating the energy sector from 25% to 53%.  The third was a corrective measure in the economy, a fiscal correction of the economy that saw the fiscal deficit go from 8.1% when I took over the government to 2.1% when I left the government.
On the subject of hydrocarbons, it is very ironic that President Morales has decided to increase the prices of oil and energy because this increase in price directly affects his constituency; basically the people who elected him to power and who he said he was going to protect when he came to power.  This has meant that the support that he had among his group and his constituency came out in protest and he had to withdraw and actually backtrack on that measure.  His popularity has dropped from 49% in December to 36% in January.  The question is how has the opposition capitalised on this?  The answer is that they haven’t, because they are atomised, disintegrated amongst different groups and so they have not made political capital of the mistakes that Evo Morales has made in terms of hydrocarbons.  In turn, this has allowed him to continue to have room for manoeuvre in the country.  I will make another point; there have been two results of this, the first of which is very good news for President Morales in Bolivia in relation to this hike of energy prices, meaning that if he were to abandon the government then there is no political stability in the future.  The bad news is for Bolivians because if he were to abandon power there would be increased instability in Bolivia.
When it comes to big players, without a doubt Brazil is the heavyweight of Latin American politics and through their own policy they have changed their position in the world, and in relation to that it also changes the position of Latin America in the world.  I think Brazil has put Latin America on the map and that has helped Latin America to become fashionable and become an issue of interest for both America and Europe.  Brazil is no longer a possibility it’s a reality.  It is among the ten most developed or biggest economies of the world and it could be in the five most powerful nations of the world in the next twenty years.  Something which is very important today is that for countries like Bolivia, Peru or indeed Colombia, their relationship with Brazil is more important than their relationship with the US.  The United States has granted that responsibility to Brazil by disconnecting itself from the internal politics of Latin America.  This is of course in relative terms because the US continues to have a presence in Latin America, interests and business and so on, but it has taken a step backwards.  I will move very briefly on to the topic of Iran.  President Dilma Rousseff has changed the relationship that Brazil had with Iran which perhaps may diminish the possibilities of Iran expanding in Latin America through Hugo Chávez, particularly as Hugo Chávez is also in a period of decline.  This is important because President de Lula had made a case of actually fostering Brazil’s relations with Iran and that has changed with the ascent to the Presidency of Dilma Rousseff.
Another issue I would like to discuss is that both MERCOSUR and the CAN, which is the Andean Community of Nations, are in a stage of crisis that is stagnating their possibilities to grow and develop.  A new political scenario of integration has been created in the region which is called UNASUR which includes all the nations of South America.  My impression is that policies should be made towards integrating economically all the countries in the region in South America.  The model is the model proposed by President Fernando Cardosa of Brazil in the year 2000.  All the countries of Latin America should integrate based upon the model of Europe, along the lines of carbon and steel but differently along three lines of integration.  Those three lines would be infrastructure, telecommunications and energy.  And I think that we could bet on the integration of South American countries along those lines, it’s a viable project.
As for the prospects of more integration among Latin American states outside of the MERCOSUR bloc, it’s been a long and difficult road, specifically because Brazil has had a very firm position, not only in international treaties but also in treaties with Europe and with the World Trade Organisation.  Bolivia in this case is very unwilling to enter such international agreements.  A lot of diplomatic work has to take place before any such deals between Europe and South America as a bloc take place because of the very problems that the region has among its members.
With regard to players within Latin America, I would say everything is threatening the position of the United States and Europe in the region because of China’s advances.  The United States and Europe are in a state of crisis at the moment, not only because of what China is doing but also because of their internal issues.  So by all means, China is indeed taking a very aggressive approach in the region by signing multilateral and bilateral agreements with all these countries which in effect threatens the position of the United States.
Another issue I would like to briefly comment upon is the impact of the recent economic success of the region relative to the United States, and calls for change.  Indeed the improvement of the economic situation in many of these countries has provided for multi-pluralism of different ideas which can take place when there is increased economic activity.  When there is recession, or less economic activity, these issues can’t take place.
With regard to Bolivia and access to the Pacific, the issue in my opinion would seem to be one of sovereignty as Chile offers everything to Bolivia but sovereignty and Bolivia instead accepts nothing from Chile; nothing that is not tied up with sovereignty.  The nature of the negotiation needs to be changed from bilateral between Chile and Bolivia, to include Peru, because of the very situation in which they are in; they are part of the negotiations and part of the region.
When it comes to Argentina, I would agree that it is a great country.  What one asks oneself is why that country is in the state it’s in.  There are two considerations, the first of which is that Argentina has lost regional leadership to Brazil and hasn’t been able to claw it back.  It was thought that former President Néstor Kirchner didn’t have an interest in foreign policy and that Cristina Kirchner was going to recover that impulse to international foreign policy, but it hasn’t happened.  Maybe the internal politics of Argentina has to be blamed for this situation, because the relationship has been focussed on the relationship between Chávez and Argentina and Brazil and Argentina.  In Southern Horn (Cape Horn) the leadership contest has been played between Chávez, Brazil and Argentina, and Chile seems to be filling the void left by Argentina.  Chile has indeed filled a void that once Argentina had politically and the relationship between the Southern Horn and the rest of the world.
Another point I would like to make is on the issue of Lithium in Bolivia.  The issue of Lithium is crucial and the nature of the industry will define the origin of the presidency of Evo Morales.  My impression is that if President Morales doesn’t generate a set of standards or rules that govern foreign investment into Lithium that will both respect and clearly establish the ground rules, the model will be more like a 19th century model rather than a 21st century model.  There is one element that could pressurize Morales to be more open in this respect and that is Salar de Uyuni, which is the name of the Lithium reserve in Bolivia which is also the biggest in the world.  Argentina and Chile also have Lithium; they exploit Lithium in conditions which are beneficial to foreign investors.  If Bolivia wants to compete with the two countries it basically needs to model its policies on those of Chile and Argentina that provide easy access to the sea and transportation.


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