A turning point for EU relations with Latin America

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A view over Bogota, where a recently-brokered deal promises a more peaceful future. [Fernando Garcia/Flickr]

Europe must strengthen its ties with Latin America to promote democracy, social progress and equality in the age of globalisation, write Ramón Jáuregui and Carlos Zorrinho.

Spanish MEP Ramón Jáuregui (PSOE) and Portuguese MEP Carlos Zorrinho (Partido Socialista) are affiliated with the Socialists and Democrats group.

The new Republican presidency in the United States, Fidel Castro’s death and the perspective of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union following the Brexit referendum are some of the recent events changing the landscape of transatlantic relations. Social democrats on both sides want to make the most of this historic turning point.

Dialogue and cooperation with Latin American countries have been a constant priority of the Socialists and Democrats, and one that we shouldn’t overlook at the present time where the EU is going through a rough patch marked by economic crisis and political introversion.

Latin American countries are longstanding partners of Europe, linked with us by strong historical, cultural and economic ties. But apart from our common path through the years and the different historical and political contexts we live in, we cannot fail to remark that like the EU, Latin America walks towards 2017 on a path of combined hopes and shadows.

Hopes for Latin America

First of all, the region as a whole is now closer to a landscape of consolidated democracies, with a few counter-examples. The rule of law has grown stronger in the different states, and the threat of military coups and autocracy is now lower than ever in Latin American history. The Colombian peace process is on the verge of its hopefully final success, after the second enlarged agreement.

Secondly, the addition of Ecuador to the EU-Colombia and Peru Multiparty Trade Agreement, signed on 11 November 2016, strengthens the relationship between Europe and the countries of the Andean Community. Let’s hope that Bolivia will also soon sign it, too.

We cannot overlook the fact that the final steps towards the Political and Cooperation Agreement between EU and Cuba signify the end of the 1996 EU common position on Cuba, thus opening a new phase in the relationship with Havana. This comes at a time when the death of Fidel Castro brings some new hopes and uncertainties about the transition on the island.

In any case, the new Cuban-European relationship had already been launched, in line with the restoration of the diplomatic relationship launched by the Obama Administration. We can only hope that the Trump Administration will not alter that path, notwithstanding pressure from the Cuban diaspora in Miami, who showed a sharp discontent with the Obama initiative.

Also, political changes in Argentina have resulted in a more tranquil, European-friendly and open-market attitude toward the rest of the world. And the re-launching of the negotiations on Mercosur is one more positive point. Let’s hope they carry on successfully!

Let’s not forget the project to lay a subaquatic communications cable between Europe and Brazil, which is a major development that will change communications between the regions, speeding them up and making them closer.

Partially thanks to the development of middle classes in many of the countries, an increasingly active civil society may be observed throughout the region. Universities are a good example of this new strength. Besides, thanks to the EU Erasmus + programme, there is a growing contact with European academic institutions, which is a positive for both regions.

On the other hand, the economic and political situation in Venezuela is still complicated, despite the new steps toward dialogue between Maduro’s government and the MUD opposition platform, with the Vatican representative and three former presidents acting as mediators. The lack of medicines and basic products goes on especially in some regions, as well as the high inflation. There’s a high potential for violence within the country, in a context where weapons possession is widespread among the population.

Brazil also faces important economic problems, together with the political and corruption scandals preceding Dilma Roussef’s impeachment. The new government has to cope with a kind of “perfect storm”, with a very dissatisfied public and social unrest.

Central America

In Central America, the situation of violence follows, especially in Honduras and El Salvador, with an increased activity of the gangs (maras). Organisations like Amnesty International estimate that the maras’ violent activities have provoked important forced displacement of the population (around 2 million people in the whole region).

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has been re-elected. His renewed mandate has been observed with some concern from the international community, due to the undemocratic practices denounced by the opposition. Allegedly, there is a growing governmental control of the mass media and the justice system, as well as increasing difficulties for the opposition to compete in the political system.

The economic decay in the region is another source of concern. During the past 15 years, it experienced an important economic advance, which helped 60 million people out of poverty and 80 million people into the middle class. Inequality persisted, but most of the countries got into the OEDC medium income list.

However, the fall in oil and commodities prices, together with the lack of economic dynamism from the rest of the world, is now affecting the region for the worse. There’s a risk of new middle classes all over the region falling back into poverty, Brazil being the most visible example of that danger.

Together with the external reasons for the economic decay there are also some internal factors. First of all, the lack of a solid diversified productive economy and the excessive dependence on some commodities (minerals, agri-food products, oil and gas, etc.).

Secondly, insufficient, weak and unequal fiscal policies are in place, hampering the development of the State and its capacity to invest in basic goods and services (infrastructure, education, health systems, etc.). What is more, the fiscal weakness of the state deepens inequalities, widening the gap between the rich and poor.

Strengthening the bonds

These are some of the negative effects of globalisation. However, while populists deem it merely as a threat, we social democrats choose to perceive it more as the challenge: we must find the right balance between new problems and threats of global dimension.

Our traditional values – social justice and democracy – are the key elements in facing this challenge and our guides in strengthening the EU’s relations with our global partners.

We strongly believe that this is the right time for the EU to reinforce the alliance with a democratic, open and progressive Latin America and carry on defending human rights in Latin America, and for Latin American people, wherever they may live.

Together, we can show the world that social justice and democracy can help us make the most of globalisation.

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