For the first time since the days of Simon Bolivar more than 175 years ago, South American unity is beginning to take shape and a real possibility exists to integrate the continent politically, socially and commercially.
The numerous attempts by Washington to break up the fledgling Latin American unity, to destabilise Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador or to isolate Cuba, have failed.
Latin America’s response to the recent crisis provoked by Colombia’s violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty with US backing demonstrated the degree of political maturity achieved by the region. Despite what are seen as attempts to break up Latin American unity, continental solidarity toward Ecuador was maintained and expressed through the Organisation of American States.
South - South Cooperation : Asia - Latin America relations flourishing!
Latin Americas desire for independence finds its international expression in its quest for greater South - South cooperation. The establishment of a dialogue mechanism between India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA Dialogue) to promote the interests of their emerging markets, the increasing role of Venezuela within OPEC and Ecuador’s recent re-entry, the call by President Lula to Third World countries to join together to set up a Southern Bank as a substitute for the World Bank and the IMF, confirm the growing influence of the region in global politics.
Trade and investment ties, cultural exchanges and political relations are multiplying between the Latin American partners Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay, among others, and Asian counterparts, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos,. North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Brazil, which had in the past turned its back to Latin America and prioritised traditional ties with North America and Europe, has under President Lula focused its attention to building relations within its own region and with Africa and Asia. President Lula has declared 2008 to be the Year of Asia!
China and India are very involved in Latin America. Brazil, a continent by itself, maintains privileged relations with India within the framework of the politicoeconomic agreement IBSA Dialogue. Although only 2% of total foreign direct investment (FDI) in Latin America is of Indian origin, trade between the region and India has multiplied by 2.5 since 2000. Indian investments in Brazil focus on steel, information technology and pharmaceuticals. Since 1989, the Indian multinational Mittal has a firm foothold in South America, including Brazil; it is the largest producer of steel in the region. Similarly, the Tata Company has recently established many call centres in Brazil so as to take advantage of its proximity to the USA.
The depth of this interregional partnership was demonstrated by the contagion of the Asian financial crisis over Latin America in 1998 and 1999, which served to enhance awareness of their increased interdependence and contributed toward promoting a strategic alliance between the two regions and serious efforts toward institutionalising interregional relations. The establishment in September 1999 of the 32-member State Forum for East Asia and Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC) is significant. It seeks to promote a new type of international cooperation between the regions based on principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-inference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit
Whither Sri Lanka - Latin America relations?
Whereas the economic performance of China and India impress most observers in Sri Lanka and much of our efforts are focused on warding off attacks from our former colonial masters and their allies who continue to have a stake in this country, we have failed to grasp the significance of the history that is being written in Latin America.
Sri Lanka cannot remain indifferent to this evolution. The quality of its international relations cannot be appreciated through the narrow vision of those who judge its good health solely through the state of relations with Western powers.
Sri Lankan foreign policy must take into account the reality of a world that is changing and Latin America as constituting an important factor in that change.
The progress of democracy in Latin America as an offspring of peoples’ resistance has gradually allowed Latin America to find its place on the world stage, championing a new type of international relations and cooperation, based on multilateralism and the same principles that Sri Lanka defends in the face of threats to its sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.
The changes in Latin America provide new opportunities for strengthening South-South relations and the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement as a realistic alternative to the hegemony of Western powers. It is significant that Brazil, a regional power, is seeking a new type of South - South economic and political cooperation, including through the framework of IBSA or WTO where it recently refused to cede to Western pressures. Brazil, India and South Africa have also been successful in their joint efforts to have recognised within the WTO their right to access affordable generic drugs for killer diseases such as HIV AIDS.
A period of opportunities!
An indication of the existence of a political will in Latin America to develop relations with Sri Lanka is the reopening of the Embassy of Brazil in Sri Lanka at the end of last year and the appointment of Pedro Borio as its Ambassador, as well as the 50-year old relationship with Cuba, Cuba and Sri Lanka being among the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement. In 2009 we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historical visit to Sri Lanka of Ernesto Che Guevara and the opening of our Embassy in Cuba.
Let us recall also the passionate writings on their visit to Sri Lanka of two giants of contemporary literature: Chilean Nobel Prize Laureat Pablo Neruda and the Brazil’s Jorge Amado!
Sri Lanka has two diplomatic missions in the region - Cuba and Brazil, countries that enjoy considerable influence in Latin America and internationally. Between the two, they cover the two most important economic and political agreements in the region - Mercosur and ALBA.
In the absence of sufficient resources to open new diplomatic Missions a starting point would be to make effective use of the two existing Embassies to reinforce ties with the Governments and peoples of the two countries at all levels.
Given the degree of integration accomplished by the region and their commitment to greater unity, Sri Lanka would also thereby be strengthening its ties with the region. In this regard, the establishment of the Sri Lanka - Brazil Parliamentary Friendship Association by the Sri Lankan Parliament on 10 September 2008, chaired by Gitanjana Gunewardana, is an important step forward. It must be, recalled that Brazil is an influential member of the Parliament of the Mercosur, which meets once a month in Montevideo, Uruguay.
For instance, the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Brazil has begun implementation of an ambitious programme to promote ties between the peoples of the two countries as well as between their Governments, based on solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual respect.
Progress has been made toward the establishment of, among others, parliamentary friendship groups, twinning arrangements between municipalities, federative States and provinces, the establishment of a high level mechanism for bilateral cooperation, and bilateral agreements on research and technology in the field of agriculture and livestock.
In accordance with the pledge made by the President of Sri Lanka in the Mahinda Chintana to preserve the system of indigenous medicine and to offer it to the world at large, the 1st Brazil - Sri Lanka Symposium on Ayurveda, Health and the Environment is being planned in Brazil later this year. The objective is to promote the historical revival of the application of Ayurveda in public health worldwide and to contribute toward the protection of traditional knowledge, preservation of the environment and sustainable development of the community.
Brazil on the other hand has broad experience in the development of alternative energy systems such as solar, wind and wave energy, as well as energy efficiency programmes supported by Government incentives. A delegation led by Sri Lanka’s Minister for Energy, Hon. John Seneviratne, to the Global Forum on Alternative Energy held at Foz do Iguagu in Brazil, had the opportunity to gain insight into Brazil’s experience and knowledge. Brazil is also actively promoting the production and use of ethanol produced from sugar and biofuel from cereals. However, on this subject Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made it clear at the recent FAO Conference held in Rome that land needed for the production of food will not be used for the production of ethanol or biofuel.
The ambition for a "non aligned, free and progressive foreign policy" expressed in the Mahinda Chintana must necessarily engage Sri Lanka in a region where its natural allies are to found and whose struggles focus on shared aspirations - independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
It is therefore vital that Sri Lanka associates itself with the changes that are taking place in Latin America and with the movers of those changes. More than 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the unipolar system that continues to dominate the international system is on the decline! This is evident in Latin America as it is in our own region where new aspirations are being expressed, as at the historic SAARC Summit in Colombo or at the re cent meeting of Shgnghai Forum.
At a crucial time in the history of Sri, Lanka when there is a new perspective of peace and justice that has been made possible by a political will to re-establish the sovereignty of the country and defend it from external intervention, there is need to continue to promote in our international relations a new type of cooperation based on solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual respect with all countries "No one is so poor to have nothing to offer and no one is so rich as to have no needs.’
Sri Lankan diplomat in Latin America, economist, recent book "Quelle cooperation international?, CETIM, Geneva, 2008