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Opinion: German Foreign Minister Rediscovers Latin America

Mirjam Gehrke (als) May 9, 2006

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has completed his first trip to South America and concluded that the continent deserves more attention from the EU. He's right, says DW's Mirjam Gehrke.

Steinmeier in Chile: Now is the time for the EU to focus on Latin AmericaImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Part of Frank-Walter Steinmeier's journey involved preparations for the European Union-Latin America summit to take place in Vienna in mid-May. Yet it was the foreign minister's comment that Germany and the European Union should focus its gaze more on Latin American countries that must have been music to the ears of his partners in dialogue.

Latin America has been feeling neglected by Europe for nearly two decades. Just as the era of military dictatorships was coming to a close at the end of the 1980s and the countries in the region were slowly starting to pave the way to democracy, the Wall came down in Berlin. With the Cold War over, Europe -- and Germany, in particular -- began focusing on the East.

Latin America back on the map

Now, it is high time to put Latin America back on the agenda again. While the United States has been concentrating its entire political and military attention on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, over the past years a shift to the Left has been occurring south of the Rio Grande. The changes in each country must be viewed in differentiated fashion. However, they all have a common denominator: the countries' inhabitants are disappointed and angry about the consequences of the neo-liberal economic order that has hardly helped to overcome poverty in Latin America. Quite the contrary.

Karte von Lateinamerika
Latin America has set its sights on EuropeImage: APTN

The United States' policy on Latin America has failed. The best proof of that are the plans for the Free Trade Area of the Americas -- FTAA -- which have been put on hold. US President George W. Bush's administration would have liked to have seen the plans to unite the economies of the Americas into a single free-trade area go into effect back in 2005.

European Union has been a beacon for Mercosur

Now, the European Union is enjoying its hour of glory: European integration is viewed by Argentina and Brazil as a model for Mercosur. This economic association, to which Uruguay and Paraguay also belong and to which Venezuela will become a full member at the end of 2006, could offer exciting impulses for the creation of a single South American market. The European Union even beats the United States as Mercosur's most important trading partner.

Bolivien verstaatlicht Erdgasfelder Evo Morales Titel
Bolivian President Evo Morales threatened to evict foreign companies unless they gave Bolivia control of gas productionImage: AP

However, it is not only the economic cooperation that can and must be expanded. Criticism of decisions such as that of Bolivian President Evo Morales' decision to dispatch soldiers to the country's oil and gas posts is certainly appropriate in political dialogue.

Yet a more differentiated view is also required here: those who make blanket statements about Leftist populism in light of the nationalization of the Bolivian gas reserves -- rather than entering into a constructive critical dialogue -- are ignoring the democratically articulated will of an entire people. And just as important as fighting poverty in Latin America is overcoming the political-institutional crisis and reinforcing democracy.

Latin America needs more than lip service

Countries like Peru, Ecuador, but also Venezuela, are far from achieving what Chile, Brazil and Argentina have already accomplished. If Europe wants to expand its trade relations with Latin America, then it cannot avoid conducting a constructive political dialogue with countries like Bolivia as well. In fact, it must conduct a dialogue precisely with such countries.

The EU-Latin America Summit in Vienna this week will reveal whether or not Steinmeier was merely paying lip service to Latin America. Politicians, however, should not just leave that agenda up to the economy and the interests of multi-national corporations.