Looking afar

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (centre) with Nicaraguas President Daniel Ortega (left) and Ecuadors President Rafael Correa at Eloy Alfaro airport in Manta on July 15.-REUTERS/MIRAFLLORES

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (centre) with Nicaraguas President Daniel Ortega (left) and Ecuadors President Rafael Correa at Eloy Alfaro airport in Manta on July 15.-REUTERS/MIRAFLLORES

Ecuador represents the new trend in Latin America of looking beyond the two Americas.

THAT relations between India and Latin America have strengthened considerably in the past decade is evident by the number of embassies that have come up in New Delhi. Even comparatively small Latin American nations such as El Salvador and Paraguay have established full-fledged missions in India and are setting up consulates in cities such as Mumbai.

The coming to power of progressive governments in the region has led to changes in the traditional foreign policy pattern of South America. After the election of Rafael Correa to the presidency in 2006, the resource-rich Ecuador has been seeking new relationships and markets. More and more governments in the region want to move away from the orbit set by the United States, and Ecuador is part of this trend. There is also the recognition that China and India are the emerging global powers. China, in fact, has already established a strong presence in Latin America. Indian business interests are also expanding in the region but lag far behind the Chinese.

Ecuadorian Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Jose Valencia was in New Delhi in the third week of July to explore avenues for further cooperation between the two countries. Ecuador will become the first Latin American country to buy Indias indigenous Dhruv multi-role advanced light helicopters. The initial order, worth more than $50 million, is for seven helicopters. Valencia announced that the Ecuadorian President was scheduled to make an official visit to India next year.

Correa, along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, forms the new triumvirate of radical leaders in Latin America. This new breed of Latin American leaders is not afraid to stand up against the colossus in the north, the U.S., when their national interests demand it. They are also committed to the building of new socialism for the 21st century in their region.

Before Correa assumed office, the volatile politics of the country had seen Presidents being forced out of power by rioting mobs almost on a yearly basis. Correa has bucked the trend. He commands wide bipartisan support and his current popularity ratings hover around 70 per cent. Ecuadorians, in a referendum held last year, overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a new Constitution to replace the old, discredited one.

The proposed new Constitution, which will give the elected President a relatively free hand in implementing his or her vision for poverty reduction and other important reforms, will be submitted to another referendum later in the year. Correa has said that the new Constitution, if approved, will finally help ordinary Ecuadorians wrest power from the corrupt elite.

The President has demanded that the U.S. vacate its military base in the port city of Manta when its lease expires in 2009. Correa stated that the U.S. could keep the Manta base if Ecuador was given reciprocal basing facilities in Florida. Washington seems resigned to vacating the base. Washington understands our position. It is an issue of sovereignty, said Valencia.

Correa recently fired his Defence Minister, the Armys Chief of Intelligence, and top military officials after coming to the conclusion that his countrys intelligence system was totally infiltrated and subjugated by the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S.]. The President was forced to take this drastic action when it was discovered that his own intelligence service had provided classified information to Colombian officials.

This information was used by the Colombian military to launch raids inside Ecuadorian territory in March this year. A senior commander of the rebel Colombian movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Raul Reyes, along with civilians from other Latin American countries, was killed in that raid. The repercussions of the aggression by Colombian forces, actively abetted by the George W. Bush administration, continue to be felt in the region.

Valencia told this correspondent that the relations between the two countries had not yet normalised. Diplomatic relations remain suspended since March, though Colombian President Alviro Uribe pledged at an emergency Organisation of Americas (OAS) meeting held immediately after the incident that his country would not violate the sovereignty of Ecuador again. The OAS, Valencia emphasised, had adopted a resolution accusing Colombia of breaking international law.

The Colombian authorities continue to spread stories that the Ecuadorian government actively supported the left-wing FARC guerillas. The guerilla leaders who were killed in the Colombian attack were involved in hostage negotiations with the French government. France, Venezuela and other countries were actively involved in trying to obtain the negotiated release of high-profile hostages such as the recently freed Ingrid Betancourt.

The Ecuadorian Vice-Minister said that his country would re-establish full diplomatic relations with its neighbour only if the government in Bogota assured it that Colombias long-running internal conflict would not have an impact on Ecuador and that the cross-border attack would not be repeated.

Valencia said that his government was not supporting FARC and did not want to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbour. He flatly denied that FARC was permitted to operate inside Ecuador. The thickly forested border between the two countries is difficult to patrol. Both sides find it difficult to control guerilla infiltration.

At the same time, Valencia emphasised that Ecuador did not support Plan Colombia, under which the U.S. had funnelled billions of dollars into Colombia on the pretext of combating narco-terrorism. Many observers of the Latin American scene, however, are of the opinion that the plan is part of an imperial strategy for the de-stabilisation and re-colonisation of the Andean region.

Ecuador wants more Indian investment and technology in its hydrocarbon sector and software industry. Valencia told Frontline that Indian companies such as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation-Videsh and the Tata Group were already active in his country. He added that one of the main goals of his government was to strengthen South-South cooperation, emphasising that the problems that his country faced were similar to those faced by most developing countries.

We had concentrated [on] relations with the West. Now we want to open up to other regions in the world. We dont want to be spectators but want to play an active role in the debates relating to climate change, international trade and South-South cooperation, said Valencia.

On July 15, Ecuador and Venezuela signed an agreement to build South Americas largest refinery. The refinery is situated on the countrys Pacific coast. We decided to keep the refineries in our geopolitical context, said Chavez, who was in Ecuador for the historic occasion.

Most of the oil extracted in the region is refined in North America. Correa said that the $6.6 billion project by the state-run oil firms of the two countries would save Ecuador $3 billion in oil imports every year. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2013. Venezuela and Ecuador are the only Latin American members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Ecuadors Finance Minister Fausto Ortiz resigned recently. Ortiz was not happy with the steps the government in Quito had taken against oligarchs who had defaulted on debts stemming from the banking crisis that the country experienced in 1990. More than a million Ecuadorians were adversely affected by the collapse of the countrys main bank, Filanbanco, owned by two brothers, Roberto and William Isaias, who promptly fled to the U.S. They owe $661 million to the State Deposit Guarantee Agency.

Correa wants the money the bank owes to the depositors to be repaid. The government hopes that the sale of the property seized from the oligarchs will be sufficient to compensate the people who lost their lives savings.

The new Finance Minister, Wilma Salgado, who shares the Presidents progressive ideology has indicated that Ecuador could default on its international debts. Salgado is of the view that the international community has the obligation to cancel the debts of the poor nations. Valencia told Frontline that Correa was all for strengthening the state sector and that there was growing popular support for the Presidents moves in this direction.

Going by the current trends, globalisation has few takers in Latin America. Valencia is optimistic about the prospects of the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South) becoming operational next year. In December 2007, Presidents from seven of the 13 South American countries met in Argentina to create the Bank of the South.

This development bank is meant to be a substitute for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Next year the bank will start working. Latin America will regain its independence, said the Vice-Minister.

Valencia said that the consensus in Latin America had turned against the Washington Consensus under which South American countries blindly implemented policies dictated by the IMF and Washington. He added that most countries in the region were now propagating a different paradigm. Earlier, the South American economies were all market-oriented.

The New Left in Latin America has a pragmatic approach. It will be a combination of a strong state and market economics. The aim, he said, was to promote social justice through well-managed policies.

On the foreign policy front, the priority will be given to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). It was created last year to ensure the speedy economic integration of South America. A Latin American energy grid will be created, which will ensure energy security for all the countries in the region for 100 years. UNASUR will promote the unity of the South, said the Vice-Minister.

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