Next week, Mexico is going to host the first ever Latin American summit. When I was told about this at the Mexican foreign ministry, earlier today, I was really surprised that this had never happened before. But apparently not. The meetings of the Organisation of American States include the US, as does the Summit of the Americas. The Ibero-American summit includes the former colonial powers – Spain and Portugal. So this will be the first ever exclusively Latin summit. They will all be there in Cancun – Castro, Chavez, Lula.
I guess this is something of a coup for Mexico. But it also highlights the country’s split personality. Is it more North American or Latin? The obvious answer is that it is both. But that doesn’t quite end the debate. Much as the British are always agonising about whether they should be closer to America or to Europe, so the Mexicans have a debate about whether to hew closer to the rest of Latin America or to the US. Right-wingers and the north of the country tend to look to the US. The left and southern Mexico are more inclined to emphasise the country’s Latin side.
Culturally and linguistically, the Latin links are obvious. But economically, Mexico cannot but look to the States. It is part of the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta) – and 80% of Mexican exports are sold in the USA. There are also some 12m Mexican citizens living in the United States – around 6.5m are undocumented “illegals” and about 5.5m have legal residency rights. In recent years, as many as 500,000 Mexicans were moving ever year into the United States – although the flow is thought to have slowed a little because of the recession and the tightening of border controls. Still, it is a huge community. As a result Mexico has more than 50 consulates in the USA – including in such unlikely spots as Anchorage, Alasaka and Boise, Idaho.
Still, if the Mexicans play their cards right, they should also be very big players in Latin American politics. The politics behind next week’s summit are very interesting. Just beneath the fraternal greetings, there are big political tensions because of the ideological battle that is underway in Latin America.
On one side is the populist left, whose key figurehead is now Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, rather than Fidel Castro. This group of countries includes Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and – arguably – Argentina under the Kirchners. On the other side is the more pro-US, pro-capitalist countries. Mexico is very firmly in this camp, alongside Colombia, Panama and probably Chile after the recent change of government. And then there is Brazil under Lula – which much to the irritation of the right-wing camp is refusing to take sides. Indeed at times, Lula has actually heaped praise on Chavez.
It should be an interesting meeting.