Latin America’s “new unity”

Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba (L) and Sebastian Piñera of Chile during a summit of Latin American states on Monday (Reuters).

It all went surprisingly well. Latin America, in sentiment if not in deed, presented a united front to its European guests at the summit of EU and Latin American leaders in Santiago, which wound up on Monday. With customary politesse, local differences were mostly swept under the carpet.

Nobody in Chile kicked up a fuss that communist Cuba will now head the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (Celac) – even though democracy is one of Celac’s core goals. The region’s free-trading Pacific countries –Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile – agreed to drop tariffs to speed the creation of their “Pacific Alliance”, a “free-trade” block. (By contrast, Mercosur, a rival regional trade pact led by more protectionist Brazil and Argentina has been negotiating an EU trade deal for over a decade.) A handful of business deals were signed. And a long and flowery letter, supposedly written by Hugo Chávez from his sickbed in Cuba and that called for Latin American unity, was read out, which lent some colour to the last day.

But as always when neighbours get together, local disputes simmered beneath the fine words. One of the longest-running and most bitter of these concerns is Bolivian access to the Pacific, lost in the 19th century after a war with Chile, and “an open wound” in the landlocked Bolivian psyche ever since. Such disputes are interesting to outsiders, and not just for their almost theological complexity, as they offer a kind of barometer of the actual rather than rhetorical state of Latin American unity.

In Santiago, Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, picked at the wound, calling it an example of “internal” Latin American colonialism. As a solution, he offered natural gas – which Bolivia has in abundance – to neighbouring Chile– which needs the gas to power its copper mines. In return, Chile would give Bolivia a land corridor to the Pacific. Anything else, Mr Morales complained, was comparable to the UK’s occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, or Washington’s former control of the Panama Canal.

The idea sounds reasonable; almost a win-win solution. Nonetheless, Sebastian Piñera, the Chilean president, immediately shot it down. One reason was pragmatic. Socialist-minded Bolivia would have more credibility as a reliable gas supplier to business-friendly Chile if Mr Morales wasn’t so busy nationalising his energy industry back home. Another reason was political: any agreement requires a sign-off from Peru. But other reasons stretch back into deep history and old animosities. You always know you are in perilous waters when presidents start quoting the provisions of a 1904 treaty to each other.

Fittingly, Mr Piñera, a sensible centre-right president, also closed the EU-Celac conference with a plea for Latin America unity, even if his message was (perhaps unwittingly) laced with irony. “We need more integration to confront the challenges of the future,” he said. “We can’t stay trapped in the past; on the contrary, we have to view the future as a place where we are protagonists in a globalising world rather than mere on-lookers and observers.”

Quite so. Chile and Bolivia haven’t formally resumed the full diplomatic relations they broke off in 1978.