From July 21 to 24 a social forum on regional integration took place at Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. It addressed the possibilities of struggling against the free trade policies imposed on Latin American, African and South Asian countries by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation, through strengthening the economic-political links between countries of the same region.
The choice of a Latin American country was no accident. Indeed, ever since 1999, the question of a regional political alternative has been raised by the social movements of Latin America. Since 2005 we have seen several political changes in Latin America following the accession to office of Chávez in Venezuela, of Lula in Brazil, of Kirchner in Argentina and Morales in Bolivia. Moreover, in the course of 2008 differing concepts of “regionalisation” have clashed in South America with, on the one side, the creation of ALBA, (a social movement uniting several different movements putting forward alternative proposals) backed by the Via Campesina movement as the main process for regionalisation and, on the other hand, the procedures being set up in the context of MERCOSUR and UNASUR. The choice of Asunción was linked to the meeting of the Presidents of the MERCOSUR member-states, due to take place there on Sunday, July 26, to be preceded, the day before, by a major popular mobilisation against this process of regional cooperation, in which the interests of the smaller countries are never really considered.
How can the crisis of the system be resolved in the context of a neoliberal or even a social-democratic project? Any response to the system’s crisis presupposes a new kind of development, another policy of cooperation between countries. Accordingly, for Lugo, the President of Paraguay, it is necessary to accelerate the movement towards regional integration in Latin America.
However, there is the question of what policy of “regional integration” to adopt? That was the issue at the heart of the discussion at the Asunción Forum. Indeed, the current policies to confront the crisis are, above all, national ones, so that the choice between integration or cooperation posed in South America, in the context of MERCOSUR and UNASUR which bring together counties of very different economic strengths, is far from self evident.
Moreover, how does one move from a national response to a regional struggle – and why? Are there not great differences between the forms of association possible in social movements and those of state integration? Does the framework of state forms of cooperation have necessarily to be focused on the regional level, despite the very great differences between countries in the same region of the world? Is this not what the major multinational groups, the USA and the dominant forces are seeking in order to develop a globalised free-trade market? Thus regional integration in the sense of cooperation between countries is not always an alternative nor does it always answer to the wish for another mode of development. Too often, it is linked to a procedure of domination. Nevertheless, is it possible to build another mode of development in Latin America by leaving out Brazil?
In Latin America, only ALBA, an organisation for cooperation rooted in social movements and politically close countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Equador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay) has set up real cooperation in the fields of public health and education between its member-states. Even so, it must be pointed out that this cooperation in public health and education does not come under the jurisdiction of specifically ALBA missions. On the other hand, the ALBA Bank does answer to these missions, but only manages accounts, which does not allow it to impose uniform economic policies. It provides, nevertheless, a basis of support for going further, including for investments and economic cooperation, in particular because ALBA is not based on states but on social movements, which facilitates public debate on alternatives.
Should not the issue of building a new mode of development and consumption, which runs through all the social movements, be dealt with on the basis of such struggles rather than through inter-state cooperation? This was the subject of the discussions.
In the opinion of Latin American altermondialists, the crisis cannot be confronted in a single country, except by negotiating with a major capitalist power and ending up under its yoke. Consequently we must cooperate. However, the process of regional integration cannot be limited to cooperation in commercial exchanges as is the case with MERCOSUR. Economic cultures must also change. Otherwise, what is to prevent a Latin American peasant from giving up his land for the production of soya beans, which provides nothing in the way of employment and exhausts the soil?
Moreover, change must come from within, not be part of a process imposed from without if we do not want to see secessionist trends develop. However, this raises the question of the national area being an area of democratic citizenship in the face of the need to confront the crisis of a globalised economy.
Regional integration is thus an opportunity for ending the crisis by remaining in the framework of a neoliberal model while transforming it. In particular, the question is how to overcome a mode of economic and social development based on exporting agricultural products, which are virtually identical in all the countries of Latin America (soya, eucalyptus, cane and sugar)? We must think about all this together, think in a more global manner.
But how are we to have an anti-imperialist goal for regional integration with this asymmetry that is so characteristic of our present regional-integration institutions and when the MERCOSUR model is a neoliberal one?
The Russian socialist model of regional integration has failed as has the social-democratic one, and several models of regional integration exist side by side in Latin America.
We must thus accept the gradual character of the various processes of integration which do not all observe the same characteristics and in which the social movements can play a role.
Since the crisis is partly a problem of income distribution and partly one of external debt, regional integration must, above all, enable the regulation of credit creation and the reorganisation of production and trade between countries.
Within the European Union, “What has to be produced and how?” is a question that was never mastered by countries through the logic of the world market, explained a speaker from Spain. Nevertheless, although the crisis is a systemic world crisis, the governments, even progressive ones, are still adopting nationalist models of development without raising the question of any reform of the goals of production. Similarly, “regional integration” never raises the question of the complementarity of production, only that of its most profitable trading. Yet trade is naturally unequal as between a small Latin American country and an economic power like Brazil.
Moreover, how can national identity and the people’s sovereignty be preserved within a process of regional integration and how can one preserve a strategy of social development, which is essential to the democratisation of institutions, without thinking about the sharing of resources for a better life.
Small African countries are too dependent on the help of the European Union to be able to resist it individually. They therefore need to unite to strengthen their influence at the international level and reject the “free-trade agreements” that the EU wishes to impose on them. Indeed, equity in trade presupposes a certain balance of power and therefore the unity of small countries faced with great powers like the European Union, rather than bilateral agreements, which are always unequal and presented as acts of generosity from the former colonial power. The idea of regional integration is thus very important for Africa. Such regional integration must tally with a policy of cooperation in economic fields but also in the fields of health, culture and so on. This presupposes democratic negotiations covering all areas of society and democratic choices that would preserve national sovereignty, preventing big countries like South Africa from dominating others and also democratic processes in each country. This means a process of integration that produces various forms of coordination, of cooperation and of organisation, a process of integration that is gradual and not based on pre-conceived models, a democratic process that creates communities based on equitable trading.
What can Africans learn from the Latin American forms of regional integration – just simple trade agreements or the construction of a way of life, other than that imposed by international imperialism, by countries that have a common language and history? Agreements between governments or cooperation between social movements? Simple cooperation or a process of building an alternative to capitalism at a regional level? What sort of “integration” do social movements seek? Is it a matter of integrating different peoples or a process of integration built by the peoples themselves?
What can the Africans learn from the experiments at integration taking place in Latin America or from the European Union? To what extent can this concept help them if its source is not in the peoples’ movements but tends rather to be rejected by them in favour of nationalism in times of crisis?
Neither do the social movements of Southeast Asia conceive regional integration as a priority but rather identify it as a neoliberal strategy. The issues that motivate them are human rights and the building of areas of democracy. From this point of view, a Union of the peoples of Southeast Asia is still inconceivable. If such an idea were to be proposed by India it would be considered a wish to annex Pakistan and Kashmir.
It is thus important to take fully into account the contexts in which such concepts are drawn up to judge whether they can easily be transposed to another region of the world, which has its own historic momentum.