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IA-Forum Interview: Ambassador Lino Gutierrez

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International Affairs Forum: Does UNASUR have the potential to become an economic and/or political bloc similar to the European Union?

Ambassador Lino Gutierrez: UNASUR certainly has the potential to become an organization to become an important economic and political bloc like the European Union, containing as it does the 12 nations of South America. But realistically, if this is to happen it is likely to take decades. The countries of South America have not overcome their traditional problems, either within their countries or with each other. Thus, Bolivia and Peru are still claiming territory Chile took from them in the War of the Pacific, almost 130 years ago; Peru and Ecuador still eye their common border warily, having fought a number of border skirmishes, the most recent in the 1990's; Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador recently sparred about Colombia's attack on the FARC in Ecuadorean territory; and so on. Internally, the gap between the rich and poor in South America is the widest of any region of the world. South America is a long way from achieving economic or political integration. Economic projects like MERCOSUR and the Andean Community have been only partial successes, and have not gone beyond the "customs union" approach. Moreover, with the "Pink Tide" of populist leaders who reject the Washington Consensus, it is unclear what the rules of the game for economic integration will be. Will it be the market approach of Chile, Peru and Colombia, or the statist approach of Bolivia and Venezuela? And politically, will Brazil become the de facto leader, as its size, population and GNP dictate, or will the Spanish-speaking nations prefer a more multipolar approach? It is easy to see why the Inter-American Dialogue called UNASUR a "pipe dream" at this point in time.


IA-Forum: Does the concept of the Bolivarian Revolution espoused by many of the nations in the Andean Community pose a threat to the ideology of MERCOSUR's member nations?

Amb. Gutierrez: The "Bolivarian Revolution" was a term conveniently coined by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to provide a justification for his policies. Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan "Liberator" of northern South America, who died in 1830, lived in a different time and has little to do with current-day Venezuelan realities. What Chavez has tried to establish in Venezuela is a highly personalistic regime, with vague radical Socialist and quasi-Marxist tendencies. Like Fidel Castro, Chavez has emphasized aid to the poor as a justification for attacking and marginalizing the Opposition and accumulating personal and institutional power. Also like Fidel, the model includes warning of an imminent "imperialist" attack that never comes, taking over privately-owned industries, and mobilizing the population into armed groups and spying networks. Unlike Fidel, Chavez has the luxury of an oil-producing nation (with oil at over $130 a barrel) at his service. Evo Morales in Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Correa in Ecuador have adopted some similar measures with regard to increased state control of the economy. While Morales has become Chavez's unconditional ally, Correa has managed to keep his distance when he deems it important. But Bolivia's and Ecuador's loyalty is not to a vaguely-defined "Bolivarian Revolution," but to Chavez and his deep pockets. As to the MERCOSUR member nations, Argentina and Brazil have lobbied for inclusion of Venezuela in MERCOSUR, citing "energy integration" as the main reason. MERCOSUR has a democracy clause, in that all members must be democratic nations. Some in the Brazilian Senate have criticized Chavez's anti-democratic tendencies, and Venezuela's ratification as a full MERCOSUR member has not yet been completed. But few in MERCOSUR have felt threatened by Chavez's ideology -- to the contrary, Brazil's Lula and Argentina's Kirchner would be happy to have Chavez join them in MERCOSUR.


IA-Forum: Does Hugo Chavez's call to FARC leaders to lay down their arms and disband represent a significant change in the political mindset of Venezuela's president?

Amb. Gutierrez: Who knows what the political mindset of Chavez is? Consistency has not been one of his hallmarks. Just a few weeks ago, Chavez was calling for the FARC to be given belligerent status by the international community. It appears that, after losing the vote on the December referendum to expand his constitutional powers, fearful of what evidence the "FARC laptops" may contain, concerned about his plummeting approval rating, and perhaps having assessed that the FARC is in danger of being defeated after the death of "Tiro Fijo," Chavez may have decided that it served his interests at this particular time to call for the FARC to lay down its arms.


IA-Forum: Additionally, Hugo Chavez has experienced some considerable political setbacks recently, including losing a referendum in December, and the revision of the "Gestapo Law" after an outcry by human rights group. Is Chavez's reign in Venezuela slipping and possibly coming to an end in the near future?

Amb. Gutierrez: Chavez tried to change the Constitution last year to allow himself to run for reelection in 2012. He failed when voters rejected the Constitutional referendum. As things stand now, he is scheduled to depart office in 2013. The Opposition tried to force him out of office with a recall referendum once, but failed. Given his referendum defeat and lower approval ratings, Chavez probably feels he does not have the freedom of action that he once did.


IA-Forum: Does the recent rise in export taxes on Argentinean agricultural products pose a threat to national unity and security due to wide scale protest?

Amb. Gutierrez: Argentina's rural sector strike has posed the most direct challenge to the presidencies of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. In only six months, Cristina's approval rating has fallen from 60 to 26% of the public. Argentina's agricultural sector has led Argentina's dramatic economic recovery -- an average of 9% growth for the last four years -- after its worst economic crisis in history in 2001-2. Argentina's agricultural producers are understandably upset that the government continues to raise taxes on agricultural exports. If the conflict is not resolved soon, it will affect Argentina's economic growth and could damage agricultural production for the next few years.


Ambassador Lino Gutierrez served as U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua (1996-1999) and to Argentina (2003-2006). He also served as International Affairs Advisor at the National War College (2002), Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department (1999-2001), and Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2001-2002). He is a recipient of the Department of State's Distinguished Honor Award, Superior Honor Award (twice) and Meritorious Honor Award (three times).




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