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Andean Community: Grasping at unity straws

Inter Press Service News Agency

Andean Community: Grasping at Unity Straws

Kintto Lucas

13 June 2006

QUITO, Jun 13 (IPS) - The foreign ministers of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) forged ahead in attempts to quiet fears of an imminent collapse of the bloc following Venezuela’s withdrawal, despite member-country political differences that were all too evident at the regional summit.

The meeting of the Andean Council of Foreign Ministers, which brought together David Choquehuanca (Bolivia), Oscar Maúrtua (Peru), Carolina Barcon (Colombia), and Francisco Carrión (Ecuador), is a run up to the presidential summit — the first since Venezuela announced its withdrawal from the bloc, which was founded in 1969 as the Andean Pact.

But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez still made an appearance in Quito on Tuesday, as a guest of his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales, according to the Bolivian Embassy in Ecuador. Also participating in the summit were heads of state Álvaro Uribe (Colombia), Alfredo Palacio (Ecuador) and Alejandro Toledo (Perú).

The three main agenda items for the extraordinary CAN summit — convened by Morales as a last-ditch effort to keep Venezuela on board — included strengthening the bloc in the face of the pull out; requesting the expansion of preferential tariffs granted to the four Andean countries by the U.S. in the context of cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking; and negotiating a possible trade agreement with the European Union.

Political analyst Alejandro Moreano said the meeting is unlikely to yield any integration model agreements, given the major conceptual differences among the governments — not even considering Venezuela, which has clearly demonstrated its differences of opinion by leaving the Lima-based CAN.

"While Morales is promoting a people’s integration in South America, Uribe and Toledo are pegged to U.S. regional policy, and have each signed a free trade agreement (FTA) that puts themselves in a somewhat subservient position," argued Moreano, who is also a professor at the Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito.

"Venezuela’s withdrawal is but a concrete manifestation of the crises the bloc has struggled with for two years, since Colombia, Ecuador and Peru began to negotiate FTAs with the United States, without first studying the agreements’ potential impact on the CAN," said Moreano.

Peru has already signed a bilateral agreement with the United States, but has yet to ratify it in Congress. Colombia is working on several amendments, having concluded negotiations. Washington has not lifted its suspension of FTA talks in Ecuador following the cancellation of Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) oil concessions.

President Chávez announced that his country was pulling out of the bloc because the free trade agreements with the United States have dealt a death blow to the CAN.

Just 10 days ago, during his visit to Quito to sign oil agreements with Alfredo Palacio, Chávez told IPS that the CAN "is dead."

"North American imperialism killed the CAN. But the fact that we will no longer be part of the bloc does not mean that we will not trade and integrate with member countries," said Chávez.

"Evo (Morales) convened the presidents’ meeting because he thinks he can save the CAN — I, on the other hand, think it cannot be salvaged," he added, in reference to this week’s meeting in Quito.

CAN Secretary General Allan Wagner last week made a press announcement, stating that Chávez could participate only if invited by the convener (Morales), or the host, (Palacio).

Morales is also against signing free-trade agreements with the United States. In his current capacity as CAN president (a position that rotates among the countries), he must decide if his country will join Colombia, Ecuador and Perú in joint negotiations for a treaty with the European Union (EU).

Because of Venezuela’s withdrawal from the CAN and Bolivia’s criticisms of the terms of a possible European treaty, the organisation did not announce the EU negotiations at the EU-Latin America/Caribbean Summit, held in Vienna in May.

EU countries have declared that they are willing to negotiate with CAN, but not with the individual countries — hence the importance of Bolivia’s decision.

Wagner was hopeful that this meeting would help the bloc get through this "critical moment," and that "the door would always be open for Venezuela, a key country in the integration process."

The Andeans also run the risk of falling behind Central American countries, which are in the process of consolidating trade-agreement negotiations with the EU.

While the future of the CAN is being debated, Morales also plans to attend the inauguration of the new Government Council for Ecuarunari, the national confederation for Kichwa Peoples, the single largest member organisation of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

The Bolivian president will present to the CONAIE, which he is promoting as a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, a proposal regarding the so-called Peoples’ Trade Agreement (TCP), which he is co-sponsoring with the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.

"We share Evo Morales’ belief that we must integrate ourselves into South America at the peoples’ level, prioritising unity among our countries and promoting a multipolar world," said Luis Macas, president of CONAIE and presidential candidate for the indigenous movement and various social and leftist movements.