Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Progressives in Latin America Unite


Progressive Governments, Unite

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, May 2 (IPS) - Representatives of the progressive parties currently governing Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay met in the Uruguayan capital to establish a platform for ongoing joint political coordination.

Promoting energy cooperation, sharing experiences in social policies, and adopting a unified stance in international trade negotiations and with respect to the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were the key issues discussed at the Apr. 28-29 conference.

"The reason for this gathering is to exchange experiences and identify vital cooperation issues," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's foreign policy adviser Marco Aurelio García told IPS.

"For me this is an unprecedented event. We have never before found ourselves in a similar situation. During my years of political activity, I had many contacts with other leftist movements in the region, but there is a difference now -- we are no longer in the opposition," he added.

Brazil was also represented in the meeting in Montevideo by President Lula's chief of staff, José Dirceu, while Argentina was represented by Senator Cristina Fernández, who is also President Néstor Kirchner's wife, and by the president's cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández.

The Chilean delegation was headed by former defence minister Michelle Bachelet, of the co-governing Socialist Party, the front-runner in the polls for the December presidential elections.

Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez inaugurated the meeting, accompanied by Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargano and Minister of Education and Culture Jorge Brovetto.

The conference, "Progressive Governing Parties and the Political Juncture in the Southern Cone", was convened by Uruguay's leftist ruling Broad Front coalition and sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German non-profit political foundation "committed to the advancement of public policy issues in the spirit of the basic values of social democracy".

The gathering drew leaders from left-leaning political sectors whose history and origins vary widely.

Argentina is governed by the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, founded by Juan Domingo Perón, who served as president during three periods between 1946 and 1974. The party's original social commitment was lost under the leadership of president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who followed free-market policies and carried out a wave of privatisations.

After Argentina's late 2001-2002 economic, political and social collapse, Néstor Kirchner, also from the Peronist party, emerged as the only alternative to Menem's return to power, and today he heads a centre-left government, which some see as a return, in some respects, to Peronism's roots.

In neighbouring Brazil, the governing Workers Party (PT) was founded in 1980 by socialist workers and movements. Lula, a former steelworker and trade unionist, became president in January 2003 after three failed attempts.

But today, radical sectors of the Brazilian left accuse Lula of modifying his stance towards the multilateral financial institutions and the industrialised countries of the North, and of moving increasingly towards the centre, and towards social democratic positions.

Chile, meanwhile, has been governed since 1990 by the centre-left Concertación Nacional por la Democracia (Coalition for Democracy), an alliance of social democrats, Christian democrats and socialists.

In March 2000, Ricardo Lagos became Chile's first socialist president since Salvador Allende, who died in the 1973 coup that ushered in the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Uruguay was the last country in the Southern Cone region to elect a left-wing government. The Broad Front, which won last year's elections, was created in 1971 by socialists, Christian democrats, social democrats, communists, dissidents from the two traditional parties, and members of the former guerrilla Tupamaros National Liberation Movement.

Many members of the leftist and centre-left parties governing the Southern Cone countries today suffered political persecution -- including prison, torture and exile -- during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

At last week's meeting, Senator Fernández, the first lady of Argentina, was the driving force behind the idea of expressing as a bloc the parties' opposition to the policy dictates of the World Bank and IMF.

"We agree on the need to express our rejection of the nonviable guidelines established by the multilateral lenders in Latin America, which have had such appalling consequences for our societies," she told IPS.

The senator said the aim of the meeting was not to issue a joint statement referring to the multilateral lending institutions, but rather to discuss concerns and how to operate in foreign debt negotiations.

The four countries in question have taken different stances with regard to the multilateral lenders. Argentina is negotiating a new agreement with the IMF, which is pressing the government to find a solution for the 25 percent of bondholders who refused to accept the recent debt-swap.

Brazil announced in March that it would not renew its loan agreement with the IMF, although that does not mean it plans to abandon the fiscal austerity policies the government has followed. And last Friday, Lula said the aim of his administration was for Brazil never to need financial assistance from the IMF again.

Uruguay recently renewed its accord with the IMF, and Economy Minister Danilo Astori said the country has never been so dependent on the IMF as today, because of the high level of foreign debt contracted in the past few years.

Fernández also stressed the need for progressive governments in South America to back Latin American nations with fragile democracies, citing the case of Ecuador, whose president was removed by Congress on Apr. 20 after eight days of massive street protests.

Her concern was shared by the Uruguayan foreign minister. "We hope these meetings, in which the progressive forces in the region will be taking part, can serve as support for countries suffering democratic instability," Gargano commented to IPS.

The leaders agreed to hold periodic meetings like last week's. The next will take place in August in Buenos Aires, and the following is scheduled for November, in Chile.

Bachelet said now was the time to take advantage of the fact that the governments in the Southern Cone region see eye to eye, to coordinate and share information on social policies.

Bachelet, one of the governing coalition's possible presidential candidates and the favourite in the polls, said she would study the Social Emergency Plan that Uruguay's new government has begun to implement, to address the needs of the poorest of the poor.

She compared it to similar programmes that the Chilean government has adopted, like "Chile Solidario" and "Chile Barrio".

"The extreme social inequalities in our countries are among the major common challenges that we all face. These social plans are essential initiatives that require an integral focus," she told IPS.

"Today is the time for us to establish targets, timeframes and measures to jointly adopt. We are at a historic juncture because we now have progressive governments. We are in conditions that couldn't be any better, to translate the ideas for which we have worked into concrete action," she added. (END/2005)

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