In Mexico, the country of machismo, few things are more daring than to question somebody's manhood. Should the take-away image from the summit of 32 Latin American and Caribbean leaders held in Cancún Feb. 21-22 thus be that of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe telling his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, "Be a man!"?
Chávez's reply cannot be repeated in a family newspaper, but it would be a mistake to focus on the picturesque rather than the substantive aspects of the meeting.
A key announcement was the creation of still another regional entity (yet to be named), that would bring together all countries from the region – though not the United States and Canada. Honduras, the hemisphere's new pariah state, was not invited to Cancún, and may be excluded as well. Will this be just another talk shop concocted by populist leaders who have nothing better to do than to meet in beach resorts to come up with highfalutin statements while their economies go down the drain?
The trouble with this story line is that it does not fit the facts. To start with, Latin economies are doing very well, thank you. For the first time in 200 years, a global financial crisis has not brought havoc to the region. In 2009, the Latin economies performed better than either the U.S. or the European ones; projections for this year are upbeat. Bolivia, that supposed stalwart of populism, had 3.5 per cent growth in 2009, despite the global meltdown. Brazil is booming.
Second, the meeting was called by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, a conservative, from a country that had thrown in its lot with NAFTA and a man elected in part because of his strong anti-Chávez stand. How can this all be a Chávez-engineered populist plot to leave out the United States, Canada and Honduras (what a trio!)?
Third, some have said that this new entity is aimed against the Organization of American States (OAS). In fact, the OAS secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, was a key player in Cancún, and all indications are he will be re-elected, with no opposition, for a second five-year term on March 24. That would hardly be the case if the meeting had an anti-OAS purpose.
The trouble with conventional interpretations of Latin America these days is that they look at today's episodes through yesterday's lenses. The region has come a long way. Its economies are well-managed and growing. Democracy has become the almost universal norm. Intraregional political cooperation is flourishing. Latin American countries are reaching out to Asia and Africa. Fifty per cent of Chile's exports last year went to Asia. Brazil may soon have more embassies than the United States: it has 134, versus 162 for the United States, and 98 for Canada.
To successfully "globalize" you must do it from a strong regional base. Rather than one, overarching, grandiose regional integration scheme, Latin American nations rely on many sub-regional ones – MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, the Central American Common Market and CARICOM. They also deploy a myriad regional and hemispheric political cooperation entities like the Rio Group, UNASUR, the Iberoamerican summits and bodies like the OAS (Honduras did not play ball, and now pays the price). One of the newest and most dynamic of these has been UNASUR, which brings together all South American nations (it has just pledged $100 million (U.S.) to help Haiti). By definition, Mexico cannot be part of it, so this new entity is a way of bringing Mexico back in.
Latin America has opted for a flexible, postmodern, variable-geometry approach to intraregional cooperation. In today's world of ever more intensive, fast-paced network diplomacy, that is to be commended.
Jorge Heine is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. His latest book, with Andrew F. Cooper, Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.