BRASILIA – Latin America has become a new focal point of the coronavirus pandemic at a time when regional countries lack the ability to coordinate a joint response because they have dismantled their integration mechanisms or rendered them virtually inoperative, former Colombian president Ernesto Samper told EFE.
“It’s absolutely clear that never before had regional integration been so necessary, and never before had we been as disjointed as we are now,” Samper, who governed Colombia from 1994 to 1998, said in an interview.
The 69-year-old Samper was the most recent secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), an inter-governmental regional body that formerly comprised 12 nations but was left virtually defunct after several of its members suspended their participation in 2018 and subsequently formed the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America (Prosur), a new mechanism proposed last year by the conservative presidents of Chile and Colombia.
Yet another regional organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), suffered a blow when Brazil suspended its participation earlier this year, a move that came after rightist President Jair Bolsonaro accused the group of boosting the legitimacy of “undemocratic regimes like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.”
The integration process has hit a stumbling block in part due to rival conceptions of what integration should entail, according to Samper, who said that problem stems from the rise to power of conservative heads of state in the region over the past five years.
One of them is the “neo-liberal conception, (the currently prevailing view of) integration as simply free-trade agreements” and the second “is something much more complex” that involves issues such as “infrastructure-building, scientific networks, connectivity and citizen mobility,” Samper said.
During the current pandemic, Latin America faces the challenge of accessing the market for badly needed medical equipment, which is 90 percent controlled by China.
In recent months, some regional countries such as Ecuador and Brazil have seen their finalized purchases of equipment “diverted” to the United States or other developed countries that paid more at the last minute for critical items such as ventilators or surgical masks, he said.
In that regard, Samper said Unasur’s South American Institute of Government in Health had acquired experience with joint purchases of pharmaceutical products, medical equipment and, most notably, vaccines.
“Those experiences could have been very valuable at this time,” he said.
That institute was based in the Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, one of the cities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil, meanwhile, has been one of the countries most affected by COVID-19, with around 18,000 deaths attributed to that respiratory disease.
Under the leadership of Bolsonaro, that country has taken a sharp turn to the right. Last year, Brazil announced plans to withdraw from the left-leaning Unasur and become a member of the right-leaning Prosur, an initiative that also includes Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru.
Samper said the “case of Brazil is very worrying” since regional nations will only be able to overcome the coronavirus if all the countries take care of their own house, a reference to Bolsonaro and his controversial downplaying of the seriousness of COVID-19.
The ex-president also cautioned that the economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis figures to be slow.
“Like steel furnaces, once (economies) are shut down they take a while to recover,” he said, forecasting that it could take around a year for a normal flow of goods and services to resume in the region.
Samper also took aim at multilateral organizations, saying he has not perceived a willingness on their part to grant loans in a spirit of “real solidarity” to help countries suffering the devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis.
He estimates that Latin America “needs funds equivalent to 10 or 12 percent of its GDP,” saying that the region’s countries won’t even reach half of that figure with their own resources.
The ex-president also said there are “lessons to be learned” from this health crisis.
Among other things, it has shown “the indispensability of government,” which must “take the lead in managing these types of global crises,” said Samper, who added that the pandemic should make people “reconsider the (current) economic models” and make them more socially oriented.