Is South-South Co-operation still Possible? The Case of Brazil’s Strategy and Argentina’s Impulses Towards the New South Africa and Africa

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Lechini, Gladys. Is South-South Co-operation still Possible? The Case of Brazil’s Strategy and Argentina’s Impulses Towards the New South Africa and Africa. En libro: Politics and Social Movements in an Hegemonic World: Lessons from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Boron, Atilio A.; Lechini, Gladys. CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Junio. 2005. pp: 319-346.
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Gladys Lechini*
Is South-South Co-operation still Possible?

The Case of Brazil’s Strategy and Argentina’s Impulses

Towards the New South Africa and Africa1
IN THE 70s, the countries of the South launched the idea of South-South cooperation to strengthen their capacity of negotiation with the North, through cooperative efforts aimed at solving issues of trade, development and the new international economic order. The success of the political bargaining that took place during the petrol price shock of 1973 served as a model of productive negotiation. However, the overall project of cooperation failed because of its loose nature and broad scope: the fallacy of the argument was its basic assumption that all underveloped countries had more commonalities that they really had, and that all solutions could be uniformly applied to each of them with equal success.

In the 80s, the debt crisis might have offered a good opportunity for coordinated action. However, bilateral actions implemented by developed countries together with private creditors, in addition to the indebted countries’ economic frailties, dissolved the attempts of multilateral cooperation; although, Latin American countries were still able to develop agreements regarding common policies for conflict resolution in the region.

The debt crisis and the end of the Cold War in the late 80s hindered the Southern states’ capacity for multilateral negotiation and bargaining power due to the East-West conflict. During the 90s, the effects of globalization exemplified that there were new winners and losers, but that almost none of the winners were among the developing countries.

Nowadays, the countries in the South are facing essential challenges, such as the dislocations produced by rapid social changes and the dissolution of traditional patterns of social life, major economic restructuring caused by globalization trends and domestic crises, and the broken promises of recovering democracies.

In this context, the idea of the South-South cooperation has reappeared on the agendas of some states, with modifications dictated by their past experiences. A new selective cooperation is developing in terms of actors and themes. Thus, it is possible to make progress in functional cooperation in fields such as democracy, social justice, development, trade, investment, environment, and security problems. An alternative is to take advantage of all the opportunities in the sphere of bilateral and multilateral relations, and gradually build a community of like-minded countries, through a critical dialogue and better mutual understanding.

The task seems to be very complex because, despite having problems in common, greater and mutual knowledge is needed to cope with the various constraints arising from the international system and the domestic setting. Furthermore, we need a more sophisticated theoretical and methodological approach in an increasingly polarized world that is also facing the threats of violence, terrorism and war. We also need to deepen our discussions about the most appropriate policies for constructing and consolidating horizontal ties between states, regional organizations and social movements, in order to promote and defend specific interests in the international arena.

Even though this study deals with inter-governmental relations, it is important to recognize the increasingly significant role that our civil societies are playing in order to react to what seems to be a “unique thought and an irreversible trend”. These social movements, expressed in the World Social Fora, condemn the negative effects of neoliberalism and the northern states’ attitude towards free trade. While the industrialized countries link the refinancing of the foreign debt of our countries to the implementation of neoliberal reforms and free trade, they protect their markets, denying free access to our products.

It is interesting to note that these same positions have recently been defended by the G22 (or G20+) at the inter-governmental level in Cancun, under the leaderships of Brazil, India, South Africa, Argentina and China. This group is a broad-based coalition with a new positive force aiming at showing our colleagues of the developed world on what and how we disagree.

This new force, including countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, is emerging as an alternative to the mainstream in developed countries, bringing some hope to the people of our regions. Nevertheless, a lot must be done, since our countries have now very little leeway, both at the systemic level and at the domestic one. The post Cold War international scenario does not offer any certainties and is increasingly unstable, both in terms of reaching a lasting peace and of improving the economic conditions for the development of our people. Neither are internal conditions very favorable, due to the negative consequences resulting from the neoliberal model of the 90s, which, among other effects, produced a minimization of the state, depriving it of the minimum conditions required to watch over the welfare of its people.

However, the acceptance of our present conditioning as inevitable only leads to stagnation. Therefore, we should advance in the search for possible options to extend the negotiating ability of public and private actors, as there is nothing worse than inaction. Although such a proposal may seem idealistic vis-à-vis our countries’ schizophrenic external agendas and our shortage of human and material resources, the aim of this paper is to make clear, through a case study, both the limitations and the possibilities of promoting and widening South-South cooperation.

The following analysis, referring to Argentina’s and Brazil’s foreign policies towards South Africa in the framework of their relations with African states, is located in the context of this general proposal and has the aim of promoting avenues of research within South-South cooperation.

Argentina and Africa: a relation shaped by impulses

The foreign policy of Argentina towards the African states, from their independence until the end of the 90s, shows a pattern of relationship oriented by what I call “impulses”. These impulses generated an inertial process, thus creating a spasmodic relationship. By “impulses” I mean external actions, normally without continuity, showing short periods of good understanding. These impulses were generated by a particular necessity or opportunity that was the basis of the approach. Thus, the intended objective turned out to be the content of the political action. That is why it is possible to talk about impulses with ideological, political or commercial objectives, according to the current needs of the decision-making units.

The political objectives aimed at creating an institutionalized diplomatic network in the framework of the principle of universality of international relations. Consequently, some embassies were opened (five in North Africa and nine in Sub-Saharan Africa), diplomatic missions were carried out, and framework agreements were signed. At this level, and generally speaking, the aim of the approach was to convince African states of Argentina’s reasons to claim the Malvinas, and in exchange, to defend several African demands within international organizations.

Commercial objectives were present in almost all impulses as a result of Argentina’s need for new markets, taking into consideration the protective measures of the European Economic Community –now European Union - particularly since the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy. But the ups and downs of the trade relation were due to the level of activism of private actors, and almost never a consequence of a political decision on trade policy, as the different Argentinean governments have never been keen on drawing up trading strategies. The strategic objectives were closely related to a Cold War scheme, attaching importance to the relationship with “Anticommunist, White South Africa”, particularly during military regimes.

Therefore, impulses led to an erratic foreign policy towards African states, with a low profile, according to the level of significance of South-South relations within Argentina’s foreign priorities, which were directed towards the US, Europe, and sometimes Latin America. The African states were left aside, and so were the Asian ones. But when there was an impulse, normally generated in Buenos Aires and directed towards any African state, the Argentine government usually received a complaint from its African partner with regard to Argentina’s relations with racist South Africa. On the other hand, and in opposition to this usual tendency, the relation with South Africa showed a scenario of mutual impulses, particularly during the last military government in Argentina (1976-1983).

This policy propelled by impulses reflects a particular decision-making process. Considering the low priority of African states in Argentina’s Foreign Policy, decisions have been taken at an intermediate level in the decision-making structure, at what is called the routine level. At the same time, some initiatives to increase relations at a bilateral and a multilateral level (in the framework of the Non-Aligned Movement or the United Nations) were due to the goodwill and imagination of officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or, at that time, in the Department of Industry and Foreign Trade. The recommendations of some of our representatives in the UN, the energy of some ambassadors located in African capitals –which most of the time had to strive against Buenos Aires’ inertia– and the activism of representatives of local firms (who wanted to do business in Africa), should also be taken into account. Even though those initiatives could sometimes grow and become external actions, they were not necessarily successful, due to the lack of coordination among the different governmental agencies.

Thus, the impulses reflected different initiatives generated in Buenos Aires, but without continuity, as they were not a part of any formal foreign policy initiative. Their intensity was directly related to the objective proposed, thus defining the location of the action in the decision making process according to Argentina’s global priorities. This explains why the majority of the decisions related to African states were taken at the routine level. The most relevant exception was the breakdown of diplomatic relations with South Africa in 1986, and their subsequent re-establishment in 1991. This high-level decision-making process, together with the mutual impulses, makes South Africa’s case exceptional in the framework of Argentine-African relations (Lechini, 1995).

During the 80s, with the re-establishment of democracy in Argentina, this policy shaped by impulses seemed to change. Alfonsín’s government (1983-1989) began to implement an African policy within the Non-Aligned Movement. In that context, though trade and military relations continued, Argentina broke of diplomatic relations with Pretoria, putting an end to a dual policy toward African states and an ambiguous policy toward South Africa.

The dual policy refers to the differences shown between the multilateral and the bilateral fields. That is to say, Argentina backed resolutions condemning Apartheid in international organizations, and simultaneously maintained normal bilateral relations with the government in Pretoria. Ambiguous policy refers to the lack of definition on the part of Argentina when it was under pressure to adopt a position between Black Africa and South Africa. Although the tendency was to improve the relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa, Buenos Aires did not take up radical attitudes as regards Pretoria, ignoring the African demands to break off diplomatic relations with South Africa’s White government –an issue always present in Black African countries’ external agendas2.

Alfonsín’s administration initiated a period of increased contacts with Sub-Saharan Africa. It was believed that an alliance among the countries of the southern hemisphere could help secure areas of relative power on the basis of policies of cooperation. Foreign Minister Dante Caputo began to shape an African policy under the assumption that increasing both bilateral and multilateral political relations would also increase trade relations and foster South-South cooperation. His interest was also shown through diplomatic actions such as sending missions to Africa, opening new embassies, signing agreements, and developing activities in the sphere of scientific and technological cooperation.

However, in the 90s, with president Menem at the helm (1989-1999), Argentina’s African policy vanished. The main features of his foreign policy were an “acritical alignment” with the United States and the acceptance of the requirements of the Washington Consensus. Belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement was considered irrelevant, as was association with African countries. Having lost the possibility of blackmailing either the East or the West, they were considered incapable of giving appropriate answers to a competitive and exclusive globalization. Thus, a period barren of strategies or actions intended for African countries –with the exception of North Africa– started, followed by the closure of embassies (Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Zaire and Gabon) under the argument of budgetary constraints. Yet, despite the low profile of African countries, diplomatic relations with South Africa were re-established in 1991, even when the democratic transition process did not, at the time, allow to predict the successful way out that took place in 1994. A new partner was chosen.

Argentina and South Africa in the nineties

A new impulse towards South Africa was born, with a tendency to increase commercial links and to receive investments, but showing a certain void in political-diplomatic relations. This vacuum could have been justified during Menem’s initial years in charge of the administration, by taking into consideration South Africa’s internal political process. Yet, it cannot be justified at a time when a new democratic, multi-racial government took power with Nelson Mandela as the elected president.

As soon as Mandela took office, Menem made explicit his strong will to visit South Africa. The trip took place on February 25, 1995. But the presidential visit did not show definite results. Taking into account the democratic changes in South Africa, a higher density of diplomatic relations was expected, particularly in comparison to Brazil. Much more could have been done between both countries in the building up of a common political agenda.

The conditions existed to generate a rapprochement that made the development of common agreed policies feasible. However, it was only another new impulse, which, although allowing an increase in commercial relations –in many cases carried out by transnational actors– was not part of a policy design, due to the lack of political will. The Argentine foreign policy had other priorities.

After the impulse resulting from the presidential trip, relations with South Africa reverted to nothing more than a series of sporadic actions, with increasing density depending on the goodwill of the officials in different areas, but without producing relevant political consequences. This can be verified by analyzing the mutual visits as well as the moments in which they occurred. The top level of South African officials who visited Argentina during those years showed a high political interest from Pretoria3.

In this context, it is important to note the South African interest, shared by Brazil, in strengthening the commercial links through negotiations with MERCOSUR. An example was president Mandela’s visit to Argentina for the meeting of MERCOSUR’s presidents– and the associated countries, Chile and Bolivia– held in July 1999 in Ushuaia. Three bilateral agreements were signed on that occasion: an Agreement on Reciprocal Promotion and Protection of Investments, a Memorandum of Understanding on Consultations about Common Interest Issues, and an Accord on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the Fight against Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances’ Illicit Production and Traffic4.

Even though the density of the political-diplomatic relation was not in accordance with its potentialities, a different analysis can be carried out using the concept of “micro relations”. This concept refers to “relations taking place at a different level, that of smaller bureaucratic units and private actors”. Accordingly, the bilateral relation has been growing, and thus creating a network of interactions across the South Atlantic Ocean.

One relevant area refers to the blossoming of interactions between the Argentine and South African navies, centered around the South Atlantic and with strategic economic cooperative connotations. With the end of the East-West conflict and the alignment with the United States, the Argentine government turned to a cooperative security agenda. In that context, the objective was to strengthen the relations in the South Atlantic through the participation in the ZPCSA (Zone of Peace and Cooperation in the South Atlantic) and military cooperation in the so-called Atlas Sur Operations.

With the political-diplomatic relation repaired and the links among the respective navies bolstered, previous contacts turned into definite cooperation in February 1993, through the first combined naval exercises in Argentine waters5. These so-called Atlas Sur Operations began to take place every two years. They consist of anti-submarine and anti-aircraft exercises, tactical and refueling maneuvers, and shooting at surface and aerial targets.

The first operation, Atlas Sur I, was carried out between Argentina and South Africa in 1993. Brazil and Uruguay took part in the following ones6: Atlas Sur II, in front of Cape Town’s coasts, in 1995; Atlas Sur III, on the occasion of the South African Army 75th Anniversary and with the presence of the Chief of the Navy Admiral Carlos Marrón, in 1997; Atlas Sur IV, on Latin American coasts, in 1999; and Atlas Sur V, at Simmonstown, South Africa, in 2002. Atlas Sur V also coincided with the 80th Anniversary of SAN. Atlas Sur VI was scheduled for 2005, and will be hosted by Uruguay.

Despite the budgetary constraints experienced, all the participating members have shown a continuing commitment towards Atlas Sur. In this cooperative context, it is important to note that the Atlas Sur operations are the only regularly scheduled exercise program of South Africa’s Navy with foreign partners. In addition, Argentina’s and South Africa’s Armies signed an Agreement on Cooperation in Peace Times, in Buenos Aires, on October 6, 1997, passed by law 2514/99 in 1999.

Although the Argentine governmental answers to South African initiatives could be considered lukewarm, private firms developed intense negotiations. During those years, Argentine companies visited South Africa to explore new possibilities backed by agendas supplied by the Argentine embassy. Officials promoted the country not only in the academic but also in the business field, expounding on the Argentine economy and on the possibility for investing and developing bilateral trade.

Therefore, from the Argentine perspective, the most outstanding area was bilateral trade, with figures tripling from the beginning of the 90s until the end of the decade, showing a favorable trade balance for Argentina –except for 1993– and making South Africa an important market in the region. Although in the first quinquennium Argentine exports quadrupled, one cannot establish a direct relation between this increase and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations7. Argentine imports also increased remarkably during the first three years of the decade, fluctuating less than exports afterwards. But the effect of imports from South Africa in the whole of Argentina’s imports from Africa is noteworthy, having stood 92.49% in 1990 and 83.50% in 1992, but falling to less than the 50% during the second quinquennium, and to only 19.19% in 2000.

Due to its significance, it is worthwhile to mention the continuity of Argentina’s participation in SAITEX, the most important multi-modal fair in the region.A silver medal was obtained in 1994, and a bronze one in 1995. For 1998, the Argentine stand gathered 32 exporting companies together with the Bilateral Trade Chamber. In the following year, it signed up only one firm, because Argentina changed the participation criterion. After five years of a worthy performance in this fair, the decision was to direct energies at more specific ones8.

On the other hand, the growth of South Atlantic contacts allowed an expansion of air links: to Malaysian Airways’ two flights per week between South Africa and Argentina, South African Airways added –since November 30, 1995– another weekly flight between both destinations, with a stopover in São Paulo9.

Academic contacts have also been increased, and most of the time with the backup of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. The core issues discussed refer to the analysis of the varied possibilities of comparing and linking the two respective integration processes, MERCOSUR and SADC, to which I will refer later.

To sum up, Argentina’s diplomatic relations with South Africa show some particularities, which make them different from those with other African states. Up to Alfonsín’s government, mutual impulses generated a certain density of relations. The breakdown of diplomatic relations provoked a watershed, with the subsequent absence of political relations and impulses. But bilateral trade continued on separate avenues and was not strongly affected. The breaking-off of diplomatic relations was not an impulse; it was part of the general strategy of the foreign policy of Argentina at that time. The objective was to recover the credibility lost in the international setting under the military governments, and to defend the Human Rights cause.

The quick re-establishment of diplomatic relations decided by Menem turned that policy into an impulse. Even though during his administration a higher density of bilateral relations took place, South Africa was not included among Argentina’s priorities. That is why the external actions were transformed into a new impulse, aiming at very specific objectives and missing a good opportunity to build common South-South political agendas. This impulse, with its peak during Menem’s visit to South Africa, is much more connected with the way in which the president built his own image, under the assumption that this image was the final representation of his country, which deserved a place among the most important nations in the world.

During the 90s, the pattern of relationship developed as follows: the goal of the South African rapprochement was to learn from the Argentine experience in the privatization process and economic reform, and the Argentine goal was to attract South African investments in mining and to increase exports by selling agricultural commodities.

With the coming of Fernando De la Rúa to the presidency in Argentina (1999), and despite the set of proposals of the Alliance that took him to power, substantial changes were not observed either in foreign policy or in relations with the states of the African continent.

The internal political and economic crisis that culminated with the president’s resignation obliged all government agencies to use their energy for its management, both in its domestic dimension as well as in its international implications (Lechini, 2001). With president Eduardo Duhalde’s inauguration on January 1, 2002, a certain internal stability was attained. However, after having declared a default, the negotiation of the foreign debt consumed almost all the energy of the government, leading to a reactive and inertial foreign policy.

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