The New International Relations Of Latin America: Interview

We spoke to Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, Rogelio Mayta, who is leading the charge for a more democratic process of regional integration. The country is raising its voice against Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, both for his role in the 2019 coup, and his wider political actions, on behalf of the United States, in the domestic affairs of member states. 

Thank you Minister for your time, what has been the response from others when Bolivia makes its criticisms of Luis Almagro and the direction in which he has pushed the OAS? 

In the Americas, we are all reflecting on the role of the OAS and I think there are two main responses, two levels at which this reflection takes place; Firstly, there are those who believe the OAS is going in the wrong direction because the leadership of Luis Almagro is not facilitating the integration of our countries, but is instead dividing them and turning member states against each other. For those countries, removing Almagro is a possible solution to be looked into. 

However, there are those who are making deeper criticism and who are reflecting on whether or not the OAS, as an institution, has use. We can see how the OAS, rather than being a forum for different countries to come together, is a weapon for the interests of a few. We can see how the OAS, rather than being an institution that benefits its members, in fact, places them at great risk. We have to remember the circumstances in which the OAS was founded, it was founded at the end of the 1940s, a time in which the US power was very much in the ascendancy, they used that power to forge this institution according to their own designs. To promote it they used narratives of regional integration, but in reality, it’s a mechanism for one country, the US, to advance their own interests in our region. 

The OAS has always played a role in protecting right-wing dictatorships if they’re useful for US interests, welcoming them in, but Cuba is excluded supposedly because of ‘human rights’. That approach has continued during Almagro’s period. When there are social protests being brutally repressed in a country he’s allied to, as happened recently in Colombia, that’s considered fine and no action taken, he’ll talk about the need to defend institutionality and the existing government. However, if there are protests in Venezuela then suddenly all the protesters are absolutely correct and their rights are being violated. Is the OAS we want? Because it’s the OAS we got and it’s the OAS we’ll continue to have, so we have to think seriously about whether we want to refound the OAS. That’s the debate, and it’s necessary in these times of change because these are times in which a new global order is being built, so we have to think if these old institutions are fit for the new times. 

What are some of the promising proposals for alternatives to the OAS?

We’ve had lots of alternatives to the OAS, we used to have UNASUR which was an incredibly important mechanism but which was wrecked by the right. Now we are pushing forward the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the process is a complex one but we’re heading into it with a lot of enthusiasm. It began as just a political forum, but in these new times it’s taking on a much more interesting edge and we’re rethinking its role as an institution, starting with working through it to deal with concrete problems and concrete solutions. For example, in the pandemic, the OAS has been useless, their line is every man for himself, but within CELAC we’ve been working on a regional response and strengthening the capacity to produce our vaccines and medical equipment. On the question of technology and space, Latin America doesn’t want to be left behind so through CELAC we’re building the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, by sharing resources, knowledge, and experience, we’re articulating an agreement on this. 

Without fanfare or verbose speeches, CELAC is coming into its own and hopefully, in the future, it can be the arena we need. We also hope that it can be a space for more equal communication between countries because the OAS is built only around the United States. We hope that CELAC can be a mechanism to speak with and deal with the superpower we have in the north, the United States, on a more equal footing. 

In what state did you find the Foreign Ministry when you got that job after the coup? How did you find the work of recovering the office as an institution that serves Bolivia rather than other interests? 

Taking back the Foreign Ministry so that it serves the country has been a step by step process, firstly because the coup destroyed our good relations with numerous countries and now we’ve had to rebuild that, such as with Argentina and Mexico. In some cases, there were countries whose diplomats were assaulted and threatened. We’ve rebuilt our relationship with Cuba, that’s very important for us. We’ve also worked to restore excellent relations with countries like Russia and China, those relations were put on ice by the coup government. Rebuilding all these relations has helped us enormously particularly during the pandemic because it’s those countries that are supplying the world with medical equipment and vaccines. 

We are also keenly aware that the world is no longer unipolar, there is no longer one single hegemon, there are now different poles of power and we want good relations with them. We also want a good relationship, if possible, with the United States. Relations with the US are complicated for countries in the region because they’re a power that seeks subordination so as to take control of natural resources. Bolivia has a reasonable relationship with them, not a close one. 

In regards to the Foreign Ministry, well we came into a Foreign Ministry that had no voice, no presence at an international level. Their only ‘achievement’ that Añez touted was getting a few minutes on the phone with Donald Trump. Bolivia disappeared from multilateral organizations. Now we’re taking back our place within the international community, in CELAC, MERCOSUR, the UN, and more.

How do you see the political situation in the region? Are there positive signs for this proposal to strengthen sovereignty? 

These are favorable times. This process of de-globalization and the end of various neoliberal myths have provided an opening for social movements in our continent, movements with a strong national conscience, movements that come from below, and those who fight for the interests of the people. These are movements firmly on the left, which is a factor that unites movements across borders. However, when processes of integration take place solely on the basis of shared ideology between governments, then those processes can be weakened if a government with a different vision comes in and interrupts the process, so integration has to be based on shared and concrete interests and problems. 

For example, the EU was originally based on a coal and steel alliance, two concrete issues which served as the basis for Europe to articulate their particular vision step by step. We can learn from these experiences, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Latin America these are times of progressive governments, that vision is surging in new places such as Peru, Chile, Brazil, we can see all this on a daily basis, there’s a clear strength behind these movements in Latin America and the Caribbean.   

Thank you Minister for your time.