Encounter in Abu Dhabi with a Leading Figure of Chilean Political Life

Sergio Bitar

In the margins of the Arla Forum in Abu Dhabi, NGC Director had the chance to meet and exchange with Sergio Bitar, a prominent figure of Chilean political life.

We wanted to share with our readers the biography of a statesman who has been promoting Democracy and Development in Chile for the past 30 years, and is showing great interest in the political changes of  the Arab world.

We also publish Sergio Bitar’s speech delivered in Abu Dhabi on “World Trends and the Future of Arab Latin-american Relations”.

After serving as Minister of Mines under Salvador Allende’s government, he was imprisoned following the military coup of September 11, 1973 and sent to a concentration camp in a southern Island of Chile, the “Isla Dawson”.

Sergio Bitar wrote a book about his year in detention which was later adapted into a movie by Miguel Littin (Dawson Isla 10, 2009).

Following a 10-year exile in the US and Venezuela, S. Bitar came back to Chile in 1985 and played a leading role as an opponent to the dictatorship and in favor of a democratic transition.

He became President of the Partido por la Democracia (PPD, member of the coalition that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010), Minister of Education under the Lagos Government and Minister of Public works under Bachelet’s. He was a Senator from 1994 to 2002.

Sergio Bitar is currently president of the Fundacion por la Democracia and a senior nonresident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Of Syrian descent, M. Bitar is following closely political developments in the Arab World which resonate deeply in the hearts and minds of all those who confronted dictatorships and fought for Democracy.

We publish below Mr. Bitar’s speech in Abu Dhabi where he explores the opportunities for a new alliance between Latin America and the Arab countries against the backdrop of strategic shifts in the World Order.

World Trends and the Future of Arab Latin-American Relations

           Sergio Bitar

          Prospects for an Enhanced Arab Latin American Partnership

                   Abu Dhabi Forum, 16-17 December, 2012

Global power relations are shifting rapidly, creating new risks but also new opportunities. Arab and Latin American nations can anticipate those changes and benefit from them, and could start building new partnerships.

Let me start by describing how global trends may help this partnership and what issues could be prioritized.

 Five Global Trends

1. Power Relations are shifting East and Southwards. A Multipolar World is Rising.

Arab Latin American relations can benefit from such changes. Why is that so?

There is a risk of fragmentation of global governance. As the US and Europe suffer from a relative power decline, no new hegemonic power is emerging with the needed strength nor the will to play a global military and political role. The US will continue to have a relevant influence for solving global problems, but will have to act with other partners, not alone. The governance of a new multipolar world requires a more active involvement of emerging countries and our two regions can help in a responsible manner by building new and flexible alliances. The search for new partnerships will be needed in order to avoid fragmentation.

Due to its financial and debt problems, the overstretching of its military deployment and a drop of its competitive lead, the US is redefining its strategy to better suit its interests. This will require focusing on its economic and technological base, education quality, innovation, infrastructure, etc. In other words; the US will redirect its energies towards domestic issues.

In terms of regional priority, the US will shift its security focus from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the South China Sea. Washington will reinforce its alliance with India, Japan, South COREA, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam…  in order to contain Chinese expansion in that region.

On the other hand, the Latin American & Caribbean (LAC) region has gained growing autonomy. New regional political organizations have been created or reinforced: CELAC, MERCOSUR, PACIFIC ARCH, UNASUR…Many LAC countries have signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with major nations.

Because LAC economies are improving, democracy consolidating and social policies expanding, an economic convergence with developed nations is under way and will continue at least for the next decade. US-LAC relations are becoming more balanced.

On international affairs, LAC countries have adopted a more autonomous stand vis a vis Western powers. This appeared clearly in the recent 2012 voting in favor of a Palestinian State in the UN. We should also not forget that, ten years earlier, in 2001, Mexico and Chile voted against the US proposal in the Security Council to invade Iraq.

A parallel evolution has taken place in the Arab countries. The Gulf States have expanded their economic and political influence; many other countries are in the midst of major sociopolitical transformations. Iraq will expand its oil production. Arab countries have more autonomy with respect to Western powers and will diversify their relationships with the East and the South. All these factors will facilitate joint actions between Arabs and Latin-Americans.

2. Inter-connectivity, the Spread of Internet and Dense Communications will Accelerate

This trend can help overcome one major obstacle for future relations between Arabs and Latin Americans: the lack of information and distortions by biased media. Images of each others are stereotyped, in LA the dominant perception about the Arabs is terrorism and in Arab countries LA is perceived as marred by violence.

Present distortions and lack of information should be overcome. Little is known about the contribution of Islam to world peace and tolerance. The position of different Arab countries vis a vis Islamists and fundamentalists organizations must be better conveyed to Latin America, reciprocally Latin American realities should be better explained to the Arab public opinion. A better knowledge of each region, their policies and vision is a requirement to build mutual understanding and will facilitate partnerships. In this context, the creation of new joint ventures between media, think tanks and NGOs of both regions should be explored.

3. Knowledge and Education are top Global Trends and a priority in Latin America and Arab countries.

Future generations can do much better in finding and developing opportunities if they study and live for some time in the other region. We should increase the exchange of university students to attend at least short term seminars, do research and learn Spanish or Arab. Why not aim at launching with universities an exchange program to reach 5000 higher education students, in 2025, between Arabs and Latin America?

4. Global Trends towards Democracy and Reduction of Inequality will intensify, posing new Political Challenges to Governance.

Cooperation and exchange of experiences on how to deal with political problems in transitions to democracy or social policies could be very beneficial. The Arab people’s search for dignity, freedom, democracy, and respect for Human Rights is a major change and challenge. These processes create a convergence of values among some of the countries of both regions.

Diversity, tolerance, non-interference in internal   affairs, peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue are principles that, if shared, will enhance relations. The respect for minorities, women’s rights, rejection of extremism and terrorism are common values that provide a ground for a wider partnership. Latin America offers experiences on processes of transition to democracy that could be shared with Arab countries.

Also governments, social organizations, entrepreneurs’ associations can share experiences on fighting poverty and achieving social protection, as a precondition for social inclusion.

5. Middle classes are expanding at a rapid pace, with a substantial impact on economic and political demands, trade and investment.

My estimates are that Arab and Latin American middle classes will double in size,    expanding from 250 million to 500 million in 2025. LAC + Arabs represent almost 60 countries. In 2025 their populations will reach one billion people. 600 million Latin Americans and 400 million Arabs represent large markets and opportunities. Latin American countries show high growth potential (see last ECLA report on 2013), financial stability, a secure atmosphere for business and progressing democracy. The Middle East, Gulf States and Maghreb countries are growing fast and have a high economic potential. However, today, trade represents only 2 to 3% of total trade of each region. We should aim at a 5% in 2020.

The time has come to accelerate FTA s with Arab countries, and subsequently adopt other agreements to facilitate investments.

Other Issues to Agree On

  • Think tanks coordination. More studies and deeper analysis are needed in order to make Government meetings more relevant and productive. This requires working in coordination with existing Think Tanks of both regions.
  • Food security is another key area of future cooperation. Increasing prices will affect poor people, and the scarcity of water and land resources (in some Gulf and Maghreb countries) may call for new approaches. LA possesses resources to expand its production and export more food (and therefore more water). Arab and LA nations willing to take the lead could adopt joint programs on production, services (cold chain, transportation, processing) as well as scientific and technological research on seeds, plants adapted to desert conditions, climate change, and biotechnology in general.
  • Logistic services are in high demand all over the world and both regions badly need to improve such services to improve exchanges between both regions. Infrastructure, transportation, ports, airports, airlines are growing fast and both groups of countries are building new capacities that may give rise to joint ventures to supply those logistic services.
  • Climate Change has a major impact on agriculture and energy. Therefore, it could also become an area of mutual interest and should lead to stepping up exchange of experience and research efforts. Solar energy is being prioritized in both areas and could be another field for work (thanks to MASDAR, scholarships are already offered to Latin-Americans on solar energy)
  • Changing the structure of international organizations will also need a common effort. We should explore ways to reach a common position on IMF, UN, WB, WTO, Climate Change, banks regulation, security measures against cyber-attacks etc… These global challenges need decisions and we should coordinate better our positions before voting in that respect.

In Search of Political Convergence

Political understanding is a prerequisite for expanding relations.

Latin Americans have felt closer to Arab world through the Palestinian struggle. A general agreement against the Palestine (Gaza) blockade exists among Arab countries and Latin Americans agree on the inefficacy and injustice of the Cuban blockade. Both groups of countries could develop a common position on these issues. Also, humanitarian principles impose the obligation for a common position in helping Syrians to dialogue and stop a collective suicide.

A better understanding between Arabs and Latin-Americans may help to improve   harmony between the West and Islam. Arabs and Latin Americans can help to create a stronger Dialogue of Civilizations.

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