Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the debate on Latin America in the German Bundestag, 9 May 2008

09.05.2008 - Speech

Madam President,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many years ago, Latin America was for us the continent of military dictatorships, serious human rights violations and social disparities. Many, also here in Europe, fought long and hard for a peaceful transition of that region to democracy and the rule of law, amongst them foundations, human rights organizations and above all else, churches.

Thirty years on, those finding out more about developments in the region since the 1970s will have to admit: Many South American countries have come a very long way. In many of these countries, as I have seen for myself, the crimes committed during the military dictatorships are now being investigated and in some countries perpetrators are being brought to justice. We can see that the results of democratic elections are no longer being called into question on the streets and coups are no longer being staged. South America is a continent on the up.

I have taken up South America as a new focus. I am soon to pay my third visit to the region. Many of these countries have not just clearly strengthened their democratic structures but also showcase impressive growth rates most of which are over 6% and an acceleration of their industrial development. This is all changing the continent's profile much more than we often realize. Who knows for example that Brazil is home to one of the market leaders for medium-sized aircraft? Or that one of the world's largest concrete and cement manufacturers comes from Mexico?

Looking at these developments, it is clear that new markets and new demand also generate an export market which is relevant to us. So we all have good reason to support the economic trend which has taken root in Central and South America and to extend the global partnership to which we aspire.

That will also be the message presented by the European Union at the Summit with Latin American countries to be held in Lima in a few days.

But there are also processes going in the opposite direction as we can glean from the media. The hunger protests in Mexico, Honduras and above all Haiti are a clear wake-up call which should remind us that alongside those who gain from globalization there are also those who lose out and that some of the costs of globalization for particular sections of society are higher than our euphoric portrayal sometimes suggests.

These alarm bells also bring home it is surely not enough to rely on the self-regulating forces of the market.

We need political action, at international level of course, but of course we also need a fair system for world trade and a pro-active approach on the part of national politicians. Here we can see that countries like Mexico and Brazil are endeavouring to devise national policies to close the gap between rich and poor. As far as I am aware, this also holds true for Panama albeit at a more modest level.

Ladies and gentlemen, as Germans and Europeans we have to do what we can to ensure these efforts all across Latin America and in the Caribbean are right at the top of the agenda. It is not just us but in fact all countries in South America that have good reason to underscore that a national approach towards closing the gap between rich and poor is certainly better than the formulae offered by Hugo Chávez and others.

Given the challenges we face it is in our very own interest to have a stable, forward-looking Latin America. Its wealth of resources and biodiversity also play a central role for us. This will surely be emphasized at the international conference in Germany next week. Yet this region, and here I am thinking of Brazil and its rainforest, is one of the world's most vulnerable. I am thus happy to say that the two-pronged approach is working. On the one hand, awareness of these issues is increasing and on the other our offer of cooperation on these issues is being met with interest and support in South American countries.

Take the example of Peru. The entire water supply system is dependent on a glacial area which according to climate change forecasts will no longer exist in 20 years' time. Yet at the same time water consumption in the entire region is expected to rocket given current economic developments.

This shows it is not just about us wanting to export the relevant environmental technology. In the region itself there is a keen interest in reaping its benefits. We should be ready to share our know-how and offer support for such cooperation.

But at this time we cannot look to Latin America without focusing on Cuba; it wouldn't be right or it certainly wouldn't be the full picture. I will say now what I have said before. Cuba has not become a democracy overnight with its new President Raúl Castro. Anyone suggesting it has, is surely wrong. But nor should we talk down the small and hesitant steps towards an opening of the country – for which the people in Cuba so yearn. The cautious process of change in Cuba creates opportunities. We should use these opportunities for the benefit of those who yearn for an opening-up of the country. For my part, we are currently discussing with European colleagues what scope for action we currently have and can use.

All in all, we are in a situation in which it is worth renewing the partnership with Latin American countries. Firstly because of developments in South America itself, secondly because of the shared challenges we can only master with the help of South American countries, thirdly because we in the European Union have developed a form of regional cooperation in which South America is interested, for instance through the Andean Community or Mercosur. In treaty negotiations we unfortunately failed to make enough progress but we are encouraging the Commission to continue along this path (Applause from the SPD and members of the CDU/CSU).

I advocate a partnership with South America on the basis of equality. Let's make something of it.

Thank you very much.

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