Four former elected Uruguayan presidents openly discussed Mercosur revealing an overall disenchantment with the regional political and trade group but with different emphasis as to what was the path to follow.
The debate brought together former leaders Julio Maria Sanguinetti (1985/1990 and 1995/2000); Luis Alberto Lacalle (1990/1995); Jorge Batlle (2000/2005) and Tabare Vazquez (2005/2010). The meeting place was the Colorado Party headquarters and the issue was “Mercosur Yes, or Mercosur NO?”
Vazquez, who was the first president of a catch-all left wing coalition to rule Uruguay, said that if Uruguay abandoned Mercosur it would have to pay “a very high price”. Thus “yes to Mercosur” but with changes and trying to make the senior members of the group (Argentina and Brazil) to abide and honour commitments.
“The twenty years of Mercosur have not been a jubilee or a torment” said Vazquez who admitted that Argentina and Brazil are locked into a bilateral attitude which is not meant to be criticism but a description of reality.
Finally he asked for the political establishment to think strategically in the future “people are fed up of hearing us talk and talk; they want things done” and that is why “we need a more institutionalized Mercosur with more speedy and flexible mechanisms”.
Batlle and Sanguinetti were sceptical about the compliance of the agreements and pledges by members of the group and coincided with Lacalle who argued that Mercosur was “a trade organization, not political” and insisted that Uruguay must request to have trade agreements with third parties outside the group, as when Brazil authorized a free trade agreement between Mexico and Uruguay.
Batlle called for pragmatisms and recalled that Brazil “is not going to change because it is convinced it has a destiny of great power”. That is why he insisted Uruguay must reach trade agreements with the US, Korea, and requesting an exception from Brazil “which will understand Uruguay’s position since they think looking ahead 100/200 years”.
For Uruguay “insertion is not in the region but rather in trade with the rest of the world. After twenty years (Mercosur took off in 1991) we can’t expect that what we signed originally will be complied now”, said Batlle.
“Where are the opportunities for the Uruguayans? Inside or outside Mercosur? History has shown that until today it has been outside Mercosur, so bye, bye Mercosur”, underlined Batlle.
Lacalle said that Mercosur ‘must not be a political grouping’ but rather a commercial alliance, contrary to Vazquez who favoured intensifying the ‘political institutions of the block’.
“We need pragmatism to defend the country’s interests and this means a review of our foreign policy” indicated Lacalle who said that Mexico is the natural counter balance for Brazil, and suggested looking to China, India, Mexico and the US as examples of countries to follow in trade issues.
Lacalle also mentioned Colombia, Chile and Peru and their Pacific alliance since Mercosur “has lost its trade identity” and has also suffered “a serious legal and institutional vacuum”.
He also questioned the incorporation of Venezuela to Mercosur without previously having discussed any list of products to be traded and this is because “it was done based on political identities which are not compatible with the interests of the people.
Contrary to Vazquez, Lacalle proposed “less but better Mercosur, Let’s improve the essentials”. Finally he suggested that in 2014 when the next presidential election, all candidates agree on the need to change Uruguay’s foreign policy which should be geared by national interests, “we are facing a national emergency in foreign policy tied to ideology”.
Sanguinetti said that it must be accepted that “the world has changed and the future is not what it was meant to be”. Uruguay can’t lock itself in the neighbourhood and recalled that Mercosur was never planned or conceived as a “neo-protectionist barrier”.
He proposed ‘bringing Mexico closer’ since the flexibility that Uruguay needs to negotiate outside the area “is in fact there” and this is because of the “very weakness of Mercosur in coping with improving and increasing trade”.
“We must have a whole vision of the world and not be trapped by the neighbourhood; Mercosur has proved to be a fragile, distorted and eroding instrument” but we also need to hold on to it and defend the geopolitical position of the region.