South American-Arab summit aims to undercut US influence

Shanghai Star. 2005-05-12

BRASILIA, Brazil - Banding together to dampen the international dominance of the United States, South American and Arab leaders railed against the global influence of wealthy nations and Israel at a summit aimed at empowering developing countries.

Socialists, such as Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and American-backed Iraqi President Jalal Talabani were expected on May 11 to join dozens of other nations and back a "Declaration of Brasilia" at odds with US policy on a number of fronts.

The two-day summit started with 9,000 troops in the Brazilian capital and tanks posted outside the convention centre where 15 heads of state and top officials from 34 South American, Middle Eastern and North African nations met for first Summit of South American-Arab Countries.

In his opening remarks, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called the event an "historic opportunity to build the foundation for a bridge of solid co-operation between South America and the Arab world".

Pushing a policy goal he has pursued since becoming the first elected leftist leader of Latin America's largest country, Lula urged participants to fight for free-trade rules that help the developing world's masses who live in misery, instead of benefiting only rich countries and multinational corporations.

But Arab states, under pressure from Washington to reform their authoritarian regimes, chose to focus their energy on the Palestinian crisis.

"Israel must withdraw from occupied Arab territories," Algerian President Bouteflika said.

The declaration calls for tighter political and economic links between the regions, but demands that Israel disband settlements and retreat to its borders before the 1967 Mideast war. It also lashes out at US economic sanctions against Syria.

The summit lost luster with the absence of the strongest voices in the Arab world, including the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa hoped more leaders would attend, but said the presence of seven of the 22 Arab heads of state was a positive "gauge of the importance of the conference." Eight of the 12 South American leaders were participating. He denied speculation the United States pressured some leaders to boycott the summit.

Brazilian media widely reported that the United States was refused permission to attend as summit observer, but US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on May 10 he did not know whether the United States ever requested to observe the event.

State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington had asked if it could be an observer at the meetings and Brazil refused.

Despite the summit's anti-American undertones, Casey said the Bush administration welcomes "the idea of dialogue between these two regions".

Moussa took pains to downplay the declaration's controversial elements, saying the summit's main point is to strengthen regional ties.

"This summit, in its idea, its initiative, is not directed against anyone," he said.

Silva, however, singled out for criticism agricultural subsidies for US and European farmers, saying they must be slashed to ensure that "poor countries receive the benefits of globalization".

"We want to take concrete and lasting steps in the struggle for development and social justice," Silva said.

Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo said ongoing trade liberalization talks by the 148-nation World Trade Organization (WTO) won't succeed unless they lift living standards in poor countries.

The WTO, currently in the midst of a leadership race, must be headed by a citizen of a developing country and that a new world economic order is needed to solve the problems of developing nations, he said.

"We have economic systems that have kept us on the periphery," said Jagdeo. "We will forever remain on the periphery if we don't change the system."

Moussa said South America and the Arab League countries, with more than half a billion people, lie far apart but share strong cultural links that should lead to closer co-operation. About 10 million South Americans are of Arab descent.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.