The partition temptation: Iraq to Latin America

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
29 November 2006

A spectre is haunting the world: the spectre of fragmentation. The western hemisphere too may in the near future face this (to it) new and urgent problem, one that indirectly links it to the future of territories across the globe, from Iraq and the Caucasus to east Africa and the Balkans. As an increasingly volatile Iraq deals with the threat of civil war and disintegration, the breaking of nations may soon become a critical concern in inter-American affairs, and an issue that can only be resolved by concerted diplomacy between key Latin American nations and other states, the United States in particular.

If Washington caps its failure in Iraq by sanctioning partition there, this may be seen as a message to a Latin America already beset by complex and conflicting social demands. A signal in favour of secession in one area can generate unpredictable consequences in another. A growing turmoil is already pushing several Latin American countries in the direction of regional dislocation, even state disintegration. If the United States does not search for active diplomatic partners to avert such an outcome and address its underlying dynamics, the future will be even less stable than the present.

The need for strategic clarity and political sophistication by the United States leadership is evident. It is not clear whether these two basic ingredients for understanding and coping with a changing Latin American reality are currently available in Washington.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal"
(30 May 2006)

An arc of instability

The world has seen an avalanche of new nation-states in the last sixty-one years - membership of the United Nations has increased from fifty-one at its foundation in 1945 to 192 (since the accession of Montenegro in June 2006) today. In this light, Latin America stands out as a region that has witnessed the least state creation.

From the mid-19th century onwards, and throughout the 20th century, only one new state was formed: when, in 1903, Panama gained independence as the result of its separation from Colombia (with the encouragement of the United States). More recently, the departure of former British and Dutch colonial rulers led Guyana (1966), Surinam (1975), and Belize (1981) to become independent.

Thus, Latin America has in terms of state foundation been the most stable and peaceful area in the planet over more than 150 years. Could the present generation be witnessing the end of this era of gestational stability?

Indeed, the prospect of secession has resurfaced in the western hemisphere at the beginning of the 21st century. Several recent indicators - in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and even Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela - illustrate the point.

In Colombia, the political and military conditions generated by the continuing conflict between the Bogotá government and the insurgent, leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) has fuelled an increasing perception - inside and outside the country - that the southern part of Colombia could be territorially dismembered. Such an idea developed especially during the fragile, contradictory peace negotiation between 7 January 1999 and 20 February 2002.

The most recent agreement between the Álvaro Uribe Veléz government and the rightwing paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia / AUC) has not meant a recovery and expansion of state sovereignty over large parts of the countryside. The lack of a genuine, thorough solution to a forty-year armed conflict, and its growing internationalisation, only exacerbate fears of geopolitical breakdown among Colombia's neighbours.

In Peru and Ecuador, the assertiveness of a renewed ethnic (even racial) question at the heart of the Andean ridge has created a degree of instability not seen since the epochs of colonisation and independence. Well-organised, highly mobilised and vastly diverse indigenous groups have mushroomed, and have reinforced in turn the fears and aspirations of a gradually displaced white leadership; both groups refer increasingly to institutional self-sufficiency and political self-determination rather than mere social aspiration.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez has lately asserted - admittedly without much evidence - that Zulia, the petroleum-rich state along the Colombian border governed by election rival Manuel Rosales, was searching for autonomy, with alleged support from the United States (the same scenario has been raised by a writer Chávez admires, Noam Chomsky).

In Bolivia, a mixture of ethnic, cultural, economic, regional and social tension between the western and eastern parts of the country is stimulating a lethal combination of political polarisation and regional fracturing. The evolution and results of the year-long constituent assembly in the political capital of Sucre could either deepen Bolivian democracy or result in the country's effective territorial partition.

Even in Brazil and Argentina, secessionist concerns are present. The recurrent anxiety shown by Brasilia (regarding the Amazon) and by Buenos Aires (with respect to Patagonia) reveals the existence of underlying (internal and external) schismatic forces in the two largest Latin American nations. In the former, there is recurrent apprehension among elements of the Brazilian civilian and military elite regarding an eventual "takeover" of Amazonia; in the latter, the fear of territorial loss was evident especially at the time of Argentina's institutional implosion in the critical days of 2001-02.

Don't wait, anticipate

A number of related trends - the emergence of a vigorous ethnic agenda and the partial collapse and replacement of traditional elites, both occurring in the context of (and to an extent provoked by) an uneven globalisation process that in Latin America has weakened the state - has broadened the economic gap between the haves and have-nots, aggravated social tensions, and eroded national identity. Their confluence is generating in the region a new phenomenon: an encouragement to geographic fracture, political division and symbolic self-rule.

As a result, partition has also become an unexpected and (as yet) undisclosed question in the relationship of the rest of the world (most prominently the United States) towards Latin America. Washington's flaws of understanding - indifference, uncoordinated policies, fixed mindsets - may combine with dismay at the alienating recent trend of electoral and political events to lead it to turn its back on Latin America as irrelevant, unchallenging or irredeemable.

In the meantime, a disturbing regional reality of conflict and fragmentation could generate a new geopolitical reality. A response that fuses collective preventive diplomacy, anticipatory conflict management and precautionary political involvement in advance is preferable to unilateral, last-minute, force deployment and military intervention in an emergency.

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