UNO July 2023

One-on-one Interview: José Antonio Llorente sits down with Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím (Tripoli, 1952) is one of Latin America’s most important intellectuals. During his time as a public servant, he has served as the Venezuelan Minister of Industry and Commerce and Executive Director of the World Bank. As a journalist, he has managed the influential Foreign Policy magazine, regularly writes for newspapers including El País and directs the weekly television program, Efecto Naím, which is broadcast on various channels across Latin America and the United States. As an author, he recently published two key works: The End of Power and The Revenge of Power, both published by the Debate, where he dissects the main economic, political and value challenges facing the world in the 21st century, including populism, the globalization crisis and the rise of new powers.

Q. What would be your diagnosis of Latin America?

A. Fragmented, confused, left behind. With some hopeful places, such as Uruguay, the Dominican Republic or the phenomenon that will be Guyana, following its oil and gas discoveries. Generally speaking though, the region’s three big powers, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, have become very entangled and are very complicated. That’s a shame, because they may rue the day that they missed a very important opportunity

Q. And what do you have to say about the connection between Europe and Latin America?

A. I have been hearing for decades that the common values ​​shared by Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula condemn these countries to work together, to integrate with one another, to coordinate themselves. But that has not been the case. There are invisible barriers, and other very visible barriers, such as agricultural protectionism, for example, which mean that the joint destiny of Latin America and Europe is more a thing of speeches and wishes than the actual daily practices of those responsible for making decisions.

Q. Spain and Portugal already have important links and connections with Latin America. But now, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are seeing a revival of interest in a similar two-way relationship in Germany, France and Italy, even in Eastern Europe. Latin America has resources and raw materials. What’s more, in terms of culture or religion, there are synergies that are difficult to find in other parts of the world.

A. That’s the list. However, for too long we have heard that this time things are going to be different. Now there is a will, there is an appetite for coordination and synchronization, for real partnerships between Latin America and Europe. It is very important that people who are thinking about this begin by understanding that there is very justified skepticism about the ability of these two sides to coordinate with one another. Each one has their own, very significant domestic problems. Their integration is by no means going to be instantaneous and entails immediate costs. What’s more, there are stakeholders and business groups that would definitely rather not see Europe touch down in Latin America, because they cannot face the competition.

Q. Recently, Colombian President Gustavo Petro was in Madrid. He complained about the European trend of going in and exploiting Latin America’s natural resources, which is a historical fact, but which has also continued in recent decades and to the present day. The interests of China, however, which occupies an increasingly prominent place in Latin America, do not seem to differ much: Extracting and using natural resources for its own purposes. And Europeans believe that, in Latin America, China is often perceived in a better light than Europe.

A. All of this is true. It is as you say. We are currently seeing a greater presence of foreign powers that were previously not as present in Latin America. This is the case of China, whose presence has been associated for a long time with the exploitation of natural resources. There are a variety of potential outcomes on the table. Latin America could become the Saudi Arabia of the new age. While the 20th century was generally shaped by oil, this century could be shaped by lithium. And Argentina, Bolivia and Chile could be the world’s top lithium producers for a long time to come. Nonetheless, Bolivia or Colombia, for example, are about to miss the boat once again due to a series of policies, alliances and strategies. They might be at risk of scoring an own goal.

Q. Latin America’s position in relation to the war in Ukraine has really surprised me. I don’t think that European countries or NATO expect the region to help Ukraine with weapons. But they did expect it to at least condemn one country’s invasion of another. Yet, the positions taken have been very neutral. This includes Lula, who has stated that, regardless of who is right, we must seek a peaceful solution, which for him, probably means Ukraine handing over part of its territory to Russia. That is surprising. Latin America is a peaceful region where it would be unthinkable for one country to invade another.

A. Let me say three things. First of all, it is not Latin America that does not support Ukraine in its attempt to fight off the Russian invasion. Surveys indicate that there is popular support for Ukraine. In Latin America, it is the leaders who fail to show their support, but only because they seek short-term political gain. The second issue is that their aim is to have an international presence. Let’s not forget that, at the time, Lula said that he was going to solve the problem in the Middle East and launched a series of actions that came to nothing. He also said that Latin America would see to the development of Africa, and that Brazil would play a very important role there. 

However, these comments have been made by the same countries that are incapable of coordinating with one another. The rivalry and mistrust between Mexico and Brazil are a thing of legend. The two countries do not know one other and there is little exchange of trade, people, technology and culture between them. Brazil has not been the most open country when it comes to coordinating with or supporting its neighbors. The question is how is it going to do this with extra-regional powers? This is all about jostling for position.

And the third issue that helps to explain this situation is that Latin America is still deeply uncomfortable with the United States. There is an old joke where someone is asked why they are going to the United States Embassy and they say that in the morning, they are going to throw stones at it and in the afternoon to stand in line for a visa. Politicians are demonstrating a lack of willingness to acknowledge that Russia is an invasive, illegal and criminal power because of their desire to be intermediaries and because people want to be a thorn in the side of the USA again.

Q. Evidently, Europe is not the United States, but here is something else to consider: although in Latin America, Europe is criticized, it is also seen as a destination on an individual level. I say this to many Latin American friends who relocate here. “You want to come live in Madrid and send your children to school here. You would never even consider going to live in Shanghai or Beijing. And yet, you seem to prioritize Chinese investment over European investment”. Perhaps China offers better conditions, but in the medium and long term, European investment would be more loyal or more consistent with Latin America values.

A. That is true. I share this diagnosis and your way of presenting it. Each time you hear about this topic, you have to ask the person saying it: Where do you keep your savings? What currency do you keep them in? And in what country? Where would you go if you had serious health problems and have the financial means? Would you stay in your country or look for the best hospitals in Europe and the United States? Which countries would you send your children to for college? There is a long list of very obvious hypocrisies, but what is behind that, is a certain jostling for position again.

Q. In the spirit of self-criticism, I would say that the major European companies, major investors, should be aware that, if we want to maintain a privileged relationship with Latin America, we also need to provide privileged conditions. We cannot hope for Latin America to pay for our services or accept our conditions in exchange for suffering financial losses, compared to the option of resorting to a Chinese investor. We have to set aside that arrogance, that we are better and that our alternative is more expensive because it enshrines values ​​that must be protected.

A. I agree with you there. Ultimately, material incentives matter a lot and are not very amenable to change. Profitability and opportunity costs rule, economic variables rule. These are not easily influenced by empty speeches.

Q. What’s more, on the European side, the possibility of an agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which could have opened the door to future commercial developments and more efficient integration, was abandoned. Some European countries put the brakes on this potential partnership and there doesn’t seem to be anybody defending it at present.

A. That is true. There is a long list of agreements, unification attempts and transregional partnerships. Another option came about after Mercosur, in the form of the Pacific Alliance. The idea of ​​uniting Mexico with all Pacific countries, without an excessive number of conditions, allowing them to work together, was a cause for great enthusiasm. It was a good idea. Later, however, different presidents chipped away at the prospect, with the alliance weakened until it eventually disappeared. Several countries considered it was nothing more than a free trade agreement that lacked transparency and benefited the United States. It is a pity that it was seen in this way because this particular agreement has potential. It proposed the ​​creation of an electricity grid between these countries. The possibilities for infrastructure were unlimited. It was again a missed opportunity. I just hope there aren’t any more.

Q. When you see these lost opportunities, the idea of ​​the European Union gains strength. For me, it is one of the most relevant multilateral movements, if not the most relevant, that we have seen in recent years. It has achieved so much as a model for multilateral integration that it is a pity that it has not served as an example for greater regional collaboration across Latin America. It is true that this is very complicated given the different political circumstances of the countries. However, European countries were not that similar either, and their efforts, their surrender of sovereignty and national capacities, have constructed something that I think is admirable.

A. Absolutely. I really support the European project and believe that it is not only important for Europe, but for the whole world. Its presence and influence reflect the presence and influence of ideas and values ​​that I and many others share, those of a liberal international order. Would you like to see China, Russia or the European Union have more influence at the decision-making table? In the case of Latin America, it may be asking too much of countries who are unable to integrate with neighbors they share a border with to integrate with potential friends on the other side of the Atlantic. This must also be seen from the European perspective. Soon, a massive reconstruction effort will be required in Ukraine. If you are a European company, where would you prefer to put your money at the moment? There, or in Petro’s Colombia or Maduro’s Venezuela?

Q. What do you think about what has happened in Chile? Do you think it can be rolled out in Peru, Colombia or Argentina in the short term?

A. In Argentina, we are on the verge of seeing, for the first time in a long time, a government that is not explicitly pro-Peron. For me, that is good news. It is a country that has seized the opportunity to make the wrong decision every time it has had the chance. And that looks back while looking forward, as it has the talent, resources, possibilities, experience, histories, and institutions to do so. Argentina could be a major power, but it really suffers from what I refer to as “ideological necrophilia.” As you know, necrophilia is a perversion that involves a certain magnetism for dead bodies. Now, there is a political version of this: the attraction, appetite or enormous desire for terrible political ideas that have been used and repeated by political demagogs, in different circumstances, and that end up leaving the country more indebted, more impoverished, more corrupt and more unequal. Argentina has been the world champion when it comes to political necrophilia. So perhaps this change is actually good news for the country.

Q. Thankfully, against this backdrop of fragility, Latin America has not reproduced the autarchic Chavista model of a false democracy governed by a single party, by a single leader. We have seen how Uruguay, a country run for decades by the left, now has a conservative president. In Argentina, the government has alternated. This is also the case in Chile. The population and the institutions accept that politics has taken a turn. Now that’s a beacon of hope, wouldn’t you say?

A. Yes. However, it is also very important to understand that the words “left” or “right” no longer apply. Chile is a good example of this. Bachelet or Lagos, who were socialists, had economic policies that were clearly right-wing. And Piñera, in turn, who presented himself as being from the right, had leftist policies. We have seen this in a variety of countries. What matters most to me is that they are democratic and do not try to limit this alternation, that they do not try to remain in power beyond what is allowed under the Constitution.

Q. To date, however, that is what has happened. In Argentina, the scenario with the Kirchners in power seemed difficult; nonetheless, Macri arrived, won and governed. Then another president won and ruled the country. And now elections are being held again and there will be another President.

A. Of course. However, in Argentina the concept of government is very relative. A president sits in the Casa Rosada and gives orders. But in many ways, Argentina, as has been seen in other countries like Peru, is not actually governed. Governments are elected and alternate, that must be recognized, respected and applauded. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that, deep down, these countries are not actually being governed. Take Mexico, for example, and the amount of its territory that nobody controls, unless you count the cartels, traffickers and the military.

Q. What lessons can be learned from the two regions, Europe and Latin America?

A. The European integration project is essential for Europe, but also for the world and in particular, Latin America. It is of the utmost importance that it succeeds. And Latin America must double down on its efforts to try to sign up to the project, although in a practical, concrete and realistic way. Realistically, before trying to forge this alliance with a group of countries on the other side of the Atlantic, Latin American countries must try to integrate with one another. The potential of an integrated Latin America is huge, significant, giving rise to great hopes that to date have gone unfulfilled. Perhaps with new leaders in power, it will be easier for Latin America to forge alliances, first internally, in the region itself, and then internationally.

Q. And what should Europe do?

A. Europe has to restore its citizens’ enthusiasm for the European Union. When European unification was decided on, people were dancing in the street. It was such an emotional celebration. That has been lost and enthusiasm for the European project has waned since then. It is important that leaders understand that they have to win it back if they are to have the legitimacy to go to war or build the economic powerhouse that Europe has the potential to be. It is very important that Europeans, not necessarily political experts and statesmen, but ordinary people, once again feel enthusiasm and hope for the European project.

Jose Antonio Llorente
Founding Partner and Chairman of LLYC Spain / U.S.A.
Jose Antonio Llorente as a specialist in Corporate and Financial Communication, over the course of a career spanning more than 25 years, he has provided consultancy services on numerous corporate transactions: mergers, acquisitions, divestments, joint ventures and stock market floatations. Mr. Llorente was the first Spanish professional to have received the SABRE Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement, a European award presented by The Holmes Report.Mr. Llorente worked at the multinational Burson-Marsteller for ten years, where he was Managing Director. He currently sits on the Board of Trustees of the Euroamérica Foundation and the Steering Committee of the Spanish Association of Minority Shareholders of Listed Companies. He is also a member of the Advisory Council to SMEs of the Spanish Confederation of Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises, the Steering Committee of the Agencies of Spain Association and the Advisory Council of Executive MBA in the Management of Professional Services Organisations organised by Garrigues. José Antonio has a degree in Information Sciences from the Complutense University of Madrid, and specialist in Public Affairs at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and The Henley College. @jallorente [United States - Spain]
Moisés Naím
International economics and political analyst and writer
He is a member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the most influential think tanks in the world, and director and producer of Efecto Naím, a weekly television program on international affairs broadcast throughout the Americas. His opinion articles are published in some of the leading newspapers in Europe, Latin America and the United States. He was editor of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years and received the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award in 2011. In the public sector, he was Minister of Industry and Commerce of Venezuela, Director of the Central Bank of Venezuela and Executive Director of the World Bank. His latest published book is The Revenge of Power.

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