The plight of millions of Latinamerican migrants looking for better living conditions in the United States or in the European Union will be the main issue of the 16th Iberoamerican summit which officially opens this afternoon in Montevideo.
Hosted by Uruguayan president Tabare Vazquez, Spain’s King Juan Carlos and presidents or envoys from Portugal and 22 Latin American nations, the summit will also be debating economic, social and cultural issues affecting the region.
Speakers at the opening are Uruguayan president Vazquez, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan, the Iberoamerican permanent secretary Enrique Iglesias and King Juan Carlos.
As many as 25 million Latin American migrants were working or living in countries other than their homeland in 2005, up from 21 million in 2000, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. These overseas workers also remit billions of dollars back home, which have become a significant input for local economies.
While the United States is the top destination for migrants from the region, in the EU Spain has become a magnet for Latin Americans and even less prosperous countries such as Argentina has seen an influx of poor migrants from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay.
"We are talking about people, not criminals," said Enrique Iglesias, in charge of the Iberoamerican summit’s general secretariat. "These immigrants are people, men, women and children who are seeking better horizons."
Some NGO groups want summit partners to back redouble government efforts to safeguard human rights of migrants and refugees crossing common borders.
Foremost in many minds is last week’s bill-signing in Washington by President Bush to authorize hundreds of miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has devoted much of his six years in office lobbying for a new guest worker program and a chance at citizenship for the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. has sharply criticized the plan, a position that has been supported by all other Latin American countries.
Similarly with Spain that following an amnesty for illegal aliens has begun to expel many Latin Americans arguing it must comply with EU migratory legislation. However Latinamerica recalls that for decades economic and political refuges from Spain have been admitted in the region and claims a similar reciprocity attitude.
During the preparatory discussions for the final documents, there was a strong clash between Mexico and Spain precisely over migrants’ human rights.
But the summit and quiet atmosphere of Montevideo should also help to address other issues and feuds which have irritated bilateral relations among some of the participants.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is attending after giving up a bitter fight for a seat on the U.N. Security Council after Washington put up heavy resistance to Venezuela’s candidacy. U.S.-backed Guatemala and rival Venezuela agreed to withdraw from the race for a seat on the U.N. Security Council Wednesday and support Panama as a consensus candidate for a two-year term.
Bolivia and Brazil still have unfinished business after Bolivian President Evo Morales nationalized his country’s oil industry. However President Lula da Silva, recently re-elected will not be coming alleging pressing domestic business.
Argentina’s president Nestor Kirchner who will be arriving minutes before the inaugural ceremony, is scheduled to meet Spain’s Rodriguez Zapatero to talk about debt repayment and rates of privatized public utilities which remain frozen since the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001/02.
Another much sought after is a meeting between Mr. Kirchner and host Vazquez to address the ongoing dispute over the controversial building of pulp mills in a shared river and which Argentine environmentalists object for pollution reasons.
Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Bolivia’s Evo Morales will be meeting to talk about re-establishing diplomatic relations, border issues and natural gas.
Besides migration and development the summit will also be remembered for significant absences: Brazil’s Lula da Silva; Peru’s Alan García; Cuba’s Fidel Castro recovering from surgery; Panama’s Torrijos, Nicaragua’s Bolaños because of elections Sunday, among others.