MADRID — What irony! While the 27-nation European Union has just approved creation of a common foreign service with embassies throughout the world, Latin American countries cannot even agree on a common visa for tourists from other parts of the world in time for the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil.
As I read the news of the imminent creation of the EU foreign service during a visit to Spain, I couldn't help comparing it with what's going on in Latin America. The differences could not be more striking.
At a meeting in Luxembourg last month, foreign ministers from EU-member countries agreed on the guidelines for the European Foreign Service, which is expected to become the world's largest diplomatic corps. It will have 5,000 diplomats and staffers and a budget of $75 billion for the three-year period starting in 2010.
Already, the EU allows free movement between its countries for both citizens of member countries and foreigners, has a common currency -- the euro -- and is about to appoint the first European president.
In Latin America, despite dozens of summits where presidents proclaim the definitive regional economic and political integration, some countries don't even have diplomatic ties with one another or are so bitter toward their neighbors that they don't have normal trade relations.
Colombia and Ecuador broke diplomatic ties over a Colombian raid into a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorean territory. Chile and Bolivia broke relations many years ago over a territorial conflict. Peru recently withdrew its ambassador to Bolivia because of insulting remarks by the Bolivian president.
Argentina and Uruguay barely talk to one another because of a fight over a paper plant in Uruguay that some Argentines say pollutes the atmosphere. Venezuela withdraws its ambassadors from Colombia and other countries periodically, depending on its leader's latest temper tantrum.
Sadly, the constant territorial and political conflicts among Latin American countries are resulting in rising military expenditures. Military spending in Latin America has skyrocketed by 91 percent over the past four years to nearly $47.2 billion last year, according to the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Latin American countries are also paying a high price in trade because of their mutual distrust. During a recent visit to Peru, a cabinet member was telling me that Peru is about to start exporting natural gas to Mexico while neighboring Chile is about to start importing natural gas from Indonesia. A border conflict between Peru and Chile is under international arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
In Central America, five small countries each have their own currency and their own trade rules. A Guatemalan poultry exporter told me that it was easier for him to export from Guatemala to China than from Guatemala to neighboring Costa Rica.
What's worse, most Latin American countries don't even have agreements to allow tourists from other parts of the world to visit the region with one single visa.
The World Tourism Organization estimates that there will be 100 million Chinese tourists a year by 2020. But many tourism analysts agree that Latin America may miss the Chinese tourism avalanche because of visa issues: Many of the Chinese who will consider visiting Latin America will want to travel to more than one country in the region and are likely to get discouraged by the trouble and cost of obtaining several visas.
Something similar may happen for the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil.
My opinion: Instead of making grandiose statements about the region's political and economic integration -- which are long on poetry and short on concrete deals -- Latin American leaders should follow the steps of the European Union.
The EU started more than five decades ago with concrete deals to trade coal and iron and later expanded these deals to many other products, freedom of movement across its borders and a common currency, before embarking nowadays on creation of a common foreign service and the appointment of a European President.
Latin American countries could start by issuing a common visa in time for the 2014 World Cup as a prelude to attracting an avalanche of tourists from other parts of the world and be prepared for the explosion of Chinese tourism a few years down the road. That would do more to reduce poverty in the region than a thousand speeches.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.