Vote turns spotlight on Latin American strategy


All eyes will be on Venezuela on Sunday where the expected re-election of Hugo Chávez is set to influence the region’s course in the coming years. For its part, Switzerland is sending vote observers. But could it do more for Latin America?

This content was published on October 4, 2012 - 11:00
Marcela Rubin Águila, Andrea Ornelas and Sergio Ferrari,

A group of six Swiss parliamentarians and other officials are travelling to Caracas to observe the presidential election.

Switzerland has close, long-standing political ties to Latin America. Swiss officials participated in the Guatemala peace accords, signed in 1996, which brought an end to the 36-year-old civil war. And Colombia remains a priority partnership country for Switzerland, which carries out various humanitarian aid and peace-building programmes in relation to the internal conflict.


However, it is Norway, and not Switzerland, that will be helping mediation efforts between Colombia’s government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerrillas in Oslo next month. And this summer a storm broke out when the foreign ministry announced plans to close its embassy covering Guatemala, Honduras and Salvador in June 2013 due to restructuring and budget restrictions.  

Swiss non-governmental organisations fear this decision could have a major impact on the embassy’s regional human rights and peace-building influence.

Transnational weight

For some observers these two recent examples are indicative of changes to Switzerland’s relations with Latin American countries.

“Today Switzerland is not really viewed as a neutral country without specific interests; its interests are actually quite clear,” said Bruno Rütsche, founder of the Swiss-Colombian human-rights group, Ask!

He felt Swiss-based transnationals active in Latin America were damaging Switzerland’s reputation in the region by violating human rights and causing environmental problems.

Union and NGO delegations from Colombia, Peru and other Latin American countries make frequent visits to Bern to denounce activities by firms like Nestlé and Glencore, he noted.

Dieter Drüssel, director of the Central America Secretariat NGO, concurred.

Syngenta is on the list of multinationals that purportedly promoted the “parliamentary coup” against Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, said Drüssel, “but there was little resistance in Switzerland and it is unfortunate, because multinationals profit from all the misery in the world”.

For Franco Cavalli, founder of MediCuba and the Association for Medical Aid for Central America (AMCA), the Swiss observer mission to Venezuela is vital “as there is a tendency to reduce the importance of Latin America in Swiss foreign policy”.

“Swiss policy is focused on more lucrative regions like Asia, and Latin America is not seen as being that interesting,” said historian Christian Durisch Acosta.

Balanced approach

The Swiss foreign ministry roundly rejected these accusations, however.

“Economic interests have always been an important part of Switzerland’s foreign policy towards Latin America,” argued Pietro Piffaretti, the regional coordinator for Latin America.

“Switzerland continues its commitments in the fields of development aid, cooperation and human security.”

The Swiss official said the continent faced common problems such as inequalities, corruption, organised crime and authoritarianism, but had witnessed noticeable improvements in terms of consolidating democracy and the economy.

Drüssel felt Latin America had changed enormously in recent years.

“Paraguay’s immediate suspensions from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) after the recent coup against the president symbolised this,” he commented.

This newfound solidarity reflects changes to Latin America’s regional political and economic framework promoted by people like Chavez, who has been calling for greater regional integration. But this gives rise to different interpretations.


“With its common history, language and similar challenges, Latin America should be much more integrated, which would give it greater global influence,” said Fabio M. Segura, an international relations specialist and consultant for the United Nations and Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ).

“Logical, viable, valid social democratic principles” have been adopted by countries in the region, said Segura. At the same time he deplored their urge to “radically confront” other forms of government or economic models such as capitalism.

“From a realpolitik perspective the Organization of American States (OAS) will continue to have an important role and in the short-term it will not be replaced by regional blocs like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which is Chavez’s baby,” said Acosta.  

The push for greater regional integration led by Chavez is generating expectations, said Cavalli. Over the past 20 years there have been advances in democracy, the economy, human rights and in the health and education sectors, but there have also been counteractions like the coup d’états in Honduras and Paraguay, and the attempts in Ecuador and Bolivia, he added.

“It is important that Chavez wins this election as he has the resources to resist these kinds of counterattacks, and his charismatic personality generates the kind of enthusiasm needed to achieve the unification and liberation of Latin America,” said the NGO director.


Swiss development and humanitarian activities focus on only a few Latin American countries with a limited number of activities.

These are centered on Bolivia and Central America. Cuba receives support from a special programme. In Peru, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s (SDC) programme has been successfully restructured. Peru now receives support from the SDC’s global programmes for climate change and water.

Following a decision by the government in March 2010, more reconstruction and development measures were added to the programme in Haiti.

Seco has also launched a new economic development cooperation programme, which includes activities in Colombia. In Colombia SDC support is intended to protect affected populations and improve living conditions, particularly for internally displaced persons.

(Source: 2011 SDC annual report)


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Economic policy

Swiss direct investment in Latin America and the Caribbean region amounted to SFr140 billion in 2011 (16% of foreign investment), creating 251,000 jobs.

Swiss exports to the region totalled SFr5.7 billion and imports amounted to SFr2.4 billion (2.9% and 1.3% of overall Swiss exports and imports, respectively). For the last 15 years, these percentages have remained relatively stable.

From 2003 to 2008, Swiss exports to the region increased by 77% and imports by 93%. However, in 2009, bilateral trade was severely affected by the global financial and economic crisis. In the last two years, bilateral trade has recovered. With growth rates of 13% (2010) and 4% (2011), it has been above the Swiss average (+9% and +1%, respectively).

Switzerland and its Efta partners initiated negotiations in February 2012 to establish free trade relations with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama; El Salvador and Nicaragua may join at a later stage. Switzerland established a Joint Economic Committee with Argentina in July 2011 aimed at reinforcing bilateral relations.

(Source: 2012 Seco report)

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Contributing author Sergio Ferrari

One of the contributing authors of this text, Sergio Ferrari, is also a member of the Swiss delegation monitoring the Venezuelan elections.  

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