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South American Fiber Optic Ring

By Raúl Zibechi | Americas Program | May 2, 2012

On March 9th, the Ministers of Communication from 12 countries that make up the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, for its acronym in Spanish) made the decision to build a fiber-optic ring that created a direct connection between countries in the region without relying on the United States. The network will be completed in 18 months and they will begin laying ocean cables between South America, Europe, the United States and Africa.

The initiative originated from Brazil’s government, which took the proposal to the South American Council on Infrastructure and Planning (Cosiplan, for its acronym in Spanish). This body, which began operations in 2010, is one of the 8 sectoral councils at the departmental level in Unasur for political and strategic debate of programs and projects that promote the regional integration of infrastructure. During the first meeting, it put forth a Plan of Action that sought to “substitute the logic of exportation with one of regional development,” according to Joao Mendes Pereira, Coordinator of Latin American Economic Affairs in Brazil’s State Department.

This fiber optic ring is beginning to loosen one of the many knots that tie the region to the influence of the Global North, and in particular, the United States. It may not be a great work or a radical step forward, but Unasur’s decision illustrates two points: first, the way in which relations with the central powers weaken and fragment marginalized regions; and second, the existence of the political will to make concrete advances towards building autonomy.

South-South Connection

In South America, communication via internet takes a strange and irrational journey. Emails sent between two neighboring cities in Brazil and Peru, such as the capital of Acre, Rio Branco, and Puerto Maldonado, travel all the way to Brasilia, leave Fortaleza via submarine cable, enter the United States through Miami, pass by California descending down the Pacific to Lima, and continue on their way to Puerto Maldonado: a 8,000-kilometer trip between two points only 300 kilometers apart. On a basis like this, it is impossible to speak of sovereignty and integration.

There is also a dependence on European countries. In order to connect some sites between Brazil or Argentina and Ecuador or Colombia, the connection must cross the Atlantic to Europe and return to the continent. A country like Brazil, which is already an emerging global power and will become the world’s 5th-largest economy this year, lives in a situation of dependence on communication: 46% of its international internet traffic comes from outside of the country, and of that 90% makes a pit stop in the United States.

With respect to the region as a whole, 80% of international data traffic from Latin America passes through the United States, double that of Asia and four times the percentage from Europe. This excessive dependence makes communication more expensive. After the meeting at Asunción, the Minister of Industry and Energy in Uruguay, Roberto Kreimerman, stated that between 30% and 50% of connection costs correspond to payments to companies offering connection services to developed countries.

The first step approved by Cosiplan is to survey and chart all the existing networks in each country. After that, three steps of development have been established: first, the connection of physical points located on every border, some of which will be finalized this year, such as in Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay. Second, state-owned telecom companies, like Telebras of Brazil and Arsat of Argentina, as well as private companies, will lay the foundational framework for the networks. In the third stage, they will extend the cables to neighboring borders.

At each border, internet exchange points will be created to support the companies. The fiber-optic ring will extend 10,000 kilometers and be managed by state-owned companies from each country to keep communications safe and cheap. According to Paulo Bernardo, Minister of Communication in Brazil (and head the agency that came up with the project), the ring “reduces our vulnerability to an attack and the safety of state or military secrets.”

The direct link will increase the connection speed between South American nations 20% to 30% and will decrease costs. Investments at this stage will be very low, around $100 million, which begs the question why it wasn’t done before.

Autonomy and Sovereignty

The project will be complete after the installation of various submarine cables. One will lie between Brazil (the country most interested in the project) and the U.S., entering Miami, Jacksonville or Virginia and passing through the Caribbean, which allows Colombia and Venezuela to be connected. Another will unite the continent with Europe directly passing through Cabo Verde and preferably entering via Amsterdam. A third will connect Fortaleza (northern Brazil) with Angola (Africa) branching off to Argentina and Uruguay.

This part of the project will be realized by Eletrobras, the Brazilian state company in charge of the National Broadband Plan, the federal government’s initiative to broaden access to the entire population before the 2014 World Cup. The objective is to provide 40 million citizens with broadband access and 60 million with broadband mobile access.

Until now Brazil has had only four submarine cable links in Fortaleza, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Santos that connect South America with the U.S. Each is operated by private companies, which, from a strategic perspective, causes the country to lose part of its sovereignty. The rest of the countries in the region have access to these cables, but some either lack international fiber optic networks or have overloaded existing ones. That explains why the international “link” represents 45% of the cost of broadband.

At the same time, Brazil is negotiating with the United Nations to democratize internet management which is currently in the hands of American companies who control the IP addresses, URLs and domain names. The spokesperson for the Minister of Foreign Relations, Tovar da Silva Nunes, explained that “the management of the flow of information is very concentrated” because “the internet domain is under the auspices of the U.S. government …it is not safe, fair or desirable.”

For this reason, Brazil and other emerging nations, in addition to some European countries, support the creation of a global convention for access to information at Rio+20 that allows the democratization of the control of communication. Such a framework must include the construction of a fiber optic ring as a physical infrastructure for collaborative communication.

New Risks

The region is living a new reality that shows it is possible to advance in a type of collaboration that goes beyond free commerce to promote equal development in the region. Nonetheless, there remain many doubts and uncertainties. Many processes progress quickly, like the fiber optic ring, highways and hydroelectric dams, while others sink, like the southern gas pipeline that would have created an energy interconnection. Meanwhile, others creep along at a slow pace, like Banco del Sur which promotes a new financial framework in the region.

Brazil is interested in releasing itself from the grip of the Global North and promoting these policies in the region. However, it does not have as much interest in promoting other initiatives like Banco del Sur since it already possesses a powerful development bank, the BNDES, which is handling finances for a good part of infrastructure works in the region.

Given this sentiment, it was Unasur who laid out the objective of providing continuity to the “successes and advances” of the Initiative for the Integration of Regional South American Infrastructure (IIRSA), to the project it considers “a consensus response to the challenges of effective integration and growing necessities for infrastructure in South America initiated in 2000.”

Accordingly, Unasur picks up where IIRSA left off, which has been seriously criticized by social movements. In its 10 years of existence it has picked up 524 projects with investments totaling 100 billion dollars. In January, 2011, there were 53 completed projects, almost 200 in the execution phase and 150 in the preparation phrase. 85% of the projects are transport-related while 12% are in energy.

In 2010, Cosiplan laid out a Plan of Action that urges “building a strategic and integral South American perspective of regional infrastructure favorable to balance and territorial cohesion as well as human development in harmony with nature.”

This new “strategic vision” is a positive one in that it responds to the interests of the South American people. On the other hand, it may reproduce old forms of suppression since it was born from the interests of one country and multinational corporations. The works of IIRSA-Unasur are being challenged by those citizens who feel affected, as happened with the highway that was proposed to cross the TIPNIS in Bolivia and the energy agreement that Peru and Brazil signed in 2010, which foresaw the construction of five dams in the Inambari River.

Apart from the dams to be built in Brazil’s rivers in the Amazon, the state company Eletrobras plans on constructing 11 dams in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Uruguay with an installed power of 26,000 MW, almost double that of Itaipu which supplies 17% of energy consumption to Brazil. The energy and highway projects that are currently being postulated by Unasur tend to replicate the same structures that until now had been the cause of Latin America’s dependence.

It may be that the Fiber Optic Ring presents these same characteristics since it was proposed and designed by Brazil and it tends to serve Brazil’s interests. The exit route of the most important submarine cables will stay on Brazil’s coasts. The connection with Africa foments the multiple commercial and corporate interests that Brazil has on that continent. Eletrobras is the company in charge of a good part of the optic ring and its financing is controlled by BNDES.

That is why we can say that initiatives, like the fiber optic interconnection, are a step towards regional autonomy although it may be laying the foundation for new inequalities. It will be up to the governments and people of the region to debate the benefits of these projects.

Raul Zibechi is an international political analyst from the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, a professor and researcher on grassroots movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to many grassroots groups He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | Economics, Environmentalism | , , , , , , | Comments Off on South American Fiber Optic Ring

Latin America: What Comes After the Back Yard

By Raúl Zibechi* | La Journada | 26 April 2012

After the recent sixth Summit of the Americas there remains little doubt that the Latin American region has changed. It stopped being the back- yard of a decadent empire that has very little to offer save military bases and threatening fleets. The double failure of the United States, by Barack Obama in Cartagena and by Hillary Clinton the following week in Brasilia, shows the lack of constructive proposals for the region.

As Dilma Rousseff pointed out, countries of the region demand “ relations among equals,” which was interpreted by some analysts as “a rebellion against the United States.” The summit’s principal consequence is proof of US isolation and the non-existence of policies capable of attracting the region jointly as happened until the middle of the 1990s. I find five reasons for the deterioration of Washington’s relations with the entire continent, which anticipate the new scenario in formation.

The first is the double failure of the drug war and the embargo of Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington had to fabricate an enemy to continue forcing the militarization of international relations. Illegal drug trafficking fulfilled that function for a while, despite never being credible because it did not include a reduction of consumption in northern countries, the big consumers of illegal drugs.

Now the war against drugs lost the battle for legitimacy. The International Institute of Strategic Studies just launched a study in which it affirms that it not only failed in combating consumption and trafficking, but also the war against drugs “has created an important threat to international security” (La Jornada, April 17). Was that not perhaps the desired objective?

The second is the end of the OAS’ time and the consolidation of Unasur (Union of South American Nations) and Celac (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), both of which exclude the United States and Canada and adjust to the new global reality. Following the already marked tendency by Unasur since 2009, Celac is rapidly becoming the organism capable of resolving the region’s problems and of tracing the direction of its sovereignty before the extra-continental powers. It can be discussed whether that is the type of integration that the Latin American peoples need, but there is no room for doubt that, whatever the path they elect, they are excluding the old property owners from the back yard.

In third place, the United States no longer is the principal trade associate of the region’s principal countries, particularly of South America, and its decreasing internal market no longer has the attraction of old nor is it in any condition to capture Latin American exports. The tendency is that China and the Asia group substitute for the role that the United States had from the beginning of the 20th Century until the 2008 crisis as the decisive trade and political ally.

Until 2005, the United States purchased 1.5 million barrels per day from Venezuela, a number that fell in 2011 to less than one million. To the contrary, Venezuelan exports to China, which were almost non-existent in 2005, climbed to almost a half million barrels per day n 2011 (Geab No. 60, December 2011). The tendency is that one market substitutes for the other.

The United States and the European Union, in fourth place, are on the way to being displaced as the principal investors in Latin America. China is the principal investor in Venezuela, the first world reserve for oil, third for bauxite, fourth reserve for gold, in sixth position in natural gas and tenth reserve of iron in the world. China also has strong investments in Argentina and Brazil, the two largest South American economies.

The second Chinese oil company, Sinopec, was interested in buying a part of Repsol in YPF for 15 billion dollars before the nationalization decided by the government of Cristina Fernández (Financial Times, April 18, 2012). Now it can expand its investments in Argentina, where it is responsible for 6 percent of the offer of crude and for 1.7 percent of gas.

The region also has endogenous capabilities for investment. The best example is the announcement of the investment of 16 billion dollars by three Brazilian companies (Petrobras, Odebrecht and Braskem) in Peru, to extract gas in Camisea, to construct a gas duct of more than a thousand kilometers toward the south and a petrochemical pole in the port city of Ilo, the first on the Pacific Coast.

In fifth place, the United States no longer is the region’s only military ally. Venezuela maintains a solid alliance with Russia, Brazil has co-operation agreements with India in aeronautics and with China in the space industry. But the most notable is the progressive integration of the region’s military industries, in other words the coupling of the South American countries with the growing Brazilian military industry.

The most notable case is the strategic alliance between Brazil and Argentina, which translates into joint development of protection, a military carrier that will substitute for the Hercules, the development of air-to-air missiles that Brazil worked on with South Africa, and unmanned planes for border vigilance. Both countries form a critical mass capable of trumping the rest to set up a regional military industry autonomous from the north.

The imminent victory of the socialist François Hollande in the French elections “will activate a series of strategic changes” that accelerate the geopolitical transitions underway, according to what the European Laboratory of Political Anticipation (Laboratorio Europeo de Anticipación Política) estimates. See: (Geab No. 54, April 17, 2012). One of the principal turns will be the formation of a Europe-BRICS strategic alliance. In some way, this alliance already started with the 2009 France-Brazil military agreement to construct submarines and attack planes. The region’s autonomization can have unexpected allies.

* Translation by Chiapas Support Committee

April 27, 2012 Posted by | Economics, Militarism | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Latin America: What Comes After the Back Yard