West Africa Rising: Latin American leaders bolster ties to Africa at World Social Forum

As economies boom on both sides of the South Atlantic, analysts say new lines are being sketched between Africa and Latin America.

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    Visitors walk near a sculpture in the shape of the African continent during a World Social Forum event at Place du Souvenir in Dakar, Senegal, Monday, Feb. 7. The World Social Forum kicked off in this corner of west Africa on Sunday, its mantra of social change 'another world is possible' proving especially resonant as antigovernment uprisings continue to rock Egypt in the northern part of the continent.
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Latin America and Africa must defy the flow of global commerce by trading and forming closer ties, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told African leaders Monday at the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal.

It's a message the center-left leader has delivered before on the 12 tours of Africa he took during his eight years in office, which just ended with the close of 2010.

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“In the 29 African countries I visited as president, I’ve been struck by the vitality with which Africa is taking control of its destiny,” he said. “I have the conviction in my heart that in the world that is coming into being, Africa has more relevance than ever to developing nations.”

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Since 2003, Brazil has doubled its Africa embassies and multiplied trade with the continent five-fold, making it “the tip of the spear in terms of Latin American engagement with Africa,” says Anne Frahauf, an Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group consulting firm in New York.

A new alignment?

The people of Latin America and Africa have shared cash crops, symmetrical coastlines, and mirror histories of European conquest followed by military rule. But they've shared little else in terms of 21st century trade or global diplomatic ties.

The economic and geopolitical interests of both continents have remained strictly parallel, formed along longitudinal lines that go directly north to the US and Europe, respectively. But as economies boom on both sides of the South Atlantic, analysts say new lines are being sketched between the two continents, particularly between the chunks that jut closer to each other: Brazil and West Africa.

Unite politically, urges Lula

Lula – as the charismatic former leader is known worldwide – urged African nations to unite politically, seek out new partners in the southern hemisphere, and distance themselves from former colonial powers in the north. The financial crisis of 2008, he said, has weakened the ability of the US or Europe to dictate economic policy to the world beneath its borders.

"Those who give us lessons on how to manage our own economies were not able to avoid the crisis that overtook their own countries and from there, all of humanity," he said.

Yet if Lula’s remarks were meant to spark South-South solidarity, they seemed to fall flat when Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade came with a few follow-up points.

Lula spoke of Third World solidarity, the end of neo-colonialism, and the evils perpetrated by the International Monetary Fund. President Wade gave a lecture about John Maynard Keynes and the "invisible hand" of free-enterprise economics. He asked the Brazilian activists in the audience, “Frankly, have you been able to cause any change on a global scale?”

Clash of styles, ideologies

Certainly, Latin American populism clashed in terms of fashion on Sunday, when Bolivian President Evo Morales came to Dakar for an outdoor speech.

The first indigenous president of Latin America wore his signature dressed-down collared shirt with pants and sneakers – more the outfit of a dad at a child’s birthday party than a visiting dignitary. His West African hosts wore suits.

But whatever their differences concerning how to remake the world into a more equitable place, analysts say leaders from the two realms recognize a natural starting point for economic cooperation: agriculture

“There is no sovereignty without food sovereignty,” Lula said in his Dakar speech, Monday, calling for a “green revolution” in Africa modeled off Brazil’s own gains in farming.

The continent’s savannah alone, only 10 percent of which is cultivated, could feed the entirety of Africa, Lula added – so long as it isn’t hoarded in giant agro-corporations in land grabs.

In his own speech, Morales, too, spoke of land grabs and the privatization of water. His speech – pitched to Africa's rural people – urged the continent's farmers and villagers to nationalize the soil and mines that should have made their nations wealthy.

Activists assembled for the World Social Forum – including Vietnamese protesters, American visitors, and a few Mayan women in trajes – cheered at the comments.

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