Latin America, especially countries like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, were homes for thousands of Italian immigrants who were escaping economic difficulties already in the late 1800s but also before and after the two world wars. Latin America became a point of support for those families who made a living there and some even became renowned entrepreneurs. But relations with the country of origin were not lost. And the Italian cultural influence in those countries became remarkable. Just look at the case of Argentina, which for example the writer Jorge Luis Borges characterized as a people of “Italians who speak Spanish.”
With time and the economic growth of Italy, governments understood that it was important and convenient to develop bilateral relations at the economic and political level between the two regions. What happened in recent decades in relations between Italy and Latin America, lately weakened by the pandemic, and various proposals for the future, were synthesized by the expert Donato di Santo -with more than 30 years of experience in the matter-, in his recently published book “Italia e America Latina” (Donzelli Ed.).
Donato di Santo was passionate about Latin America since he was young and a member of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) and after the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) later reduced to the Democratic Party (center-left). From 1989 to 2006 he was responsible for the relations of those parties with Latin America. During the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi (2006-2008), Di Santo was Assistant Secretary for Latin America of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from 2017 to 2020 he was Secretary General of the Instituto Italo Latinoamericano (IILA) in Rome, the most prestigious institution in Italy. which deals with relations with Latin America, founded in 1966. During his career he was also coordinator of the Italy-Latin America Conferences held in Italy every two years.
“The pendulum of history periodically pushes countries to unite in the face of perceived common dangers. This is the case of the pandemic that has hit the peoples of the world ”, wrote the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, in a message published in the book. The president also highlighted in this context the importance of “dialogue between Italy and Latin America”, two regions “characterized by the intense exchange of population in the last century and a half.”
–With all the changes that have occurred lately at the political and economic level around the world, is Latin America still important for Italy?
-Yes, sure, but it could be much more. And Italy could even involve Europe much more – which today is paying little attention to Latin America – relaunching Euro-Latin American cooperation that is showing many limits and many failures. In my view, the European countries recently visited by the former president of Brazil Lula (after his release from unjust and unlawful imprisonment) are precisely those that could work together to guide Europe towards a new agenda with Latin America starting from the signing of the European Union-Mercosur agreement (Editorial note: signed in 2019 but has not yet been ratified by the different Parliaments accordingly). I am referring to countries like Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany. Trade data has improved despite the pandemic. The Italy-Latin America exchange, for example, has exceeded 20,000 million euros in 2020 and is also growing this year with an increase of 28% compared to 2020. Italian companies working in Latin America (more than 3,000) have investments of worth more than 33 billion euros, a figure that exceeds investments in China, Japan, Russia and India combined.
-You speak in your book about two institutions that you consider important, the IILA in Rome and the Italy-Latin America and Caribbean Conference. Could both institutions play a fundamental role in this period?
-Yes. The IILA (Italo-Latin American Institute) is the oldest intergovernmental organization between a European country and the entire region. In recent years, after a period of great crisis, it has been revitalized and is now a formidable vehicle for interregional cooperation. The biannual Italy-Latin America and Caribbean Conference, which emerged 20 years ago, is instead the instrument that the Italian government can use to constantly update the dialogue with the entire Latin American region and with each country. This instrument has grown and matured in all these years and could give itself new and more ambitious goals. For example, every two years Italy could hold a bilateral meeting with a Latin American country to relaunch its trade, political, business and cultural relations, tourism, etc. Italy is a member of the G7 and is an important nation in Europe. It is also part of the G20 that includes three Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil and Mexico), the Conference could serve to promote collaboration with all other Latin American countries. Another proposal is to create specific Italian-Latin American Forums, where, for example, the mayors of our cities and provinces and the Latin American mayors can dialogue. But they can also be done between exponents of social movements, economic and financial institutions. Two of these forums already exist and are very useful: one between small and medium-sized companies and the other between parliamentarians.
-Which are the Latin American countries with which Italy could or should strengthen relations in this period?
-I believe that Italy should collaborate more with the Andean, Amazonian and Caribbean countries on the emergencies of climate change and on the development of renewable energies such as geothermal, of which Latin America is rich and in which Italy is a leader. In addition, if the Latin American and Caribbean countries supported the Italian candidacy for the Universal Exhibition, within 8 years the World Expo on “Horizontal cities, urban regeneration and civil society” could be presented in Rome, that is, the themes on which build our common future.
-You mention in the book numerous ideas that could open the way to strengthen ties between Italy and Latin America. What are the most important?
-The ideas are many and all of common interest. But I briefly point out an important one. Faced with the strong presence of China, very interested in the exploitation of raw materials but little inclined to equitable collaboration, to build a 21st century transatlantic alliance that ultimately involves all of Europe, all of the Americas -and not just the North- and Africa, it would be a real change. Argentina and Brazil would have a very important role. If we want the countries of Latin America to look back to Europe, we must think ahead. And Italy can give its contribution.