Mexico City, Mexico, November 15, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A group of high-profile Latin American political leaders called on South America’s sitting presidents to reconstitute the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the regional integration body created in 2008 that suffered a significant decline a decade later following rightward political shifts in several member-states.
The letter’s authors—which included seven former presidents, current and former parliamentarians, former foreign ministers, and directors of international organizations, among others—made an urgent pitch to the region’s 12 political leaders to work toward integration in the face of a changing international climate.
“An integrated, non-aligned and peaceful Latin America will recover international prestige and will be able to overcome the irrelevance in which we find ourselves.” read the public letter published Monday.
In an exclusive interview, Guillaume Long, former Ecuadorean foreign minister and a signatory to the letter, told Venezuelanalysis that conditions in South America were ripe for the return of UNASUR.
“It's totally possible legally, juridically ... There are no impediments; all you need is political will in order to be able to relaunch UNASUR,” said Long.
The former minister under the Rafael Correa leftist administrations recently co-authored a report with Natasha Suñé for the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) outlining pathways for the revival of UNASUR.
Regional integration has been a longstanding goal of politicians throughout Latin America and was a priority for the Hugo Chávez government in Venezuela. Efforts to advance in that aim reached a milestone in 2004 with the creation of the South American Community of Nations, the body that would eventually become UNASUR in 2008 and whose constitutive treaty would come into force in 2011 after ratification by member-states.
According to Long, unlike other regional bodies, UNASUR was conceived from the beginning as a “multidimensional integration mechanism” with councils on areas such as energy, infrastructure or the environment, making it more akin to the European Union than the Organization of American States (OAS), for example.
In addition to developing its own institutionality, in its early years the regional body played a key role in mediating issues in the region without the interference of the region’s major power: the United States.
“UNASUR averted several crises, including domestic political crises and anti-democratic attempts to overthrow governments. It acted very efficiently through presidential diplomacy in a number of cases: in Bolivia in 2008, in Ecuador in 2010, but also in Venezuela in 2013-2014,” Long told Venezuelanalysis.
Between 2017 and 2019, however, the organization began to suffer a number of setbacks as a result of a political shift in the region that saw a number of right-wing, pro-Washington politicians elected to office. Designed to operate by consensus, member-states were unable to agree on a new secretary-general after Ernesto Samper decided not to stand for reelection.
The impasse led seven governments to ultimately denounce the treaty and leave the organization between 2018 and 2020. The first to announce their departure was Colombia, then under the presidency of Iván Duque, the protegé of former far-right president Álvaro Uribe. At the time Duque explicitly said he made the decision to exit over the body’s “complicity” in alleged abuses committed by the Venezuelan government.
Colombia’s departure was followed by Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Uruguay, with their leaders seeking closer relations with Washington as US officials pushed to secure a more prominent role for the OAS in hemispheric affairs, including efforts to pursue regime change in Venezuela.
However, in the case of Brazil and Argentina, the two largest economies in South America, these member-states did not comply with the legal provisions of the treaty, suggesting their departure was a politically driven effort to make UNASUR irrelevant. Under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil left the organization via presidential decree. Likewise, former President Mauricio Macri in Argentina left UNASUR without going through the country’s Congress.
According to Long, the hasty and unconstitutional manner of their exit from UNASUR opens the prospect for a speedy return to the regional body.
Since their exit, both Brazil and Argentina have ousted their right-wing leadership, electing governments that are more disposed to participating in regional integration projects. Long went on to highlight Brazil’s potential role, recalling that integration had “always been a Brazilian geopolitical project.”
The return of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to the presidency following his election in October bodes well for the country’s return to UNASUR. On the campaign trail Lula said under his government there would once again be special consideration given to the country’s relationship with its neighbors.
Several figures close to the president-elect have said that rebuilding regional ties should be a priority for the new Lula government. In a recent meeting of the Puebla Group, which brings together several of the region’s progressive leaders, former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff argued UNASUR should be “rebuilt”.
Long likewise argued that Colombian President Gustavo Petro would be a strong ally in efforts to revive the body as well.
“His foreign policy over the last few weeks has really shown how much he is eager to go back to some form of Latin American integration, and I think UNASUR South American integration would be not just compatible, but necessary to his goals,” he said.
Despite the departure of several member-states and not presently being a functioning international organization, UNASUR still exists juridically and is recognized by the United Nations. An analysis by CEPR found that the juridical situation of the 12 founding member-states is not entirely clear in the view of international law. Long explained that the body still counts on several member-states who opted never to denounce the treaty and the formal return of Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia would once again raise its profile and prominence.
UNASUR nonetheless has a long road ahead of it in order to fulfill the hopes of its founders of building a regional governance body. In their CEPR report, Long and Suñé made a series of recommendations to help restore the regional body and proposed significant reforms to the constitutive treaty in order to correct errors that led to the organization’s decline.
In his interview with Venezuelanalysis, Long reiterated their call to get rid of consensus decision making as the mechanism becomes a “veto” power for countries and leaves UNASUR vulnerable to outside interference from global powers.
Meanwhile, in the letter calling for the revival of UNASUR, the authors maintained that the body was “the best platform to reconstitute a space of integration in South America.”
The letter’s authors further argue that, with escalating international threats and destabilization, a regional integration mechanism would serve to better protect South America's interests. It’s a view similarly held by Long in light of a simmering new “Cold War” between the US and China.
“It's also very important in today's world that the Global South starts acting in a much more cohesive and unified manner,” he concluded. “If South America wants to have strategic autonomy, then it needs to act collectively to defend its interests and to position its demands at the international level.”
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