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Opinion and Analysis: International

South America United is a Global Force

The general secretary of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR), Maria Emma Meija, stressed that integration between the countries of Latin America will allow the continent to consolidate its strong position in the world.

Mejia said that despite the political differences that there might be between the 12 nations that make up the southern cone, “It’s important to see how the various integration agreements between all the countries and their heads of state are evolving”. She said the aim of the most recent agreement was to protect natural resources, referring to the energy council, which was the main theme of the meeting in Caracas last week.

Mejia is a Colombian politician and has been general secretary of Unasur since March 2011.

The following is the text of the interview conducted by Telesur with Mejia.

Telesur: Hi, and welcome. Maria, how important is the issue of energy for the countries of South America?

Mejia: Thanks Telesur, for the invitation. First, Unasur is a type of European Union, where it was decided to join together and start to find common objectives as a continent. The South American continent goes from Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, down towards Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile.  The presidents of these twelve countries met for the first time ten years ago and they decided to unite and look for political projects first, and later, integration strategies.

The energy council is perhaps the first asset where all the countries are starting to integrate. In Caracas we searched for a way to put together a South American energy treaty- that is, some rules of the game, some outlines, about where energy comes from, how many of our rivers, of our coalfields, how much to use water, as we have the greatest water reserve here. So then there are the rules of sustainability, and at the same time, access to energy. Hence it’s a political process, but at the same time, something real for our peoples.

Telesur: But it’s also a process where the peoples play an important and fundamental role and in which they are the ones who should come out winning. They are people who for a long time have been at the service of the big businesses, which in many cases took the royalties from these important resources that belong to us. Now, as I understand it, Unasur is hoping to reverse this process and that the people start to benefit from these natural resources that you were telling us about.

Mejia: Of course it’s a big debate, not just in South America and not just because of the various situations in Argentina, Bolivia, and their processes of nationalisation, but in general. Even president Obama said recently in a state of union report, “we can start working with our petroleum, with our gas, rather than having to import”. It’s a big debate about natural resources and of course every country is sovereign and what this energy council said is that each country will see in what form it can be carried out. I think it’s clear that a nation’s decision about its natural resources is a sovereign one, and we’re not going to disrespect that.

Unasur, beyond this process of integration, has been politically very important, it’s an entity that was capable of defusing the problem that there was between Colombia and Venezuela so that today we are in harmony, and the result is that there is a Colombian as general secretary of Unasur, and the position will be passed on on 11 June to a Venezuelan, Ali Rodriguez Araque, someone who is very concerned about natural resources and aware of South American politics.

Now, it’s not about countries in the world, but rather regions, and our region is emerging as one with weight... so south-south dialogue is going to be very defining in the years to come.

Telesur: And this energy treat will also include infrastructure construction, how will that work? How will the financing work?

Mejia: We might be the richest region in hydroelectric energy in the world. We have the reserves of the south and two important basins; La Plata and the Amazon, and based on that one can see how infrastructure is visualised. It’s not about building a road from the south to the north, or the Pacific to the Atlantic anymore, although that’s something we need, but it’s about how we connect up broadband. Why connectivity? Because a town on the border of Paraguay, or on the border of Argentina, or on the common border between Venezuela and Colombia... needs development, its school or fire fighters or local hospitals, its citizens need connectivity. If you and I are going to send an email, or if I write to someone at teleSUR, we have to go via a node in Miami, and that takes away sovereignty and access, and we want to democratise access, so that more people, more schools, more education comes out of this, and at the same time there’s road infrastructure.

The road infrastructure is a project that has just been approved, and as you say very well, the chancellors approved it in March in Asuncion, and it’s a project with 31 structuring projects, that is, that are related to integration. It’s not about agreeing on a road to export products as might have been done before, but about connecting us, to overcome this South American insularity.

Telesur: Maria Emma, we’re talking about a project, about 31 large projects, that have been proposed from Unasur for this region. What significance does it have for the 400 million inhabitants of this sub-region of Latin America?

Mejia: As we just talked about, our geography is so complex, even Simon Bolivar and Mariscal Antonio Jose Sucre wrote letters and in those to San Martin, they wrote about the difficulty of crossing between armies, about how and where they could enter, how to save mountain time.... and the same thing is happening to us now, that is, it’s incredible that 200 years later we’re still having such huge problems of physical connectedness.

What was done? A bit more than a year ago, almost two years, from a project bank of almost 500 projects that were being dreamt of, Unasur’s infrastructure and planning council decided that we should prioritise those that unite us. Now, it’s not one road in one country, or improving a river in one country, but rather that a river route that connected with other South American nations, that would improve the life of a rural people... and they chose 31 projects grouped into eight axes, which we call structuring, and which unite more than one South American nation, and it was a marvellous discovery.

It changes South America’s structure and its historic insularity, making us more in tune with South America’s interior, because maybe we know the United States better than our own geography, and this [project set] is going to allow us to, with an investment of around $20 thousand million... well we have t see how the financing takes off, and that’s part of the work that we’re starting now.

Telesur: Well, mechanisms such as the Bank of the South, the Andean Community of Infrastructure were created and have contributed a lot of resources, but these resources that are needed, where are they going to come from? And what is Unasur going to do to ensure that there are agreements between countries which don’t always have the same ways of thinking?

Mejia:  Well, the interesting thing is that there is a... despite the ideological differences and you all know well, the different types of presidents that there can be from one nation to another, or visions of left, and right wing, of socialism and centralism... in some way the presidents have acquired a certain maturity and they are clear about the process of integration, beyond their differences, the possibilities of development take precedence.

We’ve already been through some difficult times. Nestor Kirchner, the first general secretary of Unasur, who was in the position for 5 months, and he had to put out a number of large fires [resolve problems]; the situation between Colombia and Venezuela that we talked about, the one in Ecuador, the other one in Bolivia, and it was really a time of politically re-arming our dialogue.

Now what are we doing? Once we got past institutionalism, we now have a head office in Quito, some workers, a budget, working regulations, we’re entering into real integration. Where do these funds come from? There’s the Bank of the South, which has already been approved by seven countries, five of those in their parliaments, which is what the law requires, to start, I imagine, in a year to put together a new bank, which isn’t easy because it has to comply with the same rules of the game for guarantees, capital contributions. We’ll also have the Andean Corporation of Promotion (CAF), which is an entity that was born out of the Andean Community, and which has financed a large part [of what we need] and now we should start to look for our own resources and political will.

Finally, Unasur is this, it’s an expression of political will and political realism. Today, it might have been President Santos who said it, every one of our countries, of the twelve South American countries is strong, but together we are powerful. Even Brazil, which is so big, or a very small country like Suriname, can present themselves before the world as part of a region. Finally it’s our time, it’s the decade of Latin America, it had to come because the decades before have been so frustrating, lost, and now we are in a time of lessons learnt from our learnt and rectified mistakes, at a very very special time, we’re protagonists before the world.

Telesur: And the region has been able to come out in the crisis that for example, Europe is facing right now, as well as the United States. Are these mechanisms easy for Unasur, to achieve consensus between the governments?

Mejia: No, consensus is never easy. Sometimes I used to think if it should be consensus or majority, because one comes from sectors where one votes and if the majority wins, the minority has to adapt itself. Not here. Here consensus means that all of us 12 have to eventually vote for something. There’s no chance that is 11 are in favour and one is against, big or small, it doesn’t matter. It’s more democratic because if, say, Brazil  has opinion contrary to one of the small countries with less GDP, or a small population, it doesn’t matter, they are worth the same, and that’s nice because it’s a dialectic exercise, of politics, of agreeing, of convincing, and I think that this is what has meant that the storm clouds taht some remember from 2008 or 2009, when the presence of US bases in Colombia was happening... real confrontations, so it’s a privilege now to participate in the Unasur of today, with difficulties.

Telesur: Of course. And a defence council has also been created within the framework of Unasur, which in the last meeting it was agreed to create a public general secretary of the region, which enables security and well being to be provided to the families who live there, how is the issue of defence advancing?

Mejia: The South American Defence Council is perhaps one of the examples of real integration. Europe did it and it cost them two world wars, it was difficult to arrive at an agreement in the area of defence.

South America will present its register of military spending to the world on 5 June. That is, its going to be transparent and put its spending figures on the table, and I think it’s a measure of mutual trust which has been admired by everyone. We’re creating our own defence doctrine, which was very difficult, unthinkable, in the time of the Washington consensus, the time of the Inter-American Defence Board [JID- an OAS entity].

What is this owed to? As we have worked on the issue of transnational organised crime, citizens who steel, something that is deteriorating our safety because we have some very hardcore mafias [to confront] in the area of the fight against drug smuggling. That was [dealt with] in a recent meeting and we trust that the technical group that has been formed can create this entity that deals with safety and organised translational crime, which is the real threat to our democracies. We see it in Mexico, it affects us in Colombia, we continue seeing it, drug smuggling is penetrating [society] and that attacks democracy.

Now we are a peace zone, we have not “nuclear-ized” [ie no nuclear weapons], we don’t have wars and conflicts between our nations.

Telesur: On top of all this that Unasur has generated to benefit the peoples in terms of energy, security, and infrastructure, there’s also always a political side. In this year, an electoral year for Venezuela, how will Unasur be relating to the process that Venezuela is going through?

Mejia: Venezuela formalised a request to Unasur that it is now currently debating, about the creation of a new electoral council for it. That is, a council that would accompany elections and observe them- not just the OAS, the EU, or even the national electoral councils of the various countries, but also the Unasur would observe them. On 11 June we are sure that ... the proposal will be passed, and that Unasur will be in Venezuela on 7 October for the elections, that is, visiting and seeing what is happening and guaranteeing democracy. Also, Ecuador’s general elections are in February, and Paraguay in April, and Chile in November, so that’s four important elections that if the country invites us... because it’s not a question of Unasur “having” to go, but rather the country says – look, I’d like for Unasur to accompany us... well we’ll do it. So that’s the new scenario, to protect democracy, which I believe is the other side of the integration project.

Telesur: I really doubt that a country wouldn’t want Unasur to be there, because it’s been guarantee of this.

Mejia: Of course, but there are countries who don’t have a tradition of being observed. Chile doesn’t have it, nor does Mexico, Brazil – so it depends a little on the style the country has – the decision on whether or not to have foreigners or people observing their elections. But I think Unasur has been legitimated in a very short period of time.

Telesur: What challenges could Unasur be facing in the future?

Mejia: To political consolidate it, and that the presidents support the process. It’s not a question of resources, nor of regulations, we have a great head office in a country that Ecuador has kindly accommodated, so what we have to do now is maintain the political decision of the presidents for integration, and also maintain our presence in the world. Our region, of South America, with all due respect, can teach those in the north. For the first time they have to notice us, and consider south-south dialogue between emerging countries.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for This interview has been slightly abridged.

Source: Telesur