South American Nations Form New Regional Grouping

Source: Venezuela Analysis

At a summit in Brasilia, Brazil, on Friday, 12 South American countries formally constituted the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional integration initiative which began informally in 2004. At the Summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe shook hands respectfully, and Colombia remained the only country which declined to participate in the proposed South American Defense Council.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez described UNASUR as the culmination of the region’s search for unity since South American independence two centuries ago. "Only in unity will we later have, progressively, complete political, economic, cultural, scientific, technological, and military independence," Chávez commented.  

Chávez distinguished the organization’s mission from other forms of regional integration. “We are talking about union, not integration, because that is a concept that grew out of the project of hegemonic neo-liberal globalization. Later on, we developed this conscience that embraces a unitary, originary project based on the project of the Great South American Fatherland,” he asserted.

Regarding President Uribe, with whom diplomatic relations have been strained most recently by Colombia’s accusations that Venezuela financed Colombian insurgents, Chávez, accompanied by his daughter, expressed the “willingness to recuperate lost trust and retake the path of cooperation.”

The two presidents had a “relaxed” and “agreeable” conversation in which they “ratified their willingness for peace and to respect differences,” Chávez told the press.

Uribe kissed Chávez’s daughter on the cheek and told her, “Your generation must live happily, without the problems of us, the elders. If dialogue has taught us something, it is respect for people.”

The Colombian president also expressed hope that UNASUR would not recognize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla army fighting against the Colombian government, as a political organization. The Colombian government, the main ally of the United States in the region, classifies the FARC as a terrorist group.

The temporary president of UNASUR, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, said the new grouping will help the region “contribute to the construction of this new 21st century, where Latin America is capable of having a strong and firm voice because we have been able to initiate a process of effective integration.”

Bachelet highlighted the potential for UNASUR to promote economic and social development in the region. At the top of the organization’s agenda should be combating poverty, eradicating illiteracy, and coordinating university programs so as to facilitate the movement of professionals throughout the region, she said. Also being contemplated is a regional citizenship.

Having successfully formed UNASUR, “South America acquires the status of global actor,” said the President of Brazil, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

Lula assured that UNASUR is open to other Latin American countries in the region, and the foundational treaty signed Friday should not be perceived as “a finality.”

“Our Caribbean neighbors are invited to associate themselves with the union. UNASUR is born in this way, open to the entire region in the spirit of diversity and pluralism,” said the Brazilian president.   The countries that make up UNASUR are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay, encompassing a total population of 380 million inhabitants.

Lula also emphasized his administration’s proposal to create a 
South American Defense Council “founded on common values and principles such as respect for sovereignty, self-determination, territorial integrity of states, and non-intervention in internal affairs.”

Such a council will help UNASUR members “deepen our South American identity in the area of defense,” Lula said, assuring that “our armed forces are committed to the construction of peace.”

The presidents at the summit agreed to form a commission that will come up with a proposal for the defense council within 90 days. The countries will then meet sometime in the second half of this year to officially form the council.

Colombia was the only country that anticipated that it would not participate fully in the South American Defense Council, although it was not opposed to the creation of a working group to study the possibility.

Colombia “cannot become part of the [council], given the threats of terrorism and known derivations” related to the country’s four decade-old civil war, according to statements to the press by Colombian presidential spokesperson César Mauricio Velásquez.

Nonetheless, President Bachelet and others agreed it is important to proceed with the council even if all UNASUR members do not participate and that the proposal should take into account “the preoccupations and the different emphases that each country may have.”

The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, opined, “I think we need a regional security council in order to shift from rhetoric to practice. Let’s not deceive ourselves; to maintain stability in the region, and mutual respect, words are not enough.”

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said about UNASUR, “We are placing the foundation of the Union of South American Nations … Today is a day in which we, as presidents, have converted ourselves into workers, bricklayers for the construction of South American Unity.” “This is a historic deed for our people,” he added.

Morales also highlighted the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual character of UNASUR, saying, “UNASUR is being born with the recognition of the immense contribution of our indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, mestizos, and whites, which is why we are in a plurinational state in South America.”