By Satyaki Chakraborty
The move for the integration of the economies of South American nations has got a big boost after the conclave of twelve countries of the region at Brasilia on May 30. Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva inaugurated the conference which signalled the arrival of a new awareness among the Latin American nations about the need for joint strategy to foster economic and political cooperation.
The meet attended by 11 head of the governments and one very senior government leader from Peru in the absence of the President, was the culmination of the efforts of the Brazilian president to revive the non functioning UNASUR, the regional body which was officially founded by Lula during his earlier presidential tenure in 2008 during the pink period in the Latin American sub continent. The body was non functional since 2014 due to the change in the political composition of the governments favouring right in many member countries. Now with the pink and anti-right trend becoming prominent again, Lula took the initiative to revive the forum.
In his inaugural address, Brazilian president said “We let ideology divide us and interrupt our efforts to integrate. We abandoned our channels of dialogue and our mechanisms of cooperation, and we all lost because of it”. He promoted the proposal for creating a regional South American trade currency to challenge the domination of the United States dollar in the market.. The leaders discussed the possibility of cooperation in the areas of energy, finance, crime and climate change.
In another sign of the region’s left-wing shift, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro received a warm welcome by Lula, just several years after he was banned from entering Brazil by Lula’s right-wing predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. Under Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil supported Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido’s unsuccessful bid to claim Venezuela’s presidency. Earlier a number of countries under right wing regimes opposed President Maduro, but now the same governments are offering friendship to him as a part of the regional body.
In 2018, for instance, Colombia withdrew from UNASUR after the country’s former right-wing President Ivan Duque accused the group of complicity in “Venezuelan dictatorship”. But the present leftwing president Gustavo Petro has started negotiations with the Venezuelan president on issues of common interest.
Questions about Venezuela’s human rights record, however, re-surfaced at Tuesday’s meeting. Leaders like Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou challenged Lula’s assertion that criticism of Venezuela was simply a “narrative” designed to paint the country as anti-democratic. However, most of the participants were fine with president Maduro’s presence. President Lula’s firm handling of the issue in the name of Latin American solidarity was adequate to lead the discussions to more concrete issues.
Temir Porras — a former foreign policy adviser to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who helped co-found Unasur said that the summit is a positive step. The adviser said “I find it’s a great initiative by President Lula da Silva,” he said. “South American integration is probably not possible without the participation of Brazil. Brazil is the largest country in the region, it’s the main economy, and it’s a global diplomatic powerhouse.”
However, he said, integration will need to result in tangible benefits in order for the organisation to avoid splintering if the continent’s political landscape shifts once again.“This time the lesson to be learned is that this integration needs to be pragmatic. It has to be practical. It has to translate into benefits for most of the South American population in order to last,” said Porras.
The last meeting with all Unasur’s members took place in 2014. After 2017, disagreements over Unasur’s leadership and the participation of Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro led seven countries to withdraw, including Brazil in 2019 under Lula’s predecessor, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.
“Unasur’s greatest problem is that it was built in a moment when there were leftist leaders, and it shattered when right-wing leaders came along,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank in Sao Paulo. “It is easy to talk about its comeback now, but they need to think of ways to make this second attempt last.”
Latin American observers say that while the majority of South America’s current presidents are leftist or centrist, there’s no guarantee the situation will remain that way. This was underscored last year by the success of Chile’s far-right in a vote to select commission members to write a new constitution. That success came on the heels of voters’ rejection of a leftist-influenced draft to replace the Chile’s dictatorship-era charter. A similar swing toward the right is possible in Argentina, given that incumbent President Alberto Fernández will not seek reelection this year amid rampant inflation.
Argentina is a big pillar of Unasur and the collaboration of Brazil and Argentina ensures the stability of the regional body. That way, the Tuesday summit decisions are steps in the right direction but the governments will have to function better to ensure confidence of the electorate. (IPA Service)