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UNASUR confronts integration hurdles
By Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, June 2013

KUWAIT CITY, 21 June 2013: The death of President Hugo Chavez in March 2013 has removed one of the most active trailblazers in the South American integration process, even though his physical absence from a few high-level meetings during his period of illness from the last half of 2012 was very noticeable.

But while the integration process has continued since his departure from the scene, some recent political happenings have not helped in the forward momentum. Three of them immediately come to mind.

In the first instance, Uruguay's President José Mujica's publicly-aired private disparaging remarks about the personalities of Argentina's President Christina Fernandez and her late husband and former president, Nestor Kirchner, obviously created some animosities between the two nations.

In the second instance, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos' proposal to establish a military relationship with NATO has seen quick reaction from the more leftist regional leaders.

Thirdly, relations between Venezuela and Colombia have dropped to a new low ever since Santos met in Bogota last month with Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles who considers President Nicolas Maduro and his government as illegitimate, claiming that the recent election was fraudulent.

Added to these, the suspension of Paraguay from UNASUR since the legislative ousting of President Fernando Lugo last year still remains in place. However, with the recent election of Horacio Manuel Cartes as the new president in Paraguay on April 21, it is expected that the continental organization will lift the suspension as early as July at a summit expected to be held in Ecuador. Soon after the result was announced UNASUR declared its official recognition of Cartes as the legitimate president of Paraguay, a position to which he will officially accede on August 15.

The Uruguayan president's faux-pas, clearly, will not seriously affect bilateral relations between the two neighbors. He has since apologized for his remarks and insisted that the countries will remain close allies but, no doubt, some rancor still hangs in the air. But relations have not been of their best in recent years ever since Argentina restricted imports and limited access to foreign currencies, measures which have hurt Uruguay's exports and tourism industry.

Citizens of both countries also recall the tumult that arose over Argentina's objection to Uruguay's building of a pulp mill on the Uruguay River, their common border. This dispute dragged on for a few years until 2010 when the International Court of Justice ruled that, although Uruguay failed to inform Argentina of the operations, the mill did not pollute the river.

With regard to Santos' statement of his country decision “to join NATO”, Bolivia's President Evo Morales on June 3 described it as a threat to the region and requested an extraordinary meeting of the Security Council of UNASUR. Morales considered Colombia's decision as a violation of the treaties signed by UNASUR and could involve a dangerous possibility of military intervention to the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. He described the move as a “provocation” and a conspiracy against the “anti-imperialist Bolivarian countries”, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Santos had just the day before announced that his government would sign an agreement with NATO “to start a process of rapprochement and cooperation, with an eye toward also joining that organization.” He explained that the Colombia army could become an international player if his government can pull off a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end Latin America longest-running insurgency.

However, Colombia's defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzon on June 4 clarified that the country was not looking at actual membership in NATO but was merely planning to sign a deal with NATO for cooperation in human rights, military justice and the education of troops.

“Colombia cannot be a member, does not want to be a member of NATO,” Pinzon said, clearly pointing to the geographical disqualification. In remarks to the Bogota daily El Tiempo, he explained that the deal “does not imply military bases, nor troops or anything that would put security and peace in the region at risk.”

Nevertheless, Colombia's proposed association with NATO has raised genuine concerns. On June 6 in Quito, Ecuador's defense minister María Fernanda Espinosa, during a press conference with her Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim, said: “We want to know more. We are an integrated, cooperative area in South America, and it is important that we discuss these things.”

Amorim explained that the worry has arisen over Colombia, “a member of UNASUR, the equivalent of NATO in the continent, approaching a military group from outside our region.”

But despite all these misgivings and suspicions, UNASUR has been making forward strides to enhance the integration process.

On May 9 in Quito, UNASUR announced that it had set a steady course to establish a South American School of Defense to train military officers of its member countries. It stated that representatives of the member states were already working on drawing up statutes and courses to be included in the study program. The ultimate aim will be the creation of a united defense body to promote democratic stability among its member countries. Follow-up discussions will examine the level of participation in the armed forces from each country.

The statement concluded: “The goal is to start from scratch and consider a defense doctrine, without starting from the premise of opposing countries. It is important to define our role in the military, to assume responsibility for prevention, border control or emergency responses.”

Another positive aspect was revealed on May 13 when Paraguayan President-elect Cartes declared that his country was ready to be reinstated in both UNASUR (as well as Mercosur) after its suspension following the removal of President Lugo in June 2012. Cartes said that the members of both organizations were aware that Paraguay has requested a formula for its re-incorporation. He added that he already discussed this issue with the presidents of the other South American countries following his electoral victory. With the general belief that Paraguay will be re-incorporated into UNASUR, Suriname, the next holder of the annually rotating presidency of the bloc, decided to postpone taking over this position on July 1 until September 1 since it prefers to preside over the grouping with all its members in place.

A further positive development was demonstrated on May 27-30 also in Caracas when UNASUR held the first South-American conference on natural resources and integral development to define a continental strategy on the issue. The objective was to establish strategic plans aimed at utilizing natural resources exploration for promoting development and poverty reduction.

According to current data, the regional bloc has 20 percent of the world's proven oil reserves as well as huge amounts of minerals such as lithium, silver, copper, tin, iron and bauxite, besides having one third of the world's fresh water and 12 percent of arable land.

And finally, the financial infrastructure of the continental bloc began to take shape with the commencement of operations on June 12 by the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur), the regional, financial initiative of the South American countries. The bank began operations with a working capital of US$7 billion in Caracas where it held its first operational meeting and called on more nations in the wider Latin American and Caribbean region to join the initiative. The meeting, held at the headquarters of the Central Bank of Venezuela, was attended by representatives of six of the seven Bank of the South member states - Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela. In the understandable absence of Paraguay, the representatives discussed the bank's structure, a timetable for capital contributions from member states and the process of appointing directorships.

Surely, all these positive aspects demonstrate that the member states of the continental bloc are determined to cement the integration process. No doubt, along the way hurdles based on disagreements over political action and internal policies by individual member states and their leaders will arise from time to time, but sober discussions over these matters between leaders at the bilateral level have a way to offset any temporary discord.

Dr. Odeen Ishmael is Guyana's ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar. He writes extensively on Latin American and Caribbean issues and is the author of several books including The Democracy Perspective in the Americas and The Guyana Story. The views expressed here are solely his own.