Earlier this month, as the US loudly complained about Venezuela’s decision to purchase arms from Russia, South America’s ministers of defense came together in Guayaquil, Ecuador and put the finishing touches on an agreement to develop common mechanisms of transparency in defense policy and spending. The agreement, which also calls for the creation of a multilateral Center for Strategic Defense Studies, is the most recent example of the growing effectiveness of the Union of South American Nations (Spanish acronym UNASUR) as a forum for addressing the most urgent and sensitive issues on the regional agenda. Though the group remains unknown to most of the US public — and is rarely referred to by US policy makers — it has, in the space of a few years, emerged as one of the Western Hemisphere’s leading multilateral bodies and, in the process, is rapidly undermining the regional clout of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS).
UNASUR first began to take form in 2004 when South American leaders signed the Cusco Declaration that committed their governments to creating “a politically, socially, economically, environmentally and infrastructurally integrated South American area.” Despite the diverging political agendas of the region’s governments, the leaders agreed on prioritizing the group’s role as a geopolitical actor or, in the words of the declaration, pursuing “concerted and coordinated political and diplomatic efforts that will strengthen the region as a differentiated and dynamic factor in its foreign relations.”
In May 2008 UNASUR was officially established with the signing of a constitutive treaty in Brasilia. In September of the same year the group achieved its first diplomatic milestone when it successfully defused South America’s most serious political crisis of the last five years: the attempted violent destabilization of Evo Morales’ government in Bolivia. President Michele Bachelet of Chile, the pro-tempore president of UNASUR, convened an emergency meeting of South American heads of state in Santiago that quickly issued a unanimous statement strongly condemning the attacks against Bolivian democracy and announcing the creation of a commission of “support and assistance” to the Bolivian government. Soon afterwards, Bolivia’s opposition groups abandoned their violent tactics and agreed to enter negotiations with the Morales government.
Though the US administration has been actively promoting the OAS as a defender of democratic stability in the hemisphere, that organization played no role at all in the peaceful resolution of the 2008 Bolivian crisis, due no doubt in part to the US’ ambivalent position towards the opposition’s destabilization campaign. In the nearly two years that have elapsed since UNASUR’s successful diplomatic intervention in Bolivia, the group has continued to demonstrate its ability to take on the region’s thorniest issues, independently of the OAS and Washington.
In August of 2009, a special UNASUR summit was held in Argentina to discuss a highly controversial agreement that expanded the US’ military presence in Colombia and was perceived as threatening to Colombia’s neighbors, particularly Ecuador and Venezuela. Though tensions have continued to flare over the agreement, the summit paved the way for dialogue and gave further impetus to UNASUR’s Defense Council in which Latin American defense ministries engage in open discussions on national and regional defense projects. The Council’s latest achievement was the Guayaquil agreement mentioned above.
UNASUR also adopted a position of staunch opposition to the coup in Honduras, refusing for instance, to recognize the elections held last year under the de facto government. While Peru and Colombia — the two UNASUR governments most closely aligned to the US — eventually joined Washington in recognizing the elections, the rest of the 12-member bloc still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the new Honduran government despite the US administration’s best efforts to change their minds. Even Chile’s new right-wing president, Sebastian Piñera, has reportedly backed UNASUR’s official position on Honduras. As a result of this collective resolve, Spain was forced to backtrack on its decision to invite the Honduran government to participate in a Latin America-European Union summit held in Madrid on the 17th and 18th of May.
On May 4th, UNASUR sent another clear signal of its intention to continue charting an independent course with the unanimous election of former Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner to the post of Secretary General of the organization. During his presidency, Kirchner opposed the US-sponsored “free trade” agenda in Latin America, rejected the Washington Consensus and International monetary Fund-led economic policies, and successfully steered his country out of the worst economic recession in its history. President Lula da Silva of Brazil welcomed Kirchner’s designation as Secretary General and said that it would lead to a further “stage of transformation” for the regional bloc.
Alexander Main is International Outreach Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. This article was published in the CEPR blog on 20 May 2010.