At the end of last week, six countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru—announced they were leaving the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, a regional body created in 2008. The split was triggered by a failure to agree on a secretary general after almost a year and a half vacancy, with proposed candidate José Octavio Bordón of Argentina opposed by Venezuela and Bolivia.
While technically temporary, the countries’ refusal to participate in UNASUR will continue until—in the words of one foreign minister—they see “concrete results that guarantee its operation.” Practically speaking, the fracture of an organization that was already in deep disrepair has few consequences for the region. But the unravelling of UNASUR—perhaps the most ambitious attempt at Latin American integration in recent times—is another sign that Latin America’s much-vaunted solidarity has splintered.
UNASUR was born as a Brazil-led project, aiming to create an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), isolate Mexico from Brazil’s zone of influence, and eventually bring the activist foreign policy of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela into sync with Brasilia’s goals. In hindsight, the organization had an overly aspirational agenda: political coordination, economic cooperation, infrastructure integration, and even collaboration on defense (despite Colombia’s resistance). A cantilevered, modern secretariat building in Quito, just steps away from the equator, reflected the confidence of the project’s founders.
Today, the regional landscape is drastically different. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the driving force behind UNASUR, is in jail for corruption. A deep recession and political crisis have cast doubt on Brazil’s leadership hopes in the region and in the world. Chávez is dead and his Bolivarian Revolution has left the country in a political, economic and humanitarian catastrophe. And Argentine president Mauricio Macri has made opposition to Venezuelan authoritarianism an important foreign policy goal.
Meanwhile, driven by changing economic and political trends, countries across Latin America have spent recent years exploring new and diversified strategies—including closer ties with China. Despite talk about the need to further integrate the Pacific Alliance and Mercosur, South America’s largest trading blocs, the split between the Pacific Alliance’s more open, outward-looking vision for South America and Mercosur’s protectionist stance remains. Further, countries are even more consumed by internal challenges than before as they deal with the economic and political fallout from the end of the commodity boom. Growth has stalled, hard-won social progress is in jeopardy, and anti-establishment sentiment is high—hardly the ideal situation to deepen regional integration.
But the real story behind UNASUR’s failure goes beyond political fortunes. The rhetoric of integration fell flat in the face of reticent national bureaucracies unwilling or unable to give up sovereignty and protectionist policies over various areas of national interest. Brazil, in particular, did not offer up any real concessions, and UNASUR quickly stagnated without meaningful leadership by the region’s powerhouse.
Now, a new generation of leaders seems ready to pull the plug. UNASUR’s inability to deal with Venezuela, the worst political and social crisis in a generation, was the final blow. Under Secretary General Ernesto Samper, a former Colombian president who aligned himself with Caracas after his appointment, UNASUR became a de facto accomplice of the Venezuelan regime, barely distinguishable from ALBA, Venezuela’s hand-selected grouping of ideological allies. Without half its original members—including the four most populous member states—UNASUR now consists of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Guyana, and Suriname.
UNASUR’s demise will not bring many tears from those who care about Latin American diplomacy and integration. The organization was little more than what Kevin Casas-Zamora has called a “talking head without a body,” a platform for speeches and photo ops without any meaningful work. Despite some early accomplishments (for instance, in reacting to political instability in Bolivia and Ecuador and mediating tensions between Colombia and its neighbors under then-president Álvaro Uribe), UNASUR has long been an empty shell, a victim of a lack of real demand for integration among member states and a tendency for grandstanding and platitudes.
Still, there are worrying implications—at least to the degree that UNASUR’s unhappy fate is the product of deeper trends. The ongoing fracturing of Latin American cooperation means less coherence on extra-regional trade strategies; less trade and integration of value chains within the region; and fewer multilateral accountability mechanisms on democracy, human rights, anti-corruption measures, and economic openness. In other words, the death of UNASUR is only to be celebrated if it is replaced by something better. And that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Given UNASUR’s troubles, the attention of the region might turn back to the much-criticized OAS, which a recent Inter-American Dialogue report analyzed as “the best hope for advancing a sustained hemispheric agenda.” Unfortunately, the OAS is suffering from many of the same problems that have caused UNASUR to fracture: disinterested member states, diplomatic deadlock, the re-assertion of the prerogative of national sovereignty, and lack of resources. It also suffers from the tensions inherent in U.S.-Latin American relationships. Meanwhile, the OAS’ own response to the Venezuelan crisis has failed to gain traction—despite an aggressive campaign by its Secretary General, Luis Almagro.
Still, the OAS has a normative, diplomatic and institutional framework constructed over more than half a century that far outpaces UNASUR or any other potential replacement organization in the Americas. OAS members have made a series of legally binding commitments in human rights and other areas, and the organization has world-renowned monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.
The rise and fall of UNASUR should also be a lesson for future attempts to integrate Latin American countries. Rhetoric alone is insufficient; countries need a clear, concise agenda with additional functions slowly added over time. True integration cannot be based on personal friendships or shared animosity, but rather on the commitment to cede some sovereignty in the long term and reach mutually-beneficial compromises, despite their internal cost. Finally, integration efforts need real leadership that looks beyond national interest and short-term strategies, with key countries willing to make concessions in order to gain trust and support.
UNASUR had none of these things. It should not be mourned. In fact, its absence may not even be noticed.
Bruno Binetti is a non-resident research fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, based in Buenos Aires. Follow him on Twitter: @binettibruno.
Ben Raderstorf is a program associate with the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter: @braderstorf.