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Unasur 2008 Summit: All Circus No Bread

June 7, 2008 (Southern Affairs) -- It is unclear what the recent Unasur summit in Brasilia actually accomplished. Six months late and set against the backdrop of the worst regional conflict since the 1990s, the 12 presidents of South America tried hard to hide the growing divisions between their governments with lofty rhetoric of fraternity and integration but were unable to conceal the fact that after eight years of "integration," the continent was further from this goal than when it began.

Underscoring the union's inability to unite is the fact that the so called "constitutive" charter signed on May 23 was actually the second one the group has signed in just four years. When you consider that South America's presidents have been meeting on an almost annual basis since 2000, Brasilia's fireworks seem somehow out of place; especially given the fact that the 2008 charter effectively killed the idea of uniting the Andean community and Mercosur into one regional economic block.

When the presidents first met in 2000, they agreed to merge CAN and Mercosur by 2002. In 2002 the issue was given top priority but postponed. In 2004 it was admitted that economic integration was more complicated than previously thought and now in 2008 the union not only decided not to unite the two blocks, it now looks as if the Andean Community could dissolve over disagreements about economic policies.

In terms of political organization, the 12 presidents of South America nominated Rodrigo Borja, a former President of Ecuador, in 2007 for the position of Executive Secretary of Unasur and asked him to propose a formal institutional structure that would help Unasur achieve its objectives.

Borja proposed that the administrative branches of Mercosur and the Andean Community be united under the jurisdiction of a regional executive secretary with greater powers to push the regional agenda. Although the proposal follows the stated goals of the union to reduce the "spaghetti bowl" of overlapping layers of bureaucracy, the presidents were unwilling to cede any authority and instead approved an executive branch with 24 members. Decisions must now be made with the approval of at least eight of the 12 national delegates and all of the 12 member presidents.

In an interview with the author in February, Borja said he would only serve as secretary if the group agreed to "terminar con esa retorica espumosa que no sirve para nada." On May 22 he publically rejected the position saying he would not serve under the new terms proposed by the union.

The rejection of Borja's plan is just one manifestation of the distrust and lack of consensus that still exists between members. Ecuador and Venezuela's deployment of troops to Colombia's border in March is another example. To these could be added the Argentina-Uruguay paper mill conflict, Peru's border suit against Chile in The Hague, Bolivia's demand for Chilean territory, and Venezuela's claim to more than two thirds of Guyana.

Looking forward, it will take some pretty profound changes in South American relations before Unasur will function as envisioned. If the past is any judge of the future, we can probably expect a new union that promises to do just that in 2012.

By Nathan Gill


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