How Will the Demise of UNASUR Affect Latin American Integration?

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Written by Alejandro Sanchez

The government of Colombia has announced that it will withdraw from the Union of South American Nations (Union de Naciones Sudamericanas – UNASUR), an initiative that brings together all 12 South American states. This bloc has been adrift for years due to the lack of a Secretary General, while its members are at odds with each other regarding the crisis in Venezuela. If this is the end of UNASUR, what will South America lose? Very little.

A Short Obituary

UNASUR was founded in May 2008, a time during which South America experienced a rise of leaders with left-leaning ideologies: Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, among others. This common ideology prompted the creation of a new bloc in the Western Hemisphere to promote South American integration, though with no long-term goals and little structure other than the ideological views of its members. Even though some governments (namely Colombia) maintained close relations with the U.S. during UNASUR’s heyday in the early part of the decade, the group’s other objective was to distance the region from Washington’s historical influence over the Western Hemisphere.

It is worth noting that during this period other organizations appeared with similar objectives, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Venezuela-led Alianza Bolivariana para las Americas (ALBA).

To be fair, the Quito-based UNASUR did carry out some interesting initiatives in its early years. For example, it established a South American Defence Council, which attempted to promote defense cooperation in the region—some idealists argued that this agency could become the regional version of NATO. Additionally, the bloc supported President Evo Morales when Bolivia suffered major protests in 2008, and a coup d’etat was a real possibility.

Nevertheless, UNASUR was a creature of its time, and recent elections have brought more Washington-friendly leaders, like for example Mauricio Macri in Argentina. As a consequence, regional interest in UNASUR dramatically decreased. The most obvious example is that this organization has not had a Secretary General since January 2017, when former Colombian President Ernesto Samper finished his term—the current president pro-tempore is Bolivian President Evo Morales. Additionally, the political and socio-economic crisis in Venezuela has prompted a regional diplomatic crisis, with Venezuela and its ally Bolivia against the rest of South America.

It comes as no surprise that in late August, Colombia’s new president Ivan Duque announced that his country will leave UNASUR within six months; he argued that the bloc’s silence on the Venezuela issue is de facto supporting the Nicolas Maduro regime. Similarly, Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Roberto Ampuero has reportedly discussed with other governments the possibility of leaving the organization. Other countries that are reportedly considering this possibility are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru; half of UNASUR’s membership.

An Alphabet Soup of Integration Efforts 

The Western Hemisphere has a plethora of diplomatic blocs such as the Organization of American States, CELAC, the Andean Community, the Caribbean Community, among others, as well as trade blocs like the Pacific Alliance and MERCOSUR. If UNASUR is dissolved, it will hardly be missed as there are other agencies that can replace it.

Certainly, the bloc had some interesting initiatives and objectives, however over the past decade it has done little to create a lasting legacy other than its support for President Morales in 2008. Should UNASUR dissolve, it will hardly affect regional integration, particularly because there is currently no long-term integration process in Latin America, other than increasingly close trade relations (i.e. the Pacific Alliance). The last war between two Latin American states was a short-lived war between Ecuador and Peru in 1995, hence a lack of diplomatic integration does not mean an increase in inter-state conflict (though there have been some occasional incidents as well as ongoing border disputes).

Even more, the lack of a European Union-style regional integration in South America should not be interpreted as a negative development, as the region should not use European integration as a standard to determine how successful, or unsuccessful, regional initiatives have been. Each region should integrate at its own pace and take into account its local geopolitics.

Final Thoughts

At the time of this writing UNASUR’s future is not optimistic, as Colombia plans to leave the bloc, and it is likely that other countries (i.e. Chile) will follow. It remains to be seen for how long can this bloc continue to operate without a secretary general, without all of its members, and with the Venezuelan crisis as a dividing issue. Theoretically, UNASUR could continue to exist, but it stopped behaving as a union a long time ago.

About the author: Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Image credit: Flag of Union of South American Nations Unión de Naciones Suramericanas.