South America: Is UNASUR Dead?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Three men sit at a table with microphones and two flags behind them.

President pro tempore of UNASUR, Bolivian Foreign Minister Fernando Huanacuni (middle), held a press conference last week to discuss the suspended participation of six member countries. / UNASUR SG / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision of UNASUR’s six center-right members to suspend their participation in the group underscores the immense challenges the regional organization faces but may also lead to its effective reform.  In a letter last Friday to the Foreign Minister of Bolivia, current President pro tempore of UNASUR, his colleagues from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru communicated their decision to suspend participation and budget support for UNASUR immediately.  In the past, single governments have unilaterally withdrawn from a regional organization when they considered it was not serving their interests, but a collective – albeit temporary – exit is unprecedented for an international organization in Latin America.  UNASUR now has only six fully participating members.

  • Although considered by some a left wing organization, UNASUR grew out of an idea that can be traced back to Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first South American Summit in 2000. Institutionalized under the leadership of Presidents Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez in 2008, UNASUR successfully grouped together Bolivarian, center-left, and center-right governments during its first 10 years of existence.  Under the leadership of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, it helped avert a presidential crisis in Bolivia in 2008 and mediated in a conflict between Colombia and Ecuador.  Two years later, it adopted a democracy clause that has been applied once, in Paraguay in 2012.  UNASUR agencies such as the South American Defense Council, the South American Health Council, and the Council for Planning and Infrastructure have enjoyed broad participation and delivered regional public goods.

The six dissenting foreign ministers explained in their letter that their decision was motivated by the “need to solve the anarchy (acefalia) of the organization.”  They referred explicitly to the vacancy of the post of Secretary General since January 2017.  In fact, the organization’s requirement that decisions be by consensus perennially complicates decision-making.  The candidate with majority support – Argentine José Octavio Bordón – was vetoed by Venezuela, which the six believe is in violation of the organization’s democratic commitment.  Venezuela is currently suspended from Mercosur; was not invited to the Summit of the Americas in Lima; and has been singled out by a Resolution of the OAS.  As the application of UNASUR’s democracy clause against President Maduro is also blocked by the consensus rule, the six seemingly had few courses of action to exercise their voice.

  • Some observers say the six– all center-right governments – seek to destroy UNASUR because it is supposedly leftist or Bolivarian. However, the dissenters have not initiated formal procedures to withdraw from UNASUR, which would have de facto started its dissolution.  Indeed, there are different stances among the six signatories of the letter, with some in favor of the dissolution and others in favor of overhauling UNASUR.  The prevailing position seems to be to press the remaining countries, mainly Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, to convince Venezuela to lift its veto of Bordón.

The impasse may provide opportunities to transform UNASUR into a more effective organization.  A first positive indicator has been the political leadership of the Bolivian foreign minister; instead of overreacting to the letter, he has convened all foreign ministers (including the six signatories) to a meeting to solve the impasse.  The Chilean foreign minister and others have urged reform, which in theory could be achieved by introducing a majority-voting mechanism to overcome the sort of deadlocks that hamper the organization.  The risk is obvious:  Bolivia could fail to persuade Maduro to drop his veto, in which case at least a couple of the dissenters would probably withdraw from UNASUR.  Some of these governments have never been enamored with South American multilateralism and believe their interests are best served by cultivating relations with the United States and China bilaterally.  But bilateralism cannot provide regional public goods – such as peace, infrastructure, and economic stability – and hardly ever results in a balanced global economic insertion because it benefits the party in the stronger position.  As several South American countries – including some of the six dissenters – are facing domestic turmoil, breaches of the rule of law, and threats to good governance, a strong regional organization in which all South American states sit as members is more necessary than ever.

April 27, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a former CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

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