South America: Regional Integration or Presidential Posturing?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

47389747662_9be46749b5_z

South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Seven South American presidents’ launch of brand-new regional grouping called PROSUR last week was intended to give a boost to their personal agendas rather than take a serious step toward regional integration. The announcement was made on March 22 at a summit organized by Chilean President Piñera and attended by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. The declared goal of the summit was to overcome what Piñera called the “paralysis” of the decade-old UNASUR.  Its final declaration emphasized the need “more than ever to work together to update and strengthen the South American countries’ process of integration” in the face of current and future challenges, including “inserting ourselves in an efficient way into the fourth industrial revolution and society based on knowledge and information.”

  • The creation of the Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR), however, delivered very little in terms of regional integration. The Santiago Declaration does not tackle the obstacles that hampered UNASUR, such as its decision-making procedure based on consensus. On the contrary, the declaration envisions PROSUR as a forum exclusively based on presidential diplomacy, in which all decisions by definition must be taken by consensus.
  • The Presidents said the new organization will focus on infrastructure, energy, health, defense, and dealing with natural disasters – the same areas where UNASUR had shown some progress. The declaration did not mention any particular ongoing crisis, such as Venezuela, but it made clear that it would work for full respect for democracy, constitutional order, and human rights. Again, this is not a departure from UNASUR, which also had a democracy clause adopted and ratified by the national parliaments.

The summit promised political gains for several participants. For President Piñera, it was an opportunity to project himself as a regional leader able to convene and coordinate South American heads of states, at a time that his domestic popularity is decreasing. Ecuadorean President Moreno – the only central-left president attending the summit – had yet a new opportunity to signal his willingness to coexist with pro-market governments in the region. For Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a well-known skeptic of South American integration, the summit was a platform to show a more palatable image closer to his liberal peers.

President Piñera and his guests blamed UNASUR’s bureaucracy for its lack of effectiveness, opting instead for a lean mechanism based on presidential diplomacy. Most long-time observers believe, however, that UNASUR’s effectiveness was undermined by its very weak organizational capacity, with a powerless Secretary General and personnel made up of low-ranking national diplomats instead of qualified international civil servants. Presidential diplomacy, unburdened by a bureaucracy of specialists who analyze problems and possible solutions, works well when Presidents get along in ideological terms, but precedent shows it is vulnerable to collapse when governments have divergent preferences or when states must agree on complex transnational issues such as migration, drug-trafficking, or deep economic integration.

  • PROSUR will work exclusively as a forum (not as a regional organization) and its decisions and initiatives will have to be executed and monitored by the national bureaucracies of the member states, which by definition look after national interests rather than regional interests. The Santiago Summit has demonstrated that when it comes to regional integration, leftist and right-wing heads of government look and act alike. No matter which ideology they claim, South American presidents fear collective institutions, cherish presidential diplomacy, and prefer to create new initiatives with pompous names from scratch, rather than make necessary reforms to existing ones. As Uruguayan President Vázquez – who did not attend the summit – put it, South America has a long history of integration initiatives that have not brought about integration. The region would be better served by reinforcing and overhauling existing mechanisms such as MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, or the Pacific Alliance, and try to make them convergent in any possible way, rather than adding yet another acronym.

March 29, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.