UNASUR Emerges as South America’s Imperfect Crisis Manager.
Eric Farnsworth |Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015
Despite its short existence, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has already developed into an important tool of South American crisis management. It assumed a leadership role in de-escalating the ongoing border dispute between Venezuela and Colombia, following earlier efforts to diffuse regional crises—again between Venezuela and Colombia but also between Colombia and Ecuador and in Bolivia. It has generally done so without taking sides or holding leaders to account when they ignore established regional norms. In large part this is due to the fact that UNASUR gives priority to the absolute sovereignty of its member states, rather than exercising an outside watchdog role on matters like democracy and human rights. This has had important implications for Venezuela, but also for Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa has taken a soft authoritarian turn and, perhaps ironically, where the UNASUR headquarters is based.
UNASUR emerged after decades in which perceptions of outsized U.S. influence in Latin America were pervasive in the region. Wariness of the United States still lingers in Latin America under a veneer of cooperation; in some countries, like Venezuela, overt resistance drives relations. Yet the region has traditionally depended on the United States as its largest market, pool of investment capital, educator of elites, supporter of security operations and destination for migrants and source of their remittances. Options for independent Latin America action, no matter how much leaders in the region desired it, have been limited.
That changed in the past decade. Since then, democracies have matured, becoming more self-assured and less reliant on Washington, even as democracy itself continues to be a work in progress in several nations. China has entered into Latin America, bolstering—and now deflating—economies dependent on commodities markets. Poverty and inequality are finally coming down, although the region faces choppy economic waters in the months ahead and citizens become increasingly anxious about their economic security.
Over the years, as the vision of a more independent Latin America merged with these new capabilities and increased resources—also enabled by an increasingly inattentive U.S.—the region began to consider efforts to recalibrate hemispheric relations. The creation of UNASUR was one of the most important of these initiatives.
Established in 2008 and fully operational in 2011, UNASUR is a regional group of all 12 South American nations, plus Mexico and Panama as permanent observers. With a headquarters in Quito, the bloc primarily brings together the nations comprising MERCOSUR, or the Common Market of the South, along with the nations of the Andean Community. Brazil is particularly supportive of UNASUR, since it represents a de facto step toward the realization of the long-standing Brazilian goal of organizing South America as a sphere of political and economic influence, while limiting the U.S. role in regional affairs.
But so far, UNASUR’s accomplishments have been more modest. Both the foundational documents that established it as well as its subsequent actions to date highlight the bloc’s priorities: encouraging regional political and economic integration while “respecting the current situation of each of our member nations.” It also seeks to strengthen democracy while taking into account “the sovereignty and independence of each of our States.”
In practice, this means that strict conceptions of absolute sovereignty take precedence over the pre-existing democratic values and norms enshrined in the Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington, and related documents and jurisprudence. UNASUR has replaced those norms with support for national executive authorities already in power, moral equivalence when two states are in conflict and a dim view of regional or extra-regional efforts to call out violations of democracy and human rights when they occur in member states.
Among UNASUR’s most significant accomplishments to date has been to serve as a conflict resolution forum for the region to manage its own affairs. The group played a central role in defusing political crises in Bolivia and Ecuador in 2008 and 2010, respectively, and in 2009 it helped ease tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. More recently, it has taken a leading role mediating the latter two countries’ border dispute, which has displaced tens of thousands and wrecked the border economy.
However, as UNASUR becomes increasingly assertive and active in seeking the role of regional mediator, its founding principles have broader and potentially negative implications. Consider the current Venezuela-Colombia border fight, which was largely manufactured by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for domestic political reasons. The negotiated efforts to reduce border tensions have apparently been successful. That’s good news. But a posture of moral equivalency has conferred legitimacy on Venezuelan actions to close the border and potentially enabled further such actions down the road.
Of greater concern is UNASUR’s silence on human rights abuses in Venezuela ahead of seminal Dec. 6 legislative elections. Maduro’s government has already arrested and detained opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez and the democratically elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma; grossly misused state resources in support of government-aligned candidates; manipulated state institutions, from the legislature, courts, and press; and arbitrarily changed election rules and processes. If the elections are truly free and fair, Maduro’s embattled government will almost certainly lose, according to polls that trace a steady decline in government popularity due to declining oil prices, economic contraction and rising crime and insecurity. Maduro’s weakness helps explain why Venezuela has become so provocative in its foreign policy recently, including closing the Colombian border in an effort to create a crisis atmosphere, reasserting territorial claims over Guyana and picking fights with the United States and Spain.
Caracas has invited UNASUR to be the primary election observer for the December elections, even though it lacks the OAS’ long history of election monitoring and democracy promotion. Moreover, because of UNASUR’s mandate to “respect the current situation of each of our member nations,” the actions that the Venezuelan government takes in the run up to elections are not under the purview of UNASUR election monitors. That has set up the election as a litmus test for UNASUR’s ability to balance its emphasis on sovereignty with the need to address abuses where they may occur. It would be a welcome development if UNASUR found its voice in highlighting the violations of the democratic process that have already occurred and will likely continue to occur until Venezuelans go the polls on Dec. 6—and even after. Absent such a step, the organization may come to be viewed more as protecting incumbents than working to strengthen democratic institutions or hold leaders accountable.
UNASUR has existed for less than a decade, and in some ways it is still defining its regional role. For all its faults so far, UNASUR is a new pole in hemispheric relations, challenging previously established institutions for primacy. Its impact will grow if South American nations continue to put greater stock in UNASUR than they do in truly pan-regional institutions such as the OAS. But whether that impact is ultimately positive or not is a chapter the region’s leaders themselves have yet to write.
Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He previously served in the Clinton White House, the U.S. Department of State and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.