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UNASUR – Death before Life?

UNASUR – Death before Life?

Disagreements over Leadership as National Agendas Divide South America, Dashing Argentina’s UNASUR Prospects

• Uruguay vetoes former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner becoming UNASUR’s first permanent Secretary General

• Peru sends mixed signals regarding its support for the Argentine candidate

• Venezuela’s Chavez curiously shy about Secretary-General post

• Mercosur and LAC Summits on December 15-17 in Brazil likely to be next potential site for diplomatic clashes between Montevideo and Buenos Aires over Kirchner’s candidacy

• Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress… and what will be Obama’s Grand Design for dealing with Latin America in view of the considerable skepticism of a number of anti-Washington governments in the region?

On October 23, Uruguay announced that it would block former Argentine president (2003-2007) Néstor Kirchner’s ambition to become the first permanent Secretary-General of the newly formed Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR, Union of South American Nations).

In blocking his appointment, Uruguayan President Tabarè Vàzquez won the strong support of nearly his country’s entire political spectrum, particularly the two largest opposition parties, the Nacionales and the Colorados. Meanwhile, reports have emerged from Peru regarding whether the Alan García government was wavering in its reaction to the Kirchner candidacy. On December 3, Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio García Belaunde had declared that, contrary to a number of rumors, Lima had not vetoed Kirchner’s candidacy, “lo que esperamos es que sea de consenso” (what we hope is that he will be a consensus candidate).

The fact that South American countries cannot quickly agree on a leader of the new regional organization is hardly surprising, in light of the region’s past mixed performance. Though, it may still be too early for the recently-created UNASUR to find a leader that can exercise decisive influence over its member states – particularly someone like Kirchner with his low tolerance for the misdeeds of others and judgmental work style.

Regional governments, as such, are inherently interested in preserving their sovereignty, autonomy and self-image. Nevertheless, with a majority of like-minded South American governments (at least broadly speaking) of a leftist, anti-Washington ideological political hue, the region still cannot agree on a leader for UNASUR. Bitter personal agendas, particularly the battle between Montevideo and Buenos Aires over Uruguay’s pulp mill, are nothing new for the region, where small disputes have often been magnified, at a disservice to the region.

With the U.S. president-elect soon to take office, and with major expectations concerning his rehabilitation of Latin American policy already circulating, it is unfortunate that South America will not be able to present a common front vis-à-vis the new American administration. UNASUR has been delivered a fatal blow by Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, who hardly has conducted himself as a hemispheric hero, but rather has fomented discord through rancorous speeches and precipitous actions.

Montevideo-Buenos Aires Pulp Mill Dispute
The pulp mill dispute, which has severely strained relations between Uruguay and Argentina, relates to the construction of two paper processing plants by the Finnish-owned Oy Metsa Botnia company near Fray Bentos, an Uruguayan town with a population of 23,000. The Finnish project lies 25 kilometers from the Argentine municipality of Gualeguaychú, a popular tourist resort area on the bank of the Uruguay River. The new Uruguayan installation, which is now operational, consists of two pulp mills, which use Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) technology to produce Air-Dried Pulp (ADP). ADP is the primary input for paper production, and the plant is expected to turn out a combined total of about 1.4 million tons of pulp annually. The Finnish installation is enormously important to Uruguay’s economy. The project represents the largest foreign investment in the country’s history and will serve as a key source for much-needed jobs in an area where they are now very scarce. A December 3 wire story by IPS reports that the new mill “began to operate in November 2007, and has already exported more than 850,000 tons of cellulose.”

Argentina claims that Uruguay, by unilaterally authorizing the construction of the paper mill facilities, has violated a statute regulating the use of the Uruguay River. During the last days of his presidency, Kirchner backed the setting up of roadblocks by demonstrators on the Argentine side of a bridge spanning the Uruguay River, connecting Argentina and Uruguay. The roadblocks had been erected by Argentine environmentalists, who were protesting the presumed environmental damage that would be produced by Botnia’s operations. Protesters claim that the process of manufacturing cellulose as an end product would emit perilous by-products, such as dioxins and furans, and cause irreparable damage to the river’s aquatic habitat.

The mill’s operation became the subject of a protracted and increasingly hostile dispute between the neighboring countries. The fracas is currently being arbitrated by the International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ), as a result of an Argentine petition filed during the Nestor Kirchner presidency. On May 4, 2006, Argentina instituted legal proceedings against Uruguay before the ICJ, claiming that Uruguay had breached a bilateral treaty obligation to consult with Buenos Aires before moving forward with its pulp mill project. Early this month, Argentina’s energetic environmental minister Romina Picolotti resigned from her position. According to a Dow Jones report, Picolotti was first noticed by then-president Kirchner due to her leading role in the campaign to prevent the construction of the paper pulp mills (for which she won the highly regarded Sophie Prize for environmental activism in 2006).

Lima’s Ambivalence
A December 1 article by the South Atlantic news agency MERCOPRESS reported that, according to the Argentine media, “although Peru did not formally vote on the issue at the UNASUR Santiago (Chile) meeting,” Lima was tacitly opposing Kirchner for the UNASUR post. The article quotes Peruvian Foreign Affairs minister Jose Garcia Belaúnde as saying “from the beginning we knew there was no consensus, Uruguay warned us before hand, so we abstained.” The article went on to explain past tensions between Peruvian president Alan García and the Kirchners. In an attempt to patch up matters, Garcia Belaunde traveled to Buenos Aires where he met with his Argentine counterpart, Jorge Taiana. While in the Argentine capital, Garcia Belaunde explained that Lima had never formally vetoed Kirchner. Nevertheless, Belaunde stopped short of fully reassuring the former Argentine president or in any way pledging his support. The key word the Peruvian official diplomat made use of was “consensus,” meaning that Lima wanted a candidate which had the blessing of all of UNASUR, including Uruguay. Indeed, according to UNASUR’s bylaws, its secretary general must be approved by all member states, hence Montevideo’s de facto veto was fatal.

Peruvian President Alan García is well known for playing chameleon politics, often altering his ideology to suit the current political scene. It may be that he is avoiding throwing his support behind Kirchner to see if another candidacy may arise and he can get some mileage out of the process as a kingmaker. In an interview with COHA, Fernando Rospigliosi, former Peruvian minister of interior, explained that “due to the current anti-Chilean sentiment in Peru, the Garcia government would not dare support a candidate coming from Chile.” There is no word that Lima may propose a Peruvian candidate.

MERCOPRESS has reported that Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe also has had issues with the Kirchner couple due to their friendship with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, and the issue involving the alleged $800,000 campaign gift from the Venezuelan leader to the President Cristina Fernandez campaign fund.

Silence in Caracas
An interesting aspect of this UNASUR conundrum is the recent rapt silence from Venezuela’s Chávez regarding the UNASUR leadership race. Chavez has been the most vociferous anti-Bush leader in South America and a definitive supporter of South American integration following the aspirations of 19th century liberator Simón Bolivar (Chávez recently has been seen flashing Bolivar’s sword during speeches). Chavez created his Alternativa Bolivariana (ALBA), with Caracas as its base, but the new organization has not gained wide acceptance apart from Chavez’s particularly close friends, including current ALBA members Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Additionally, Chavez has been too busy in recent weeks with a number of pressing issues to give much attention to UNASUR, even though Caracas publically supports Kirchner’s candidacy. At the end of November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Caracas, at the same time that the Russians were docking their warships in Venezuela. This was the first time that Russian naval vessels have entered Latin American waters since the Cold War. Chavez and Medvedev visited the Russian anti-submarine destroyer, the Admiral Chabanenko, before both countries’ fleets embarked on their scheduled military exercises.

Concurrently, Venezuela held state and municipal elections which saw Chavez’ party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), come out as a victor in most, but not all, of the races. The PSUV won in 17 of the country’s 22 states; with the opposition scoring a major victory in the state of Zulia. Opposition candidate Manuel Rosales became mayor of Maracaibo, the country’s second largest city. However, on December 11, Venezuelan officials indicted Rosales on corruption charges, namely illicit enrichment, which is punishable by 3 to 10 years of prison. Rosales says the charges are false and politically motivated, which Caracas denies.

Chavez has avoided making comments on the Uruguay-Argentina dispute. Recently, in declarations to the media, he simply said “I don’t want to comment on such things, I hope that in meetings, through dialogue, we will fix such issues.”

The next test for Chavez will be parliamentary elections to be held in early 2010. He previously had lost a referendum in 2007 that would have allowed him to run for the presidency after his current term expires in 2013.

Nestor Kirchner: Perhaps not the ideal man for the job, but who else is there?
The former Argentine President came under fire by Montevideo specifically for his stance on the pulp mill dispute. According to various accounts, he presently has the support of all other UNASUR members, though, as previously mentioned, Peru and Colombia appear to be undecided about fully endorsing the former leader, with each following a personal agenda as well as nursing particular animosities towards Kirchner himself.

An issue that deserves being discussed is whether Nestor Kirchner is the right man to be the first permanent head of UNASUR. If Chile’s Jose Miguel Insulza, whose lust for the Chilean presidency is no secret and who has burnt up the rails with his constant travels to Santiago are any guide, Kirchner, if he wins the UNASUR election, is likely to spend similarly long weekends in Buenos Aires. The location of UNASUR’s headquarters is also a matter of controversy. Analysts argue that it would make more sense for such an organization to be located in Quito, the country’s capital, where it would be close to the embassies which are based there. This would foment discussion as the ambassadors, who, most likely, would also be their respective countries’ representatives to UNASUR and could meet with Kirchner more easily.

Also, in surveying Kirchner’s time as Argentine head of state, one should recall that he assumed that position in 2003, at the time when the country was at the peak of its suffering from the 2001 economic meltdown. At the time, the former governor of Santa Cruz was scarcely known internationally and hardly domestically, being elected at a time when former President Carlos Menem had helplessly fallen behind in the presidential race, and decided to retire, leaving Kirchner the winner by default. Kirchner had obtained just 22% of the vote in the first round of the presidential race and was due to face Menem in a run-off. As president, his most courageous major feat had been the repeal of an amnesty measure in 2005 that had provided immunity to Argentine military officials for abuses committed during Argentina’s indiscriminant “Dirty War” against an innocent civilian population.

In an interview with COHA, Ambassador Robert White, president of the Center for International Policy, explained that “to me, Kirchner is a phenomenon.” White went on to add that Kirchner “came from a state which is the equivalent of Oklahoma, yet dared to stand up to the military, to the IMF and to the ‘revered wisdom of the establishment’ and I think he won.” In another interview, a former high-level OAS official offered a different view of Kirchner, arguing that “giving a speech against the IMF is always an easy way to win support among several sectors of society; the challenge is to provide policy action as a valid alternative.” Indeed, Kirchner did resort to Venezuela for a loan to pay off Argentina’s debt to the IMF, and will have to pay Chavez three times the interest. The former OAS official concluded that “former President Kirchner is not the right person to promote regional integration, looking at his time as head of state, his relationships with other leaders and his political decisions were not the correct ones to promote integration.”

Ambassador White went on to say that, apart from Kirchner, there seems to be a “drought of decent former presidents” in South America. He then concluded his analysis by musing aloud, “if not Kirchner then whom? Brazil’s Cardoso perhaps? Chile’s Lagos?” The OAS official expanded this idea, saying that “Cardoso could be an option, but I do not think Lula would want a social democrat to lead UNASUR.” He also mentioned Uruguay’s Julio Maria Sanguinetti as a possible contender. These are some options, but because these former heads of states are members of their countries’ opposition parties, they may not have the support of their respective governments. A November 6 article in Prensa Latina mentioned that Montevideo would support a Bolivian candidate, namely diplomat Pablo Solon who is his country’s ambassador for trade affairs and integration.

Obama’s Grand Design for a divided South America
Between 15-17 December, two major summits are being held in Brazil. The Southern Cone trading bloc Mercosur will hold a meeting almost parallel to that of the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development, which will be meeting at the same time. It is expected that, at these gatherings, Montevideo and Buenos Aires may decide to continue their spat over the pulp mill and that, as a result, UNASUR may end up as another crippled and irrelevant organization if its members fail to resolve this issue quickly and with as little bitterness as possible.

The dispute over who will head UNASUR is particularly distressing considering that a new American president, Barack Obama, will be coming to power in scarcely more than a month from now and there are global expectations regarding his policies, including those towards Latin America. George W. Bush’s Latin American policy could be characterized as “the lost years,” since no self-respecting initiatives were devised apart from several minor bellicose strategies like re-creating the U.S. Fourth Fleet. The Bush administration populated its Latin America policy posts with conservative Cold War-era hawks like Roger Noriega, John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Dan Fisk, among others. At the present time there is no expectation that the new president will be sophisticated enough in regional affairs to resist hiring former Clinton administrators who gave us NAFTA, free trade and a muzzled President Aristide of Haiti.

CIP’s White explains that “the strategy of Obama’s Latin American policy will be multilateralism, and the key will be Cuba.” Dialogue in a multilateral setting between Havana and Washington would go a long way to promote a rapprochement between Latin America and the U.S. This is particularly true as Cuba’s Castro brothers are close friends with Venezuela’s Chavez. Nevertheless, it would be in South America’s interest if Obama were greeted by a united (at least in appearance) South America. However, it appears that this may not be the case.

ENDS

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