No autonomous regional effort to heal Venezuela’s political strife
South America’s principle international organisation is undergoing its death rattle
People cross from Cucuta in Colombia back to San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela after buying goods to resell, through an improvised bridge on an illegal trail on the border between the two countries. Photograph: Juan Pablo Bayona/AFP/Getty Images
Among the various diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, there is one very notable absence – that of an autonomous regional effort to heal the political strife in the oil-rich nation.
Just as South America faces its biggest diplomatic challenge in decades, its principle international organisation is undergoing its death rattle.
When the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) was created in 2008 it did not lack for ambition. South America’s first truly continental body, it was set up at a moment of intense diplomatic efforts to deepen integration and, looking to the example of the European Union, there was even talk of common passports and single currencies to go with a regional parliament.
Comprising all 12 South American nations, Unasur had some initial eye-catching successes such as its mediation in the 2008 dispute between Colombia and Ecuador after the former bombed a Colombian guerrilla base on the latter’s territory.
But since 2017 it has been consumed by internal disputes that have now provoked the desertion of most members. Symbolic of the organisation’s disintegration was this month’s decision by Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno to pull his country out of the group, while demanding it hand back its striking new modernist headquarters located in the Ecuadoran capital Quito.
Unasur’s disintegration means that outside powers such as the EU, Canada and Russia have instead emerged as key diplomatic players in the Venezuelan drama. Meanwhile the US, whose influence had waned in the region after the millennium, is now threatening military intervention against Caracas, while US national security adviser John Bolton has even cited the controversial Monroe Doctrine, viewed as justification for US hegemony in Latin America, to defend Washington’s approach to the crisis.
For some of Unasur’s architects, the organisation’s decline and the return of heightened US protagonism on the continent are not coincidental.
“An organisation like Unasur could really have helped with Venezuela. But greater independence for the region is not well viewed,” says Celso Amorim, who as Brazil’s foreign minister under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had a central role in the intense efforts to carve out a new autonomous role for the region on the world stage.
“For the first time in 200 years South America acted independently without the direct influence of the US. This naturally upset interests there and also their allies here who depend on this link with the US.”
Rather than blame the US for undermining integration efforts like Unasur, others point to regional instability as the cause of its decline. The onset of a grave political and economic crisis in Brazil in 2013 was particularly damaging as it meant South America’s leading diplomatic articulator has been too consumed with internal problems to take the lead on efforts to mediate in Venezuela or hold Unasur together.
“The US has come back because a power vacuum has emerged,” says Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at São Paulo’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “Because of the crisis in Brazil there was nobody to take care of the situation in Venezuela and now the four countries that matter most there are the US, China, Russia and Cuba. None are from South America. And that is not because the US wants to be back in South America. It engages now because there is a clear perception that the region is rudderless so they have to engage.”
This re-engagement by Washington has also been facilitated by a political sea change in the region. If Unasur was founded when most of the continent was under left-wing rule, it is now falling apart amidst a political shift to the right. New leaders like Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro openly court Washington while viewing Unasur as a left-wing conspiracy which they want to replace with a new bloc, this time under right-wing tutelage.
When Bolsonaro visited Donald Trump in Washington this week he made several important diplomatic concessions to his host, with whom he took every opportunity to ingratiate himself. “It is a policy of strategic subservience to no end,” says Brazil’s former foreign minister Amorim.
“What is lacking now is real Latin American leadership aligned with Latin American interests.”
Despite such criticism back home, alignment with the Trump administration against “socialism” plays well with Bolsonaro’s hard-right base. But experts warn Brasília’s new diplomatic course carries risks.
“If Florida [with its influential right-wing Latin constituency] is a battleground state in the US presidential elections and Maduro hangs on for another year and Trump says to Bolsonaro ‘this is a test of our friendship, I need your support and we need to engage militarily in Venezuela’, there is a likelihood that Brazil will follow, which I think would be a disaster,” warns Prof Stuenkel.