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
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
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).
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
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
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
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.