Friday, August 28, 2009

UNASUR with its first real crisis, and maybe its last

UNASUR started four years ago as a new organization for South American countries. Its aims where to fuse a NATO like system with a EU like commercial union. Unfortunately UNASUR suffered from the start of major problems: it was a Brazilian creation which by itself made it somewhat suspicious; it included countries which had already powerful alliances with extra-continental countries; and it had local caudillos that can conceive of their participation in any organization only as they see it serving their interest and glory. Tomorrow at Bariloche all of these problems are coming home to roost and it could well be the beginning of the end for UNASUR.

The Bariloche resort summit was the idea of Argentina president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to avoid the collapse of the Quito summit a couple of weeks ago . It seems that she only postponed the crisis and that the cool airs of the Austral winter are not going to work.

Since I do not know much about the other problems (Peru and Chile are suddenly threatening to bring their own pet dispute), I will focus on the original reason of the UNASUR special event.

First, Lula cognizant of the end of his reign wants to leave UNASUR as his legacy. Thus the Brazilians have been working very hard at trying to make it a success and prove UNASUR worthwhile. But they made mistakes along the way, such as trying to force the participation of the US of A. Obama declined pointing out that the US belonged to another hemisphere, and thus implying that it was high time South America learned to solve its problems without Uncle Sam being more than a mere observer. Of course the mistake of Lula and his generally sophisticated staff was that they did not realize that no US president would subject himself to a meeting where they would risk to be the center of the controversy among irate natives. One thing is to disagree with Chirac or Merkel, in polite society, another to have a creep like Ortega harangue you. Obama paid his dues in Trinidad a few months ago, he is never going to allow that to happen to him again; and thus Lula put himself egg on his face.

That Obama invitation failure is weakening the umpire role of Brazil this Friday, just at a time where a Chavez weakening at home is pushing the cheap patriotic card and where Uribe strengthening at home wants to make sure he is either allowed to run for reelection or be assured to place at Casa de Nariño the man he wants to continue his work. In front of these two guys Lula arrives meekly, further weakened by all the money Chavez owes Brazil, while Colombia owes nothing.

The official problem is the so called US bases to be deployed in Colombia. So let's look at that before we look at the real issues.

Plan Colombia has been lasting for a few years now, has been a relative success and has created the most operative army in South America. Colombians know that, know that the FARC is now on the defensive, that drug traffic is weakening some and going elsewhere. Colombians know that they still need US help and if Ecuador is foolish enough to get rid of the Manta US joint, then welcome to Colombia where US advisers might be more efficient than in Ecuador. As far as Colombia is concerned the deal is done and the only thing they are willing to discuss is to establish ways for other South American countries to verify that these bases will not be for use in military offensive ways. Por ahora, as Chavez would say.

The problem is of course that South Americans leftist leaders have an allergy to the US military, and a justified one historically. But the US has changed, the interests of Colombia are understood and already after an initial protest Chile and Brazil are watering down their concerns. Which brings us to the real issue: Chavez ambitions.

This is the core of the matter. After a relative initial success of Chavez in presenting the Colombian bases of the US as a "continental threat" (as if Guantanamo was not one already, as if Manta had not existed, as if any US fleet would not be able to trash Caracas whenever it wanted, bases or not) Uribe late response is slowly turning the tables. Uribe is managing that because he is presenting slowly but surely the evidence of Chavez intrusion in Colombian affairs, via FARC support. First Uribe did this discretely, and one on one, but now he seems decided to do it publicly as Colombia demands that all the discussions at Bariloche are transmitted live to the world! A first one if it is voted!

In other words Uribe has decided to call the bluff of Chavez.

Why now?

First, the old argument of the huge trade surplus has ceased to exist. All in Colombia are getting tired to be blackmailed by Caracas, amen of the insults. There has been building around Uribe a sort of Union Sacrée that includes all ex presidents and even sympathies from some sectors of the POLO democratico who is finding itself divided over Chavez role in Colombia. Besides Venezuela is running out of cash so they might as well seek new markets.

Chavez is helping along, announcing that he is studying cutting all links with Colombia, bombastically announcing that he will replace all of his trade with Colombia easily with Argentinian goodies, and other inane statements like that.

And Chavez goes further, offering direct declarations that "chavismo" must penetrate the minds of Colombians. No head of state of any political nature loves to hear another Head of state blissfully talk of sending emissaries to other countries, even if they are not the target.

Uribe arrives well armed at Bariloche. He has an extensive dossier on Chavez support of the FARC (with Chavez refusal to allow independent observers to prove Uribe wrong). He has a tight dossier on his US agreement where some slack can easily be cut to pacify anyone within reason. He has all the evidence of Chavez own weapons purchase as a justification of Colombia arm race. He has the dismal role of Chavez in Honduras. He can point out to all the corruption and intervention of Chavez in electoral campaigns, such as the latest scandal in Uruguay. And the more that Chavez is too stupid to exert the discretion he should exert.

Chavez on the other hand has only a leftist self righteousness, and his ability to scream louder than anyone. But then again there has already been a "porque no te callas?" and we might be about to hear a second one, and way more damaging one. The days were a loud and vulgar voice accompanied by a fat check book was enough to create an international system seem to have passed, the era of well built dossiers seem to be coming back.

So it is up to poor Lula to see how he can salvage the day which for him is probably allowing a Colombian win without Chavez ego suffering too much. As such we can be almost certain that Brazil will start by blocking live feed of the meeting. But I think Lula has been too forgiving of Chavez for too long, it is time for him to pay for his mistakes too.

I suspect that this is what is felt in the air because even stubborn Correa of Ecuador has shown signs of relenting over his Colombia dispute. And Alan Garcia who has had a discrete foreign policy is for once planning to take an active role, offering a cover for Colombia if things were not going to go well for Uribe. Clearly blocks are starting to redraw in South America and coming elections in many countries could dramatically affect the panorama for Chavez.

PS: I have included few links because I have already addressed that issue recently and this post is almost a rewrite of the previous ones (here and here). But there is another reason for the paucity of links: in general the press is absorbed by the US bases in Colombia aspect, failing to detect how fast the ground is changing. As usual anglo press is managed by temporary journalists that are not very sensitive to basic idiosyncrasies of the region, not to mention too many of them with an anti US position that they carefully nurtured since Bush invaded Iraq. We will see tomorrow night who has more egg on their face, whether this blogger or the corresponds of Reuters, AP, AFP, BBC and other (BBC mundo is slightly better, as usual).

-The end-

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