Growing calls for greater regional integration as Latin America’s political winds blow leftwards.

The narrow victory of the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) in Brazil’s general election marked a historic moment for the Latin American left which now controls more than 85% of the governments in the region, including five of the main economies: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. This shift in political winds has brought back high profile calls for advancing regional integration, with a specific focus on UNASUR, a semi-dead intergovernmental organisation set up by Hugo Chavez to counteract the influence of the United States in the region.

Lula’s election put an end to the conservative wave that swept Latin America in the 2010s and followed the pink tide, or the turn to the left, which occurred in the early 2000s. Emboldened by the changing political landscape, on November 14, a group of seven former regional presidents, including Michelle Bachelet, Rafael Correa, Eduardo Duhalde, Dilma Rousseff, José Mújica, Ricardo Lagos, and Ernesto Samper, signed a letter calling for the revival of UNASUR.

The signatories acknowledged the deficiencies of the current structure of the organisation and called for the reform of the bloc by including a new economic, commercial, and productive dimension to the initiative. In addition, the aforementioned former presidents proposed to replace the rule of consensus in the election of a secretary general, used in the past by Venezuela to block any friendly candidate and bringing the organisation to the current paralysis. But is an UNASUR revival a credible scenario?

A former South American politician didn’t think so, “The only serious attempt at integration took place in the 1970s with the Andean Pact, which failed because it was a concerted economic planning scheme that never prospered.”

“The only serious attempt at integration took place in the 1970’s with the Andean Pact, which failed because it was a concerted economic planning scheme that never prospered.”

Former South American politician

UNASUR was created in 2007 to advance the integration of the southern cone with the aim of creating regional governance structures and counteracting the influence of the US in the region. However, the inter-governmental nature of the organisation led to severe fractures which resulted in the exit of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru.

A Latin American governance expert in Washington D.C. couldn’t see these fundamental issues being resolved any time soon, “I wouldn’t expect such a scheme to be successful in the current political and economic environment. Integration starts with free markets, free trade, and open economies – this seems hard to imagine in Latin America.”

“I wouldn’t expect such a scheme to be successful in the current political and economic environment.”

Latin American governance expert, Washington D.C.

As of today, there have been no official initiatives to revive UNASUR, as new left-wing presidents have prioritised the consolidation of power at national level. But the idea has not been discarded and, with many of the regional problems being transnational in nature, UNASUR could be a valid pretext for regional negotiation and coordination in areas such as health, security, and sustainability. Such technical cooperation could avoid disputes resulting from overreaching ideological discourse or problematic economic integration, which have traditionally hindered Latin America’s regional integration efforts in the past.

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