BRASILIA, Brazil – South America’s leaders will gather in the Brazilian capital on Tuesday to support President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s attempt to revive regional integration efforts, which previously stalled amid political volatility and the continent’s polarization.
According to analysts, Lula sees an opportunity for integration because of the political affinities of the region’s current governments and appears to want to test leaders’ willingness to work together through a revived Union of South American Nations, or Unasur for short.
Lula told a news conference Monday that leaders should talk about working together on energy and crime, and suggested he might consider the idea of a regional currency to challenge the US dollar. But he said nothing will be decided during the meeting.
“The basic idea is that we have to form a bloc to work together,” Lula said.
Founded 15 years ago during the second term in office of Lula, a former trade unionist, in the Brazilian capital, the regional bloc sought to integrate the 12 South American nations culturally, socially, politically and economically.
Unasur’s backer was the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who saw it as a way to counter US influence in the region, and the group had a reputation by some for left-wing leanings.
But a subsequent shift to the right on the continent led to a split in the group. The last meeting with all Unasur members took place in 2014. After 2017, disagreements over Unasur’s leadership and the involvement of Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro led to the withdrawal of seven countries, including Brazil in 2019 under Lula’s predecessor, far-right Jair Bolsonaro.
“Unasur’s biggest problem is that it was built at a time when there were left-wing leaders and it fell apart when right-wing leaders came,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university and Think tank in Sao Paulo. “It’s easy to talk about his comeback now, but they have to think of ways that this second attempt can endure.”
Tuesday’s meeting in Brasilia will bring together 11 South American presidents and the head of the Peruvian Council of Ministers, whose president, Dina Boluarte, faces impeachment and is barred from leaving the country. The meeting was officially promoted as a meeting of South American heads of state as Brazil does not wish to impose the Unasur revival.
Lula emphasized Monday that this week’s meeting was all about coming together to build cohesion and discuss ideas. “Tomorrow’s meeting decides nothing,” he said.
He said he has a “dream” of a regional currency “so that we can do business without depending on the dollar, because the dollar belongs to the United States and they can do whatever they want with it.”
The challenge, analysts say, will be to create a bloc that can weather the political changes and instability in the region.
Although the majority of South America’s current presidents are left- or centrist-leaning, there is no guarantee that the situation will remain so. This was underscored in May by the right-wing success in Chile in a vote to select commissioners to draft a new constitution. That success came after voters rejected a left-leaning bill intended to replace the Chilean dictatorship-era charter. A similar shift to the right is possible in Argentina, as incumbent President Alberto Fernández will not stand for re-election this year amid rampant inflation.
Venezuela’s Maduro arrived for the Brasilia meeting on Monday, providing the opportunity for the first official bilateral meeting between Lula and the Venezuelan leader.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil banned Maduro and many members of his government from entering the country and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
At a joint press conference between Lula and Maduro later Monday, he said it was a “historic moment” for both countries.
“After eight years, President Maduro returns to visit Brazil and we are regaining the right to conduct our foreign policy with the seriousness we have always had, particularly towards countries bordering Brazil,” Lula said.
Maduro noted that both leaders have restored “an open and sustained dialogue between Brazil and the governments of Venezuela.” He also said that “unity and diversity” should rule over “extremist and intolerant ideologies” that have tried to isolate Venezuela from the rest of the world.
Both leaders said they were interested in boosting trade between their countries.
“Regardless of whether both governments agree, Venezuela is a neighbor and must not be ignored or broken off diplomatic relations as we have practical issues that need to be resolved,” said Carolina Silva Pedroso, professor of international relations at Sao Paulo’s Federal University .
Pedroso said Brazil can act as a mediator in Venezuela’s political crisis and wants to reduce the number of immigrants crossing the border into Brazil, more than 400,000 since 2018.
But the group must overcome their legacy and struggles.
Unasur “failed to lead important cooperation projects in different areas after some governments suffered electoral defeats,” Pedroso said. “And it hasn’t made any direct connection to the populations in its countries.”
Political instability in many South American countries will make it difficult for leaders to push initiatives, analysts said.
Stuenkel said Brazil wants to guarantee that all presidents who meet have some sort of diplomatic relationship, “but that will fail if a new president comes along.”
“Countries in the region need to think about how they will react if Argentina breaks up or if a bilateral crisis develops, such as the conflict between Colombia and Peru on the border,” he said.
Peru’s image was tarnished by criticism of Boluarte after her office violently repressed anti-government protests after the ouster of her predecessor, Pedro Castillo.
Colombia, now ruled by a leftist, has criticized the Boluarte government and the two countries have severed diplomatic ties. On their common border, they have also engaged in a centuries-old dispute over territory and responsibility for stopping the drug trade.
Ecuador faces political instability, which worsened in May when President Guillermo Lasso dissolved parliament after impeachment proceedings were launched. New elections are planned for later this year.
“Unasur without 12 countries would not solve the region’s problems,” said Gisela Padovan, secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean at Brazil’s foreign ministry. “And we need something permanent that doesn’t depend on specific governments.”
AP contributors who contributed to this report are: Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia; Frankin Briceño in Lima, Peru; Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela; and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador.