South American Group Facing Hard Times

13 January, 2019

A community outside Quito, Ecuador's capital, has a building that appears to resist the laws of gravity.

The unusual-looking structure was supposed to be a sign of South American unity. It lies close to the Equator, the imaginary line dividing the world into north and south.

The building has two glass wings that extend high above a pool of water. They look like something from a Hollywood movie. They are said to represent freedom and openness.

But for all its stately appearance, the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) seems almost as inactive as the group itself. Once the building was a promising diplomatic center with officials and parties for visiting diplomats. Now it is largely empty, with half the workers it had when it opened in 2014.

The group's chief organizer, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is in jail on corruption charges. Another major supporter, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has died.

In addition, a changing political environment has left South America more divided than it has been in many years. Fewer people seem interested in an anti-imperialistic song identified with the group: "Soy del Sur," or "I'm from the South."

"UNASUR was a good idea, but ultimately didn't deliver concrete results," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research group.

UNASUR's current problems

In April of 2018, half of UNASUR's 12 member-states suspended their membership. Those countries are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru. Then in August, newly elected Colombian President Ivan Duque rejected its treaty, setting the way for his country's withdrawal in February.

The result is a $20 million deficit that has led to extensive budget cuts. UNASUR has been without a secretary-general for two years. At the current rate, the group will spend all of the money it has by April. That is about the same time that Brazil takes control of UNASUR's rotating presidency. However, Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has criticized the group.

For critics of UNASUR, its headquarters is an easy target. The $43 million structure was built and donated to the group by former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a follower of Chavez.

Diego Guayasamin, another Ecuadorean, designed the prize-winning building. Seventy-five percent of the structure is underground. It is equipped with a high-technology meeting room and a notable collection of artwork. It also has salons named for Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Just like in public buildings in Venezuela, Chavez's bright-red signature and spirited comments are painted on the walls.

"It's absurd that a building that cost several dozens of millions of dollars has no usefulness," said Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno in July. Moreno demanded that UNASUR return the building to the government so that it could be used as a university for the local community. His demand was later found to be illegal.

But for critics, perhaps the building's biggest problem is the large bronze statue at the entrance of Nestor Kirchner, the first secretary-general of the group. Since his death in 2010, the memory of the former Argentine president has been damaged by reports of corruption. Supporters of Moreno are leading a campaign to have the statue removed.

The statue of former Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner stands at the entrance to the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, building, near Quito, Ecuador, Dec. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
The statue of former Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner stands at the entrance to the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, building, near Quito, Ecuador, Dec. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

Successes and failures

UNASUR was created in 2008 to bring life to independence hero Simon Bolivar's dream of a large, borderless South American "homeland." Bolivar strongly opposed United States and European influence on the continent.

While plans to create a common monetary system for UNASUR's members failed, other proposals have had more success. One example is the common Unasur work visa, which has helped South American nations take in the large number of Venezuelans fleeing their country.

However, Michael Shifter said the final blow to the group was its failure to deal effectively with the crisis in Venezuela.

During 2015 and 2016, the group's then-Secretary-General, Ernesto Samper, traveled to Venezuela with Vatican representatives to support talks between the government and opposition.

When those negotiations collapsed, many blamed Samper, a former Colombian president, for not doing more to get action from the government.

Samper admitted that for UNASUR to survive, it needs to take on a less-progressive plan of action. But, he argued that breaking up the group would be a huge mistake. He said there is a need for South American nations to speak with a common voice. He noted that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened military action against Venezuela. He added that the administration is critical of Latino Americans seeking to enter the U.S. and has withdrawn from international efforts to fight climate change.

"The sad thing," Samper said, "is that at the same time the region desperately needs unity, we are more fragmented than ever."

I'm George Grow. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Joshua Goodman reported this story for the Associated Press. George Grow adapted his report for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

wingn. a solid structure that extends from both sides of an aircraft or building

imperialistic adj. relating to an extension of a country's power and influence through military force or diplomacy

rotate v. to move or cause to move in a circle around something

salonn. a store or business where a beautician works

absurdadj. unreasonable; laughable

region – n. a specific area in the world or within a country or territory

fragmentv. to break to cause to break into small pieces