Is South America Sliding Into Chaos Or Is It Just Business As Usual?

(Nov. 28, 2007) For anyone interested in the state of South America’s regional relations, this week was full of news. Argentina and Uruguay appear to have given up on political dialogue and have closed their borders until The Hague gives them a reply sometime in the next 2 years, Venezuela froze ties with Colombia and recalled its ambassador, and Peru announced it will file a formal complaint with the Hague over its southern maritime border with Chile.

While none of these events is a real surprise, their combined effect, along with the internal conflicts currently playing out in other South American countries, is striking. Our question is whether these flash points are representative of the region as a whole or whether they are merely isolated incidents between ships of state at sea.

The conflict between Argentina and Uruguay is not new. Argentinean protestors have been intermittently closing the border for two years and now Uruguay is beginning to do the same from its side. Even though the conflict seems to be escalating, it can’t get much worse unless there is an outbreak of violence. Until The Hague rules on the issue, the consequences of the conflict will remain economic, principally affecting the border area and Uruguay’s national pride. However, the long term repercussions on Argentinean-Uruguayan relations could be more severe.

The dispute between Chile and Peru is also minor, probably due more to Peru’s President Alan Garcia’s desire to play up the nationalist card at home than any real conflict between the two countries. Relations between the two countries should have improved after Chile extradited former President Alberto Fujimori to Peru earlier this year, but Garcia’s decision to file the complaint cooled the diplomatic waters again. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet had planned a trip to Peru but quietly cancelled after receiving the news. To her and Chile’s credit, the issue was not blown out of proportion, underlying Chile’s long term social and economic interests in Peru.

The dispute between Venezuelan President Chavez and Colombian President Uribe is more sudden, unexpected, and potentially damaging than the other two. While regional analysts think that the incident is a smoke screen to distract Venezuelans from mounting protests over the constitutional referendum vote on Dec. 2, the repercussions will certainly extend beyond this Sunday’s vote. Severing your countries principal supply of chicken, meat, eggs and sugar over wounded pride is not the most rational diplomatic step.

Perhaps these incidents will be lost among the multiple political skirmishes that seem to pop up fairly consistently between South American nations, but for those interested in regional human development and poverty elimination on the continent these events are much more significant.

As recently as 2006 the presidents of South America released a combined statement, entitled “Declaración de Cochabamba – Colocando la Piedra Fundamental para una Unión Sudamericana” that emphasized the necessity for greater regional cooperation to meet the challenges of globalization, poverty, exclusion, and persistent social inequality in South America. A short year later the document does not seem worth the paper it was written on.

In the last month alone Venezuela has violated the declaration’s articles 2-I, 2-II, 2-III, 2-IV; Argentina and Uruguay have violated articles 2-I and 2-II, and Bolivia has violated Article 2-IV. The inexistence of functional diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia, the state of recurring conflict between Venezuela and Guyana, Chávez’s continued intervention in the bilateral conflict between Chile and Bolivia, and the undemocratic imposition of a new draft constitution in Bolivia all indicate that the goals of Unasur are nowhere close to being met.

However it would be unfair to the rest of the region to conclude that South America is sliding into chaos. A quick review of the conflicts cited above shows that President Chávez is responsible for at least half, not counting his support for Bolivian President Evo Morale’s constitutional coup last Friday. If we control for Venezuela’s influence, we see a region that appears willing to resolve conflict through peaceful mediation. Chile’s and Colombia’s measured response to recent provocations underlines the differences between regional success stories and those states that are slowly spinning out of control.

In the coming week we will know more about the results of Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s constitutional reforms and whether the situation between Colombia and Venezuela will improve. Until then policy makers should follow the advice given by the UN, EU, and USA to calm down and resolve disputes in a peaceful, democratic fashion that will ensure that the long-term, best interests of citizens are placed above the personal whims of temporary leaders.

By Nathan Gill – Southern Affairs

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