Last month, the leaders of the 12 South American countries – except for one – met in Quito, Ecuador's capital, on the occasion of the summit of the Union of South American Nations. In Spanish, UNASUR and in Portuguese, UNASUL, the organization was established by all 12 countries in Brasilia, on May 2008, with the aim of promoting political and economic integration. However, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez took over the Quito meeting to spread his Bolivarian revolution and present his ideas about the future of the continent, independent of the United States.
Because of the agreement with Colombia that was recently announced by the U.S. military, Chavez's ideas sounded even stronger than he might have hoped. Instead of discussing plans for infrastructure, trade and environmental treaties, or even multilateral action against common problems such as violence and poverty, the dominant theme, both in news reports and in speeches during the meeting, was the military agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, which was announced less than a month before the summit.
It came as no surprise that Chavez was the most critical of the agreement. He noted that there were "winds of war" and that the announcement of the military agreement "can become a tragedy."
Unfortunately, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was not at the meeting. Colombia and Ecuador broke diplomatic relations in March 2008, after Colombia's army attacked FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which, for decades, has been fighting the Colombian government in Ecuador. Thus, Uribe was unable to defend the new military agreement.
This left the door open for Chavez to isolate Colombia and to preach against the United States. In a continent where anti-American feelings are still a very popular and effective way to strengthen national cohesion and political power, Chavez's attacks were received by an audience willing to listen. Moreover, Uribe’s absence allowed Chavez to evade accusations that Venezuela and its ally, Ecuador, support the narco-marxist FARC guerillas.
A week after the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to allay fears on the continent generated by the agreement between her country and Colombia. She described it as only a minor revision of Plan Colombia from the Bill Clinton era, a U.S. program to help the government in the fight against drug cartels; however, her words failed to be reassuring.
Nor does it appear to help when the majority of local military analysts say the agreement does not represent a significant change in the military posture of the U.S. toward the continent. What happened, essentially, is that the announcement of the pact was a terrible moment that served to provide a platform for violent Bolivarian rhetoric, which will have consequences.
Indeed, the impact is likely to continue to be negative. By enhancing anti-American suspicions and strengthening Chavez's position on the continent, the agreement undermines the influence of Brazil. Recently, Brazil has distinguished itself from the rest of the continent with its stable economy and strong democratic political system, factors that have been helping the poor in that country. Therefore, the spread and strengthening of the so-called Bolivarian revolution of Chavez is not in Brazil's best interests, although some of the staff of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appear to be admirers of the Venezuelan president and his administration.
The poor timing of the military agreement between the U.S. and Colombia also gave Chavez and his allies a reason to strengthen their armies against the "evil U.S. imperialist." After all, we must remember that the supposed "enemy" of the Bolivarian revolution is none other than the United States. Thus, the agreement may legitimize and produce an arms race in South America, something no one wants to happen.
Another unintended consequence of the U.S.-Colombian military agreement could be increased tensions between Venezuela and Colombia. The radical polarization of the Andean region between the two countries will create security problems in the Amazon, encourage difficulties in reaching regional consensus, and weaken the Brazilian political and economic integration project in South America.
Finally, another important effect of the agreement between the U.S. and Colombia is that it has raised doubts in Latin America about the administration of President Barack Obama, including concerns about the future of relations between the U.S. and South America, especially Brazil, the major regional power. The deal revived the perception that American diplomacy lacks sensitivity when it comes to the region.
If Obama wants to promote moderate, democratic policies in South America and energize Brazil's efforts to promote stability and economic progress despite undemocratic forces and militants in the region, he should take great care not to appear to undermine those whom the U.S. claims to support, because Chavez is showing that the old cry "Yankee, go home!" still resonates.