There is a widespread maxim among journalists and sports coaches: “A team that wins, don’t touch it.” The idea behind the sentence is very basic: why modify a group of players or tactics if they have already obtained good results? The idea sounds so reasonable that the world of politics also wants to apply it.
In his third presidential term, Lula has adopted this motto as a mantra. And, at least in terms of foreign policy, he has begun to rebuild the path of his previous terms. Although the technical staff has changed (because Marco Aurelio Garcia is no longer there), the strategy is still the same as the one promoted by former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim. The results of this continuity were not long in coming, and Brazil is reviving its geopolitical positioning around the BRICS bloc, which it is part of together with Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
What is striking about the Brazilian strategy is it reconfirms players that did not bring superb results in the previous season. In fact, Lula has appointed Dilma Rousseff to head the New Development Bank of the BRICS, based in Shanghai, China, where the leader of the Workers’ Party hastily traveled before completing his 100th day as president.
Lula repeats the game plan. For now, the legacy of authoritarianism that the twenty-first century left spread in Latin America does not seem to be enough reason for the Brazilian politician to offer any kind of self-criticism in this regard. The message is clear: if Lula does not change it is because he evaluates that his past strategy did not go so badly. And in this, possibly, he is not wrong, since those were the golden years of his leadership and regional prestige.
UNASUR’s new season
While strengthening ties with China, and in the context of the unfortunate statements on Russia and the war with Ukraine, Lula recovered another piece of the old equipment with which he managed his foreign policy between 2003 and 2010: the Union of South American Nations, better known by its acronym UNASUR.
This organization played a key role in the Worker’s Party (PT) policy at the time, which can be illustrated by the metaphor of the “pyromaniac fireman”. That is to say, while encouraging and protecting Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales, it presented itself globally as the one who could contain them in the red lines that worried the major international leagues. For the United States, this was enough in a region that has not been at the top of its geopolitical interest for some time. On the other hand, for the Latin American citizens who suffered the splendor of the Bolivarian leaders, the results were disastrous in terms of democratic deterioration, quality of life, and human rights.
In spite of this, one of the strong points that legitimized the existence of Unasur was the set of conferences, articles, and books written by specialists, internationalists, and other academics. Intellectual soft power legitimized UNASUR by granting it a success that never materialized and was never observed in reality. This is not surprising, since the authoritarian left has shown more ability to improve the quality of life of its intellectuals and expert organizations than to improve that of the rest of the population.
UNASUR: success or failure?
The return of UNASUR was received with rejoicing by the old shareholders that continued to integrate it: Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. But it was also acclaimed by the new leaders of the regional left: Gustavo Petro and Gabriel Boric; either by the Peronist Alberto Fernández, who equally looks forward to the job opportunity that opens up in the general secretariat, reserved for a former president, since he will lose his current position at the end of 2023.
Unlike other Latin American forums, UNASUR does not intend to function as a classic regional integration organization, but rather privileges political cooperation, where ideological coincidences play a key role. UNASUR is a central part of a strategy that is supported by a network of international and transnational organizations that take the form of constant meetings, encounters, and summits.
These events are at different levels: governmental and non-governmental, presidential, ministerial, former presidents, partisan, specialists, ideological, bilateral, or multilateral. From Unesco to the São Paulo Forum, through CELAC or the CLACSO assemblies. In fact, the announcement of Argentina’s return to Unasur was made within the framework of a meeting of the Puebla Group and the Latin American Council for Justice and Democracy.
These collective spaces – and their permanent meetings – contribute to the dissemination of an active nationalism of the “greater fatherland”, very fond of Latin American illiberal authoritarianism. In addition, it shows leaders in permanent activity and helps consolidate their discourses and national projects. Above all, it allows keeping under control, even to isolate, those who at those levels do not integrate the populist left-wing collective or dare to challenge it.
The role of UNASUR 2.0
UNASUR acquires an important place among transnational cooperation networks for two other reasons that have been little emphasized so far. First, it has a past of direct intervention in national affairs to help its members in trouble. This was seen in the legitimization of the fraudulent Venezuelan elections of 2013, the amplification of minor crises in Ecuador to benefit the authoritarian project of Rafael Correa, the participation in the dispute of the Government of Santa Cruz de la Sierra with Evo Morales, or in the Colombian conflict with the FARC, among others.
Secondly, it is the first of the Latin American international spaces to highlight the issue of defense and regional security through its South American Defense Council. No other organization has placed the same emphasis on the ideological status of its presidents and the coordination of the armed forces they lead.
Lula maintains the formation of his team and the strategies implemented since 2003, but the world has radically changed with respect to that of the beginning of the 21st century. The possibility of opening the doors of UNASUR – as has already happened with CELAC – to China and Russia will enable them to play in a field hitherto forbidden to them. Thus, they could interfere in the national politics of South American countries with unprecedented legitimacy.
In spite of so much artificially designed enthusiasm, UNASUR ceased to exist without a fuss when a couple of its member countries decided to suspend its financing. In the end, there was not much more than a well-crafted narrative, but that is precisely what has allowed it to re-emerge today and become a potential threat to freedom in the region. UNASUR is a giant with feet of clay.
Text originally published in Diálogo Político
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva