Leaders and representatives from 12 South American countries have gathered in Brazil for a summit on Tuesday, as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attempts to revive the regional bloc previously known as the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR.
President Lula is expected to push for greater regional integration at the summit, held in the capital Brasilia.
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“We let ideology divide us and interrupt our efforts to integrate. We abandoned our channels of dialogue and our mechanisms of cooperation, and we all lost because of it,” Lula said on Tuesday.
In his speech, Lula promoted the idea of creating a regional trade currency, one that could rival the dominance of the United States dollar.
The meeting underscores the shifting political climate in South America, where leftist political forces have experienced a resurgence after years of largely conservative rule.
Lula and other leftist leaders co-founded UNASUR — announcing their intent in 2004 and signing a treaty in 2008 — but the organisation last met nine years ago, ultimately fracturing as the region moved to the right.
Hoje os 12 países da América do Sul se encontram, o que não acontecia há quase 10 anos. Todas as regiões do mundo possuem fóruns comuns. Vamos avançar, com respeito às diferenças e à soberania.
🇦🇷@alferdez 🇧🇴@LuchoXBolivia 🇨🇱@GabrielBoric 🇨🇴@petrogustavo
— Lula (@LulaOficial) May 30, 2023
Tuesday’s summit took place behind closed doors, but other expected topics of discussion include energy, finance, crime and combating climate change.
“This is the first meeting they have had in nine years, and that is a very very long time,” Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman reported in a TV interview from Brasilia. “And the whole gist of this is to try to find a way to recover what once appeared to be on the roadmap here in the region and that is … South American integration.”
In another sign of the region’s left-wing shift, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro received a warm welcome by Lula, just several years after he was banned from entering Brazil by Lula’s right-wing predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. Under Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil supported Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido’s unsuccessful bid to claim Venezuela’s presidency.
Lula’s embrace of Maduro has been controversial, with critics accusing him of turning a blind eye to Venezuela’s record of imprisoning opposition members and allegations of rigging elections.
In 2018, for instance, Colombia withdrew from UNASUR after the country’s former right-wing President Ivan Duque accused the group of complicity in “Venezuelan dictatorship”.
Duque’s successor, leftist President Gustavo Petro, has since moved to ease tensions with Venezuela following years of hostility, seeking out areas of shared interests such as cooperation on border security.
Questions about Venezuela’s human rights record, however, re-surfaced at Tuesday’s meeting. Leaders like Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou challenged Lula’s assertion that criticism of Venezuela was simply a “narrative” designed to paint the country as anti-democratic.
“I was surprised when you say that what happened in Venezuela is a narrative. You already know what we think about Venezuela and about the Venezuelan government,” Lacalle Pou told Lula in comments shared on Instagram Live.
Meanwhile Temir Porras — a former foreign policy adviser to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who helped co-found UNASUR — told Al Jazeera in a TV interview that the summit is a positive step.
“I find it’s a great initiative by President Lula da Silva,” he said. “South American integration is probably not possible without the participation of Brazil. Brazil is the largest country in the region, it’s the main economy, and it’s a global diplomatic powerhouse.”
However, he said, integration will need to result in tangible benefits in order for the organisation to avoid splintering if the continent’s political landscape shifts once again.
“This time the lesson to be learned is that this integration needs to be pragmatic. It has to be practical. It has to translate into benefits for most of the South American population in order to last,” said Porras.