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Friday, August 28, 2009

Lula's UNASUR Summit

Southern Pulse Intel Brief | 27 August 2009

republished here with permission from Southern Pulse editors.

Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva generated the most interesting news this week, ahead of the 28 August UNASUR summit, to be hosted by Argentina in the ski-resort town of Bariloche.

On 22 August, Lula signed a raft of agreements with Bolivian President Evo Morales in Bolivia’s Chapare region. An agreement worth US$332 million underpins the construction of a 306-kilometer highway from Villa de Tunari in the Chapare to the eastern Bolivian department of Beni.

Brazil has also agreed to import tariff-free textiles worth some US$21 million, which is the same amount of money Bolivia lost due to Washington’s decision not to renew the US-Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) last year. The two leaders also discussed changes in the Brazil-Bolivia natural gas deal, as well as cooperation for bilateral efforts to combat the drug trade, but no solid agreements surfaced.

By many accounts, this meeting was a significant win for Morales, who has been under pressure to find alternative markets for Bolivia’s textiles. The highway construction will also please Chapare leaders, who are Morales’ closest political supporters. He will need them later this year for the run up to Bolivia’s 6 December 2009 presidential elections

For his part, Lula has assured support from Bolivia, despite Morales' anti-US stance, at the UNASUR summit, which promises to be contentious with both Venezuela and Colombia in attendance, and with Ecuador currently holding the president’s chair, which Colombia will likely view as an unfair arbiter.

While Lula has voiced some concern about Colombia’s agreement to allow the US military access to seven military bases in Colombia, he does not side with Chavez, nor can he take such a hardened position against Colombia. UNASUR is widely considered Brazil’s initiative and the strongest effort towards unifying South America under Brazil’s leadership. Lula cannot lean too far to the left in criticizing Colombia and the US at the risk of distancing himself from regional moderates and Washington.

The concern over US bases in Colombia does signal that the United States can still tilt the balance of soft-power in the region, but Lula’s deft diplomacy will likely win out. He did invite President Obama to attend the summit, and while Obama will likely not attend, Lula can at least maintain an open posture towards Washington, signaling that as the de facto regional leader, Brazil has nothing to fear from the US’ increased military presence in Colombia. He also did receive assurances from Obama’s National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, in early August that there would be a “good explanation” for the US’ presence in Colombia.

But Brazil would like a commitment: Obama will not use the Colombian bases to launch missions into other countries. This request is also one made on behalf of all of Colombia’s neighbors - a conciliatory geopolitical stroke ahead of the summit to make sure that Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela can at least agree on something.

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