In what can be regarded as an advance in relations between the United States (US) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a letter on January 19 to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, revealed that the American government was ready to hold dialogue on security issues with the continental bloc. Correa currently holds the rotating presidency of the organization.
Clinton's letter responded to an invitation Correa sent to the American government last December to discuss these matters with UNASUR which, at its August 2009 summit in Quito, had requested an exchange of views to obtain first hand information on the existing US-Colombia military pact.
Correa's letter urged the United States to discuss questions related to this cooperation agreement that allows the presence of US troops in seven Colombian military bases -- a situation which has generated much concern, particularly from the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. It is UNASUR's view that guarantees given by the Colombian government on not using the seven US military bases in Colombia against any regional country also requires a US commitment.
In her response, Clinton expressed "interest in getting close to the organization," adding that "structured and prepared dialogues could increase mutual agreement and identify areas to boost the ties between the United States and the UNASUR member countries." She agreed to participate in the dialogue on strategic issues, mainly defence and security-related matters, which "may increase mutual understanding, as well as contribute to identify areas of potential cooperation."
The United States has since requested the South American bloc to provide a list of topics to facilitate coordination of the meeting and to develop a joint agenda.
The American reply was warmly received by Correa who said that the proposed meeting -- a date for which has not yet been identified -- will aim at "mending fences" and bringing the "two neighboring regions" closer together. He explained: "The use of bases in Colombia through the US military should be discussed at the dialogue between UNASUR and the US government because it is an action that represents a source of destabilization in the region."
Opponents of the US-Colombia military alliance say that it has created mistrust in the region because it has increased the number of bases from which US military can launch destabilising operations, although the two military allies maintain that the sole purpose of the agreement is to fight drug trafficking in Colombian territory.
Despite the opposing views on this matter, the proposed meeting will aid immensely in building trust and mutual understanding. Shortly after Correa received Clinton's letter, Arturo Valenzuela, US Assistant Secretary of State responsible for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said that the United States would welcome any effort to improve relations and dialogue with the continental body.
Undoubtedly, for this meeting, UNASUR will certainly expand the security question to include the escalation of crime and problems surrounding drug trafficking -- including measures to curtail demand and supply -- and the influx of illegal guns into the region from the United States.
While military and security concerns will be the main items on the agenda of the anticipated dialogue, it is expected that the South American nations will also seize the opportunity to raise other matters relevant to US-South American relations. These will, no doubt, include human rights, climate change, the perceived slow-down of American political and economic engagement with the region, and pressing trade concerns, such as efforts to generate a forward movement in the Doha Round of multilateral trade discussions in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
However, on trade matters, it is doubtful that the US is prepared to shift its position to meet at least some of the primary negotiating demands of South American countries, especially in relation to the question of agricultural subsidies. Indeed, a recent report by the Caracas-based Latin American & Caribbean Economic System (SELA) says that the US has shown little interest in the Doha Round because there are relatively few barriers left to American exports in major markets -- a consequence of past multilateral negotiations and the numerous free trade agreements the world power has negotiated since the mid-1980s. As a matter of fact, the United States, for a very long time, has been the largest trading partner of the South American nations. Further, the Obama administration is more concerned in the short term with the recovery from the recession, and in the medium term its priorities are on non-trade issues such as health care and climate change.
While UNASUR is now preparing for these crucial discussions with the US, it is also pushing forward in building its organizational structure. Late last month, the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister, Fander Falconi, reported that during 2010, Ecuador would erect the organisation's headquarters in the community of Mitad del Mundo, a village near the country's capital. "We are ready to begin construction of the UNASUR headquarters . . . and we already have the resources to begin the project," he announced. "Our challenge is to consolidate UNASUR's internal structure, and to strengthen the organisation's infrastructure."