Unasur, the South American Union of Nations was officially born Friday, May 23, in Brazilian capital BrasÀlia, as leaders of the region's 12 nations signed the constitutional charter, the latest of the region's integration mechanisms.
Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who hosted the summit, invited other Latin American and Caribbean nations to join the venture.
"Unasur is born, open to the entire region, born under the signs of diversity and pluralism," he said. However Unasur was born with serious controversies.
Unasur's first secretary-general, Rodrigo Borja, resigned Thursday before the organization formally met. He complained that some leaders had balked at his vision of putting other regional trade blocs, including Mercosur and the Andean Community, under Unasur. Borja said these sub-regional trade groups are losing their original vigor and enthusiasm.
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela make up Unasur.
Leaders were also split over plans for a South American Defense Council that would help prevent and solve regional conflicts and among other purposes includes the exchange of military experience; participation in UN peace keeping missions; coordinating aid to disaster areas; joint military exercises and integration of the regional military defense industries for the possible manufacture of weapons.
Colombia is the only nation that opposes joining such a council, saying "the terrorist threat" it faces at home, amid 40 years of civil conflict, precludes military cooperation. Even so, a government statement added, "Colombia does not oppose the creation of a working group to study the theme."
"We're not concerned about the Defense Council in this meeting, since the issue is to be debated in the second half of the year," said Lula's main political advisor Marco Aurélio Garcia, who admitted that tensions in the continent remain as the main challenge to the integration project of Unasur.
Lula used his speech at the summit to urge wealthier nations to cut farm subsidies and import tariffs, and he defended bio-fuels, including ethanol, which critics blame for rising food prices.
"We should not be fooled one bit by the arguments of those, who for protectionist or geopolitical motives feel uncomfortable with our industry, our agriculture and with the realization of our energy potential," the Brazilian president told the leaders.
Unasur could ease future political tensions, promoting development on a continent where intra-regional trade topped US$ 72 billion in 2006. South America's economy is expected to grow by 4.7% this year, according to the U.N.'s Economic Commission on Latin America.
It expanded 5.7% in 2007, when foreign direct investment reached a record US$ 106 billion as global demand for the region's natural resources soared.
Bachelet, First President
Chile's Michelle Bachelet was chosen as Unasur's first president. The Unasur rotating chair "is a great honor for Chile and recognition to the country's and Ms Bachelet dedication to integration," said Chilean Foreign Affairs minister, Alejandro Foxley.
"Unasur will give us a louder voice in world affairs" and is a potent mechanism for integration, said Bachelet on accepting the nomination. "The time for rhetoric integration is over, now we need concrete, practical decisions that our peoples value and can see every day. The first seal we are going to stamp to this new beginning is that of social affairs," promised the Chilean president.
"The fact President Bachelet was named is a reward for her enormous contribution in the last year and a half to pave the way for the signing of the Unasur charter," added Foxley.
"We want physical integration. It's not possible that to fly from Santiago to Brasília one must spend a whole day jumping from airport to airport. We must conclude the bi-oceanic corridors. President Bachelet reaffirmed presidents Lula and Morales commitment to finish by the end of 2009 the highway that will link the port of Santos on the Atlantic, in Brazil, with Arica and Iquique on the north of Chile after crossing Bolivia."
Foxley downplayed tensions of the opening meeting saying that "when there's a real integration determination and spirit, and I believe all presidents have that determination, through dialogue we can address possible differences."
Leaders present at the signing of the constitutional charter for Unasur included besides Chile's Bachelet and Brazil's Lula da Silva; Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner; Alan Garcia from Peru; Alvaro Uribe from Colombia; Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, Rafael Correa, Ecuador; Evo Morales, Bolivia; Nicanor Duarte Frutos, Paraguay; Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo; Surinam, Ronald Venetiaan and vice president Rodolfo Nin Novoa from Uruguay.