Ernesto Samper, General Secretary of UNASUR: New Priorities for South American Integration

With Ernesto Samper as its new General Secretary, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will focus its regional agenda on three priorities: on the social front, inclusion; on the economic front, competitiveness; and on the political front, citizens’ security together with the strengthening of democracy.


This was the synthesis that Samper—who took office two months ago—made during a radio dialogue with media outlets of the Forum on Communication for the Integration of Our America, broadcast live on Friday, November 7.  The former President of Colombia added three priorities that he hopes to promote during his mandate, calling attention to the fact that these had not been central to or well-articulated in the political project of UNASUR.  These are: gender imbalance–principally the discrimination that affects women in economic and labour areas–; the environment (beginning with the Conference of Parties on climate change, scheduled to take place in Lima in December), and guarantees for the full exercise of human rights.  On these issues, he hopes to be able to see progress by the end of his mandate, in two years.


With respect to social inclusion, Samper underlined that the problem for Latin America is not only that of reducing poverty, but above all the “reduction of inequality”, noting: “We have the most unequal area of the planet. We have serious gaps in gender equality, in rural-urban relations, in social areas, in labour, so that inequality continues to be a major social problem of Latin America; for that reason, the social agenda that I am proposing, in view of reorienting the task of the sectorial councils that function in UNASUR so as to come up with concrete answers, has to do with social inclusion”.  He mentioned, for example, that the Health Institute of UNASUR (ISAGS) is setting up a database of reference prices for popular consumption medicines, because from one country to another, “the differences are abysmal”.


As for the economic agenda, it is not enough that South America is a region of great natural wealth, the new General Secretary General pointed out; “We must add value and overcome the myth that the market will, as if by magic, generate new productive sources for employment that we need to create for Latin Americans”.  This implies, among other things, serious work on infrastructure, connectivity, science, technology and technological training, he added.


With respect to citizens’ security, Samper estimates that Latin American peoples are the most threatened in the world, not only because of rates of urban criminality, but also due to other risks, such as hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean, or environmental problems in the Southern zone, as the result of global warming.


The political scene


The General Secretary recalled that UNASUR, unlike other processes of integration, “is above all a political scenario” that allows the countries to share “certain ideals of a political order: the preservation of the region as an area of peace; the consolidation, further development and maintenance of the democratic process; the defence of democracy and the defence of human rights”.  The 12 member countries occupy 18 million square kilometres, in which 70% of the Latin American population lives.


Although UNASUR was born through a dialogue among governments, the proposal calls for its extension to other bodies and social entities.  With this intention, the Forum of Citizen Participation was established (in the Cochabamba meeting held in August of this year), which according to Samper should serve as a scenario for campesino, worker, students, women and other sectors, so that they “may have a place to discover common denominators, and that this serves to support the basis of legitimacy” for the attainment of objectives proposed by UNASUR; also, so that they can “take on as their own” the objectives of the South American Union.  Similarly, there is a call to national parliaments (whose presidents will meet in Quito early in December, when the headquarters of the General Secretariat is to be inaugurated) and judicial bodies, among others.


Sovereign policies and peace


In the interview, the questions centred on aspects such as regional financial architecture, policy questions around narcotics, cyber-defence, peace and the defence of democracy.


With respect to financial architecture, and in particular with the present case of the Argentine debt, Ernesto Samper decried the ravages resulting from the free circulation of capital, which is at the centre of globalization and which jeopardizes the process of development.  He emphasized that UNASUR has been completely supportive of Argentina in their proposal to obtain international norms that will allow countries to negotiate agreements, in a sovereign manner, with creditors in order to restructure their external debt, and that these agreements, if the majority are involved, should be extended obligatorily to all creditors.


He also indicated that in Quito, on November 6, the basis for an agreement on a regional mechanism for the resolution of investor-State controversies was established, and that there is hope that this will be approved, at least partially, in the upcoming Presidential Summit to be held in Ecuador in December.  It is also expected that the Banco del Sur will soon be open for business, once the governments deliver the start-up funds.


With respect to narcotics, Samper believes that South America is the region with the greatest moral authority, at an international level, to present an alternative to the policy of prohibition or “the war on drugs”.  “It is clear that the prohibitionist policy, now one hundred years old, has failed, since the existence of 300 million consumers of illicit drugs has shown that the efforts to control the problem through interdiction, supervision and repression has not produced results”.  He points out that in the region this policy has meant being harsh with the weak links in the drug chain—campesino growers, small carriers and above all consumers—and weak with the strong ones.  He therefore proposes, in view of the UN congress on these issues to be held in 2016, to develop a policy that would avoid both prohibitionist fundamentalism and legalizing fundamentalism (ie simply leaving everything to the market), advancing “a series of basic concepts such as the responsibility of the State, the decriminalization of social conduct associated with this problem, avoiding imprisonment in many cases, and of course placing emphasis on the persecution of the cartels and organized crime.


The new UNASUR headquarters in Quito


Samper emphasized in particular the work of the Defence Council of UNASUR and its new concept of hemispheric security, leaving behind the “national security doctrine” in force some 30 or 40 years ago, that relied on external support. “The hypothesis of security with which we are working now in UNASUR is the concept of hemispheric security... we have to resolve our own security problems”.  This implies abandoning the hypothesis of conflict (although there are elements with interests in this scenario, such as the arms industry) and working instead with the hypothesis of confidence, that is, negotiating peaceful outcomes to conflict.


In this framework, he recognized that one serious challenge, and a fundamental issue, is that of cyber-defence and cyber-security, especially due to the use of digital networks for illicit or irregular activities. “These networks are virtuous for our globalization in many respects, but they can also be very dangerous in consideration of the fact that they can transmit a series of global pathologies that are beginning to result in serious damage”, he affirmed.


We asked him about the balance between the interests of security and defence of States, and the rights of citizens to privacy and the security of their communications.  “There is a proposal that this theme of cyber-defence should be approached together with the communications authorities in each country–Samper replied–because the fundamental issue is to make the networks secure, and this security has to do not only with preventing the circulation of these threats, but also that citizens enjoy a guarantee that their individual relationships should not be interfered with; there I think there is a valid concern”.


Respecting the peace negotiations in Colombia, the former Colombian president was optimistic in the face of the eventual signing of an agreement in Havana; nevertheless–he said–it is now that the hard part will begin: “reconstituting a country that has spent fifty years resolving its problems with violence”, a process that involves reconciliation, justice, truth and reparation.  UNASUR is willing to contribute to this transition from conflict to post-conflict.


As for the defence of democracy, Samper pointed out that the most emblematic interventions of UNASUR have been in moments of crisis and threats of a breakdown of democratic process, in the face of which its vigilance will continue. “Wherever there is a real threat of destabilization of any country, the function of the General Secretary is to move rapidly to reveal the situation and convene mechanisms which are in the statutes of UNASUR–the Council of Foreign Ministers or even the Presidential Council–in order that adequate decisions may be taken rapidly”.


Re-politicizing and de-ideologizing relations


Samper has on several occasions said that “relations must be re-politicized”.  By this, he means that there should be no fear “of speaking of our realities, including on themes that set us apart”.  He regards UNASUR as a scenario to resolve controversies between countries of the region.  According to him, this implies “de-ideologizing” relations, “because we must begin on a basis of the respect that each should have for the ideas of the other... We can live with these different visions”.  Concerning this, he pointed out that ten years earlier, what happened at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, in the presence of the President of the US, would have been unthinkable: the war on drugs policy was questioned, and the embargo against Cuba and the reform of the United Nations was discussed.


Samper believes that what differentiates UNASUR from other processes of integration, such as the European Union, is that “Europe is a process of integration that is seeking to become a region, and we are a region that is seeking to achieve integration”.  Within this process, he underlines two words that he believes will be at centre-stage when the UNASUR headquarters building in the “Middle of the World” (Quito) is to be inaugurated, next December 5: convergence, around the same objectives, and solidarity, as an effective reality in South American integration and an example for other such processes.



(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)