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Lula, our savior?

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could step up as the new referee between Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez.

After having refused the invitation to attend the Unasur meeting in Ecuador, Colombia will have to speak in the next meeting staged in Argentina. President Uribe must explain the military bases agreement with the United States to his “neighbors” .

The date is set for Friday. The meeting was organized by Argentinean president Cristina Kirschner in the city of Bariloche. As a courtesy gesture she said “It is crucial we invite president Uribe to a place where he feels there is no hostility towards him.”

It will be a key meeting where the balance of power within the region will be measured, especially between Colombia and Venezuela, the country who has vehemently expressed its disapproval to the agreement that allows American military presence in Colombian bases. “Winds of war breeze through the region” expressed President Chavez two weeks ago in the Unasur meeting in Quito.

This meeting will also be a test for Unasur itself, an organization created more than a year ago by Brazil in its attempt to position itself as a global power and to affirm its authority over the region.

What can happen in Bariloche? All the countries are waging a silent diplomatic battle. Colombia’s strategy began with President Uribe’s whirlwind tour where he confronted seven presidents. Then, the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jaime Bermudez, sent official letters to the eleven Foreign Secretaries of Unasur member countries, in which he asks that in the next meeting other topics, like arms deals and agreements with global powers such as Russia and Iran, be discussed as well.

Hugo Chavez has his own strategy. Last Sunday, he published a one-page advertisement in all the leading diaries of the South American capitals in which he states, with his own signature, that the military bases are a continental threat and, by mentioning the Amazon, makes an attempt to sympathize with the Brazilians.

With all these diplomatic munitions under the table, the two countries will arrive without knowing for certain what to expect. In other times, one could’ve expected the appearance of a conciliatory Fidel Castro or the United States telling the regional bullies to keep quiet.

But Fidel is no longer in power and the United States is loosing influence in the region. Now, it is up to Brazil to keep the neighborhood in order.

How willing is Lula to step up and resolve this crisis? Lula was not happy with the bases ordeal, he said so publicly, and to Uribe in private.

“For Brazil, the American exit of Manta in Ecuador was very meaningful because South America was once again free of American military presence—affirms regional expert Juan Tokatlian—But when the topic of military bases in Colombia surfaces, everything goes askew. It is a heavy blow for Brazil.”

Nevertheless, Brazil’s concern does not seem to have any impact, at least in the short term, on it’s relationship with Colombia. Brazilian diplomacy is known for seeking consensus and using “soft power” in contrast with tough, military stances. A fight with Colombia is not likely.

An alliance with Chavez’s team is not probable either, especially after defiant moves like the privatization of Bolivia’s gas industry, a heavy blow for Brazilian Petrobras, and Ecuador’s refusal to pay a debt to a Brazilian company.

Brazil, most importantly, is seeking to be recognized as a world power and to be successful, it must demonstrate the ability to handle and control regional affairs. Unasur, Brazil’s creation in its search for hegemony over the region, is now being tested.

Unasur is a call for independence from the United States. Even though they are not on the same ideological stance, Lula convinced 11 South American countries to make part of this new system of integration orchestrated by him, without the presence of other competing powers like the United States in the OAS, or Mexico in the Rio Group.

With the military bases agreement a reality, the only thing Brazil can do is turn its defeat—which implies the return of the U.S to their turf—into a new victory. This is why Lula has insisted on a meeting between Unasur members and American President Barack Obama in order to discuss the agreement. In other words, he is trying to surpass the domestic bickering to be able to discuss head to head with the world superpower.

”If the summit goes well, the regional position towards dialogue with the United States will be stronger" declared Lula’s spokesperson Marcelo Baumbach. According to him, Lula’s position is “ establishing legal guarantees that prevent the use of the military bases against third countries.”

To assure the meeting’s success, Lula is calling the region’s presidents, in particular Bolivian Evo Morales who proposed that the countries which approve the installation of the military bases be expelled from Unasur. Lula also spoke to Argentinean premier Cristina Fernandez and warned her that the meeting should produce concrete results. The picture of the meeting, he said, should show a “search for understanding” and not “an impasse.”

This meeting, set for Friday in Argentina, can be described as a second round in regional affairs. The first one was staged more than a year ago in the Rio Summit in Dominican Republic when President Uribe was called upon to explain the military operation on Ecuadorian territory, which led to the death of FARC guerrilla chief Raul Reyes. On that occasion, after insults, memorable phrases and long faces, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa succeeded in getting President Uribe to apologize and Uribe, on his part, condemned alliances with the FARC guerrilla.

More of the same is expected in Bariloche. The military bases agreement generates bad blood within the region, but there is little that can be done. In this summit Chile and Peru, Colombia’s allies, will be present, as will be Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, who has publicly stated this matter is not about “putting anyone in the bench of the accused.” Also, Ecuador will serve as President and Argentina as host, and it is not in their interest to let the summit get out of hand. This also means a lot for Brazil. A regional power seeking global presence cannot have a burning neighborhood. 

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