Don’t Fall For Unasur’s Olive Branch of Open Immigration


Español Every year, South American leaders attend summit after summit, purportedly to discuss regional matters and coordinate the strategies of various regional organizations. However, the reality is somewhat different. Long journeys at taxpayers’ expense, sumptuous banquets and high-flown rhetoric are each an essential part of the ritual that inevitably goes with these encounters.

The meeting of December 5 in Ecuador was no exception. Leaders from the majority of member countries of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) met at a summit in Quito to inaugurate a new headquarters, reform the internal structure of the organization, and discuss moves to create South American citizenship.

Recognizing the organization’s lethargy and irrelevance, they announced the “relaunch” of Unasur. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa admitted that people the continent over are weary with the purposelessness of these summits, which rarely result in “concrete acts.” But it remains to be seen whether a new building is enough to fundamentally change a superficial and bureaucratic organization.

The Latest Circus

The latest Unasur meeting, as well as showcasing a new building worth US$43 million — largely financed by the Ecuadorian government — devoted itself to a more high-flown objective. Ernesto Samper, former president of Colombia and current secretary-general of the body, announced the creation of the “concept of South American citizenship” that would permit almost 400 million South Americans to “travel, study and work freely throughout the region, as well as homogenize professional qualifications.”

Predictably, the time-frame for this project remains to be defined, and further summits, banquets, aeroplane trips and yawn-inducing speeches will be necessary to even reach an agreement about how to being implementing it.

The region already has a failed experiment to show for such ideas. Each member of regional trade bloc Mercosur has rolled out a National Identity Document (DNI), which was supposed to permit the free movement of people across Mercosur borders. But the ideal has failed to materialize: border controls and custom officials remain in place, and instead of needing to produce a passport, one has to show one’s Mercosur DNI. Hardly a huge advance.

“South American citizenship,” Correa stated, represents the “confirmation of our unity.” It could have been a great idea, but amid widespread nationalism across the region, any trace of multiculturalism in a measure like this has been discarded. This latest incarnation of South American citizenship is born out of regional nationalism, an idea also known as la Patria Grande: a recurring theme in the speeches of “Bolivarian” leaders such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Ecuador’s Correa.

In this way, homogeneity, and not diversity, underlies the idea of regional citizenship. Behind the ideal of the Patria Grande and continental union hide the same old prejudices and nationalist notions that dominate Latin American governments, both of the left and the right.

El presidente de Ecuador Rafael Correa asumió un papel protagónico en el "relanzamiento" de la Unasur, ocupando de liderazgo de los fallecidos Kirchner  y Chávez.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa took a starring role in the “relaunch” of Unasur, assuming the leadership position once held by the late Néstor Kirchner and Hugo Chávez. (Presidency of Ecuador)

Open Frontiers?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, passports were a rarity and the free movement of people was the norm. Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariaga (1886-1978) wrote in De la angustia a la libertad that liberals must “condemn unreservedly the system of passports now in force. Not only visas, but passports themselves. The country that accepts the passport system remains reduced to a prison, whose key is kept by the government, and where no-one can enter nor leave without police permission.”

De Madariaga hit the nail on the head. His description lays bare the reality behind border posts, and the place occupied by the individual in a society dominated by the Leviathan. Meanwhile, the benefits of free movement are countless, as explained by PanAm Post columnist Nick Zaiac:

There are a handful of inputs that go into the economy, primarily land, labor, and capital. To grow the economy, one must either make more of, or make more efficient use of, one of these factors. Of these, land is finite and is rarely transferred between nations. Although we can use land more efficiently, it is likely that we have exhausted the easily achievable growth from land.

At the other end of the spectrum is capital: in the form of money, it flows around the world constantly. While some barriers exist, capital moves between nations much more easily than land and labor.

Paul D’Amato, a contributor to the Socialist Worker magazine, also outlines the same reasoning as to why the free movement of capital is easier than that of individuals. “Capital moves relatively freely throughout the world,” Amato writes, “chasing after the most profitable investments. But at the same time, labor does not have the same freedom as capital to move across borders.”

If both sides share the same logic, why not use the free movement of labour to its maximum potential? Even a socialist can see it.

Free Movement of Tyranny

In reality, neither Maduro, nor Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner, nor Correa, nor late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have ever sought to work with Unasur to genuinely erase borders and permit greater social cooperation through the free market. We shouldn’t hold our breath for the despots of the twenty-first century, who have never accepted nor ever understood even the free exchange of goods, to suddenly permit free transit of people.

Nevertheless, borders are an obstacle for those who want to intervene in the affairs of another country. Borders operate as a restraint on power. “Your rule stops here,” borders say to those in power. Across the arbitrary line in the sand begins the domain of another state. Frontiers constrain the desire of governments to extend their control even further. At the same time, within each country there exist borders and limits which delineate and restrict power even further, facilitating its scrutiny and allowing it to be held to account. At least in theory, anyway.

What would happen if these borders didn’t exist? In the first place, it would be necessary to decree a new centralized authority to administer this new territory. Furthermore, this authority would be subject to weaker scrutiny: the distance between the ruler and the ruled, obscure and opaque methods of control, and the lack of counterweights to authority would threaten to annihilate individual rights. The idea of a South American government isn’t so different from that of a world government, a huge entity whose limits are difficult to identify, whose actions are hard to restrict and to punish.

Correa has now announced that he aims to “create a South American arbitration court, as an alternative to current tribunals completely captured by international capital,” thus evading Ecuador’s international responsibility from rulings involving foreign companies. Venezuela’s President Maduro, for his part, has signalled the imminent activation of the Bank of the South — in other words, more intervention and state subsidies for corporations friendly to his regime.

I hope that one day the barriers to the free movement of goods and people will disappear from Latin America. Until then, we should remain alert. Behind the banquets, summits and pretty words, there could lie a hidden trap — from which, once caught in, it will be too late to escape.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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