Seem far away those days in which the UNASUR leaders contributed to widespread the idea of a multipolar world. This project, led by Lula’s Brazil and seconded by Chavez’s Venezuela, and Kirchners’ Argentina, has politically declined in terms of multilateral security cooperation and regional crisis management. A recurrent limit has been Venezuela. This country stepped down from de-democratisation to authoritarianisation while losing its charismatic leader, and its rentier and corrupted economy collapsed. UNASUR has given way to the OAS, the very same forum tried to replace (Weiffen et al. 2013). Although the latter has failed in its attempt to manage a way out of the Venezuelan crisis, it has achieved its internationalization, eclipsing what once was the South American great project of autonomy.
I claim that, facing the Venezuelan case, Colombia and Brazil have been transferring their paralysis to UNASUR. This paralysis’ causes are on a continuum that ranges from self-restraint to self-balancing. I chose these two cases for several reasons: first, they are the two main neighbouring Venezuela. Second, are the states which have been affected by the displacement of Venezuelans through extensive and porous borders. And third, according to a criterion of material capacities (including military), Brazil and Colombia are the first and second powers of South America, which puts them in a position where it is expected from them responsibility with the regional stability and security.
International politics is based on an almost constant exercise of self-restraint. The breakdown of this principle of prudence is generally noticeable and problematic. Walt (2002) analyses the U.S. policy of self-restraint as a way to preserve a prominent position in the international system with a minimum of resistance. Saving the distances, all states practice it, although with different objectives (coexistence, security, or even survival).
On the other hand is what I call self-balancing. While self-restraint is the outcome of a deliberate policy, self-balancing is the result of impotence by domestic causes. IR scholars know well causes and effects of balancing, bandwagoning, and even Schweller’s underbalancing (2010), but the effect of self-balancing. This refers to the inability to act internationally because of domestic politics impediments related to the very state performance and/or social dynamics. In the self-balancing the state opposes itself.
In each critical phase of Venezuelan crises the UNASUR has shown some degree of impotence (Hoffmann et al. 2015). In the past, Brazil managed to influence the politics of its northern neighbour. In 2003, Brasilia led the “Group of Friends of Venezuela”, initiating a process of appeasement of the opposition who managed to put the balance in favour of Chávez (Martínez Meucci 2016). And even in international crises, such as that triggered by Colombian bombardment over FARC camp in Ecuador, in 2008, Lula’s Brazil served as the referee to calm the waters and take advantage in the dawn of the South American Defence Council (Mijares 2011).
Lula’s Brazil was less likely to practice self-restraint in South America. That Brazil was not afraid to show its opinions and to assert its interests in South America. Despite its lack consolidation as an undisputed regional leader (Burges 2008, Malamud 2011), his political agenda allowed to many South American governments felt that they could, in fact, challenge the Western international order and experiment with new forms of regionalism. The low resistance to these initiatives were driven by strong and charismatic leaderships that managed economic booms linked to raw materials.
Today, Venezuela is the greatest challenge to Brazil and Colombia. However, the complexity of the Venezuelan crisis and its regional institutional penetration inhibits the region. The case includes a very high polarization, agricultural and industrial collapse, as well downfall of public services, and the penetration of drug trafficking and Cuban intelligence services in civil and military ranks. This explains the widespread policy of self-restraint. While this policy tends to postpone solutions to a crisis which threatens to generate more regional instability and insecurity, allows to most governments to get rid of the responsibility with the region and with its own national security. From there that the OAS has resumed a preponderant place -although still powerless- as a forum for regional stability.
Current Venezuelan crisis is directly related to raw material super-cycle. Chávez’s charisma was boosted by the oil boom, giving him tools to de-institutionalise the state and consolidate the dual domination of the Socialist Party and the Armed Forces. The end of this cycle evidenced the failures and corruption of the state, leading Venezuela to the nowadays collapse. Regional institutions also broke and other left-wing governments began to sink, growing the regional inability to manage crises. Meanwhile, Venezuela became in a guarantor to the Colombian peace agreements with FARC, gaining political leverage. This role served for years to Caracas to achieve Bogotá’s inhibition and afford the move to a greater centralization of domestic political power without important external questioning. Santos administration practiced self-restraint in the name of peace negotiations. And now it practices self-restraint by the potential effects of a direct confrontation with Maduro’s Venezuela could have on the implementation of the peace agreements.
Besides self-restraint, there is self-balancing effect, being Brazil its main and more notorious victim. While it is true that the structural conditions of the international political economy have adversely affected the South American giant, it is also true that Brazil has become the worst enemy of Brazilian regional project. The causes of the decline of Brazil lie, above all, in Brazil. Fall in the prices of raw materials -and the addiction to public expenditure- has left exposed its political instability, corruption, and polarization. Likewise, the politicization of the Brazilian foreign service has dislocated communications between Planalto and Itamaraty, preventing the state to follow a coherent and convincing strategy in the case of Venezuela.
The phenomena of self-restraint and self-balancing, placed in evidence by the untimely Venezuelan crisis, exposed to light the operational constraints of UNASUR. The two major South American powers may not transfer to the regional organization assertiveness that they do not have their own foreign policies. Thus, South America has been unable to generate solutions and drive changes to Venezuela’s acute situation. Caught between the self-restraint and self-balancing of its member states, UNASUR has fallen into disuse, leaving it up to the Venezuelan democratic forces put their hopes on powerless OAS, and, of course, on any significant internal breakdown in the civil-military structure of Chavismo. South America, once again, is demonstrating its inability when it comes to Venezuela.
Burges, S. W. (2008). Consensual hegemony: theorizing Brazilian foreign policy after the Cold War. International Relations, 22(1), 65-84.
Malamud, A. (2011). A leader without followers? The growing divergence between the regional and global performance of Brazilian foreign policy. Latin American Politics and Society, 53(3), 1-24.
Martinez Meucci, M. A. (2016). Apaciguamiento: el referendum revocatorio y la consolidación de la Revolución Bolivariana. Editorial Alfa.
Mijares, V. M. (2011). Consejo de Defensa Suramericano: obstáculos para una alianza operativa. Politeia, 34(46), 1-46.
Hoffmann, A. M., Mijares, V. M., & Schenoni, L. L. (2015). Die Krise in Venezuela-Prufstein für die UNASUR. GIGA Focus Lateinamerika, (03).
Schweller, R. L. (2010). Unanswered threats: Political constraints on the balance of power. Princeton University Press.
Walt, S. M. (2002). Keeping the World Off Balance: Self Restraint and US Foreign Policy. In Ikenberry, G. J. (ed.) (2002). America unrivaled: the future of the balance of power. Cornell University Press, 121-154.
Weiffen, B., Wehner, L., & Nolte, D. (2013). Overlapping regional security institutions in South America: The case of OAS and UNASUR. International Area Studies Review, 16(4), 370-389.
About the Author
Victor M. Mijares is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, and an Associate Researcher at the GIGA Institute of Latin American Studies, Hamburg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
How to cite this article