WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- President Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay wants a less fragmented Latin America, but his lament about an unbalanced and weak Mercosur tells only part of the story. The region is long on pacts and treaties but short on political and economic cooperation models that actually work.
Vazquez is visiting the United States and has already met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who hailed him as a valued ally -- a signal that the Obama administration is serious about re-engagement with Latin America after the "lost years" of the Bush era.
Uruguay and the United States have announced long-term measures for close bilateral collaboration outside the scope of Mercosur.
"In Uruguay we believe in Mercosur and we want more (of) and better Mercosur," Vazquez said during an address to the Council of the Americas, reported by MercoPress.
Mercosur began as a regional trade agreement among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay with the 1991 Treaty of Asuncion. The accord was superseded in 1994 by the Treaty of Ouro Preto. But Mercosur's lofty aims of achieving free trade and movement of people, and a common currency, remain unrealized.
Added to Mercosur's underachievement has been the rise of competing agreements and treaties that also began with the goal of political or economic integration. Mutual suspicion, protectionism, political divergence or uneven financial strength of member countries have all contributed to Mercosur's lackluster performance.
Mercosur still has to recover from the most dramatic blow of all, the collapse of Argentina's economy in 2001.
Conflicts continue over trade policy issues between Brazil and Argentina, Argentina and Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil, and differences persist over the United States' role in the region -- and Mercosur's underlying opposition to any U.S. role at all.
"We want more Mercosur because the more integrated countries, the stronger our voice in the international context, but I also used the word 'better,' because we are not satisfied with the current Mercosur," Vazquez said.
He cited asymmetrical ties between the larger and weaker economies within Mercosur and obstacles that limited smaller members' access to the larger markets within the region.
He complained that, contrary to Mercosur's framework, "Brazil prefers to purchase subsidized rice from the U.S. instead of from Uruguay."
Vazquez said that the proliferation of different frameworks, all aimed at Latin American integration, including the Union of South American Nations, Unasur or the Andean Community of Nations, posed difficulties along the path of integration.
U.S. diplomatic moves in the region have aimed at forging bilateral alliances, as with Uruguay, and with Colombia over the anti-narcotics military campaign. In recent weeks U.S. officials have also expressed interest in rebuilding ties that were neglected in previous years.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said last week the Obama administration could capitalize on new signs of pragmatism among Latin American governments of different political shades after the "lost years" of the Bush presidency.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, on a visit to Brazil, said Thursday the Obama administration would pursue a bilateral trade agreement with Brazil even if that meant bypassing Mercosur.
"More than talking about Mercosur or any other regional format, the purpose of my visit is to concentrate on the bilateral relation between Brazil and the U.S.," Kirk said in an interview with Brazilian newspaper Valor Economico.
The IISS said the Obama administration was re-engaging in different parts of the world to forge alliances whichever way possible. John Chipman, IISS director general and chief executive said, "In areas where U.S. strategic interests are intense and challenged, the administration is evidently seeking to build what we call 'coalitions of the relevant,' to advance shared interests."
Chipman said the "mini-lateralism" of bringing together like-minded countries in clusters of shared interests and objectives was being pursued "on various themes and in different theaters."
Analysts said it was too early to tell what impact U.S. re-engagement could have on Mercosur and other multilateral organizations in Latin America. Radical popular opposition to Colombia aligning with the United States in the war on drug cartels has already divided the South American Nations Union, Unasur. Colombia has threatened to leave the organization if the radical populist leaders, led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, continue their anti-Colombian and anti-U.S. rhetoric.