South American Divisions Hinder Dream of Unity

South American Divisions Hinder Dream of Unity

PIRIÁPOLIS, Uruguay -- Workers in this Uruguayan town have been busily crafting the finishing touches on beachfront shops and restaurants. The Southern Hemisphere's summer is arriving to this time-travelers' destination, a place oddly reminiscent of a mid-century resort in the South of France. With summer's arrival, hordes of tourists from neighboring countries should start rolling in at any moment. As laborers toiled here, somewhere else in the continent a modern brand of Latin American professionals wrapped their work on a more ambitious project. South America's new crop of leftist leaders met in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to chart a course of regional "solidarity and cooperation" at the Second South American Summit.

The plan, one of the dreams of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, among others, is to integrate the region and turn it into something resembling the European Union, even a United States of South America. "Only together," declared Chávez at the summit, "will we be free of the empire." The empire, of course, is the United States, the country ruled by the sulfur-emitting devil George W. Bush, as Chávez recently described him at the United Nations. Right away one could sense a problem for participants. Not all South American leaders, not even all leftist leaders, consider the United States an empire to avoid at all costs. And that was just one of the problems. The reality in this region points to ideological differences and to an astonishing number of bitter, often personal disputes, which will make achieving integration extraordinarily difficult.

Consider Uruguay. Despite the plans for unity, reality here is visibly intruding on the dreams of brotherhood. With mild spring temperatures rising quickly into a summer broil, waiters and shopkeepers on this stretch of coast not far from where the Rio de la Plata merges into the Atlantic Ocean appear somewhat dejected as they scan the sparsely populated beach. "This time last year," said Carlos Torre, a waiter at a parrillada restaurant, "the crowd already looked much bigger." The reason for the drop in visitors -- and the biting cut in income that accompanies it -- is a bitter dispute with neighboring Argentina.

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