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Plans advance for South American passport and citizenship

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted July 20th. 2016

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has advanced its plans for the establishment of a South American passport and the promotion of the free movement of all South American citizens throughout the continent. Towards this end, on June 28-29, the Working Group on South American Citizenship met in Ecuador where representatives of the twelve member-nations discussed a variety of ideas on how the process should proceed. These ideas included the methodology to hasten the removal of visa restrictions on travel within the continent. The meeting also dealt with the development of the plan for South American citizenship through the use of a common passport, mobility of citizens across borders, and the rights of citizens in another South American country other than their own.

South American governments are currently considering the results of this meeting and so far details of its final report have not been released to the general public.

The UNASUR secretariat (based in Ecuador) on its website reports briefly on the citizenship program: "The building of the South American citizenship promotes free intra-regional mobility; and the creation of a South American education space and common identity, which will contribute to deepening the regional integration process. In addition it will guarantee civil, political, labor and social rights for all natives of the member-states who are at present residing in any country of South America."

The citizenship program forms part of the broader objective of the twelve South American nations to achieve full political and economic integration. Together, they now have a total population of more than 400 million people with a territory of 17 million square kilometers. By uniting, the region can become the fourth largest economy in the world, with resources of one-third of the world's fresh water, hydrocarbon reserves for the next 100 years, while currently being first in food production. UNASUR feels that as an integrated entity, the member-states will be better able to develop their resources to vastly improve the livelihood of their citizens.

Background to the process

Ever since the South American Community of Nations (the forerunner of UNASUR) was established back in December 2004, many of the continent's leaders from time to time expressed ideas for political integration and free movement of citizens across borders. Significantly, the integration process was spurred on November 24, 2006 when the continent's foreign ministers, meeting in Santiago, Chile, reached an agreement for South American citizens to travel throughout the continent without visas and leaving it up to each country to implement regulations to meet this objective.

No doubt, this decision was the forerunner of the South American citizenship program which was announced at the sixth summit of UNASUR in Lima, Peru, on November 30, 2012. In their final declaration, the South American leaders approved the beginning of the process to advance, "in a flexible and gradual manner towards the consolidation of the South American identity . . . with the aim of attaining a true South American citizenship as the backbone of an integrated South American space."

This decision commenced the fulfilment of the aim of UNASUR's constitutive treaty of May 2008, which sets out in its preamble the determination of the continent's leaders "to build a South American identity and citizenship." A Working Group on South American Citizenship was subsequently set up by the foreign ministers to examine proposals on these matters.

Two years after the Peru summit, the December 2014 summit held in Guayaquil, Ecuador, took a further step when the leaders approved the concept of a South American citizenship for the continent's 400 million people. Part of this proposal aimed at creating a "single passport" which would facilitate the free movement of people in the region for work or study across the continent, similar to the system operating in the European Schengen zone. The concept would also support the mutual recognition of degrees from the respective countries' universities and other institutions of higher learning. Secretary General of the bloc, Ernesto Samper, felt that this process of integration would result in "convergence of citizens, convergence of similarities, and convergence of solidarity are the proposals of this effort to bring us together."

The citizenship plan advanced further when the UNASUR meeting of foreign ministers on April 23, 2016, adopted proposals for a gradual process and to maintain regular consultations with governments of the member-states in order to gauge their readiness.

Some impediments

But within the region impediments exist and these can act to slow down the process. Old prejudices nurtured by widespread nationalism (also espoused by many political players of varying ideological persuasions) exist across the region; so multiculturalism resulting from free movement may not be readily embraced by the citizens of some countries. Also, each full member of Mercosur, the regional trade bloc, established a national identity document (DNI), aimed at permitting free movement of people across Mercosur borders. But this has not worked well since border controls and custom officials remain in place, and instead of needing to produce passports, citizens of these member-states have to present their DNIs. But uniformity is not firmly established since some immigration authorities also request the presentation of passports at airports and border crossings.

And even within the longer-established Caribbean Community (Caricom) to which Guyana and Suriname belong, real freedom of movement of Caricom citizens remain elusive even though the member-countries (except Bahamas and Haiti) have Caricom passports. For instance, there are numerous incidents of Guyanese, Jamaican and Haitian citizens being refused entry or detained for long periods on arrival at the airport in Barbados. Further, Haitian citizens, despite their Caricom status, must have visas for entry into most of the Caricom countries. Undoubtedly, UNASUR is examining the Caricom experience as it proceeds to develop its own system of continental citizenship.

Position of UNASUR's Caricom members

Currently, both Guyana and Suriname, subscribe to the regional Caricom passport arrangement and it is doubtful that their respective governments will abandon it for the anticipated South American document. However, they may subscribe to part of the arrangement which will allow their citizens (holders of Caricom passports) to travel and work in other UNASUR countries without the necessity of visas. Currently, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), for tourism purposes Guyanese enjoy visa free travel to most South American countries except Chile and Paraguay; visa-free entry to other countries, such as Venezuela, Chile and Paraguay, is restricted to holders of diplomatic passports. On the other hand, Surinamese citizens have visa free entry to all other South American countries, except Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Since the entire South American citizenship plan will be a gradual process, whenever it comes on stream, it is expected that each of the member-nations will have the option to decide on what aspects of the arrangement they will initially adopt.

July 20, 2016

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003), Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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