South American leaders name ex-Argentine President Nestor Kirchner as Unasur secretary-general

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The leaders of South America named former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner as their secretary-general on Tuesday, setting aside their differences in hopes that the 12-nation Unasur group can consolidate into a regional force for unity, development and democracy-building.

The Unasur group also condemned of Arizona's immigration law as a violation of human rights, issuing a declaration that said the law legitimizes "racist attitudes" in U.S. society and increases "the latent risk of violence due to racial hate, lamentable episodes that have involved South American victims."

Unasur was formed years ago, in part as a counterpoint to the Organization of American States and other regional organizations dominated by Washington, but the nations had failed to agree on a leader until now. Unasur's permanent headquarters near Ecuador's capital, and a parliament building planned for Cochabamba, Bolivia, remain on the drawing board.

According to Unasur's founding treaty, the secretary-general must focus solely on regional matters and not national politics during his two-year term. That may be problematic for Kirchner, a leader of his political party who has all but declared himself to be a candidate to succeed his wife, Cristina Fernandez, in Argentina's presidential elections next year.

Kirchner also will have to give up his job as a deputy in Argentina's Congress, either by quitting outright or by asking for a leave of absence, which would enable him to keep his congressional immunity from prosecution.

Argentina's newspapers, a federal judge and Congress are pursuing evidence to support allegations that ministers and aides to Kirchner and his wife set up a system that requires Argentine companies to pay bribes to do business in Venezuela.

Kirchner was designated by unanimous consent after leaders praised his experience and stature.

Uruguay previously blocked Kirchner's appointment because Argentina tacitly supported protesters blocking a key bridge over their shared river in a campaign against an Uruguayan paper mill. The three-year blockade continues, despite a World Court ruling Uruguay hoped would lead to a resolution.

Recently elected Uruguayan President Jose Mujica said he supports Kirchner's appointment unconditionally, even though it will cost him politically.

"We support consensus, and we are going to continue doing so, counting on good faith without conditions," Mujica said, dismissing reports that his support was conditioned on Fernandez forcing the protesters to open the bridge.

Other issues on the Unasur agenda included discussions about democracy in Honduras and help for earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile.

The Unasur nations also include Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela.

Most leaders showed up for the meeting, including Chile's new right-wing billionaire president, Sebastian Pinera, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. But Colombia's outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, who clashed with Chavez and Ecuador's Rafael Correa at an earlier Unasur meeting, sent a minister instead.

Previous Unasur meetings have been characterized by lengthy speeches and few concrete actions. Pinera called for "clear goals and deadlines" in his first Unasur appearance.