In the 21st century so far, regional integration has been one of the most notable elements of South American foreign relations. Picking up speed in recent years, the continent's heads of state have enthusiastically met in numerous summits, promising increased political, economic, social, and development cooperation. Across the spectrum, governments are expanding current integration frameworks and entering into new agreements. Expectations are no less grand. As Brazil's President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva recently stated, "South America, united, will move the board game of power in the world, not for its own benefit, but for everyone's."
Economic integration is a starting point for this bold agenda. South American nations are pushing to deepen already existing sub-regional trade organizations, in particular the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Andean Community (CAN). These two groups are also negotiating with each other, with the goal of creating a South America Free Trade Area (SAFTA). In addition to trade-based integration agreements, South American countries recently formed a new regional financing vehicle, the Bank of the South. Spearheaded by Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez , its lending will focus on social programs and infrastructure in the Americas. It plans to begin operations in 2009 with an initial budget of about $7 billion.