South America bloc's woes leave architectural gem forlorn

A spectacular new building meant to be a symbol of South American unity is instead increasingly empty

SAN ANTONIO DE PICHINCHA, Ecuador -- It's a gravity-defying edifice that befits the lofty ambitions of what was supposed to be a symbol of South American unity.

Set against an arid moonscape on the equatorial line, two cantilevered glass wings soar dramatically above a reflecting pool, symbolizing freedom and transparency and looking like something out of a science-fiction movie.

But for all its architectural grandeur, the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations outside Ecuador's capital seems as moribund as the group itself. What was once an aspiring diplomatic hub looks like a ghost building.

The group's chief architect, ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is in jail while another big booster, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has died.

Meanwhile, a rightward shift has left the region more polarized than it has been in decades.