Latin America’s Integration Muddle

Jun 9, 2010 Augusto Varas

Augusto Varas is President of the EQUITAS Foundation (Chile).

Regional integration is usually regarded as a way for countries to strengthen themselves. Today’s efforts at regional integration in Latin America, however, have a different purpose altogether: to help the proponents of various plans jockey for power and influence on both the regional and global stage.

SANTIAGO – Regional integration is usually regarded as a way for countries to strengthen themselves. But today’s efforts at regional integration in Latin America seem to have a different purpose altogether. They are put forward to help the proponents of various plans jockey for power and influence on both the regional and global stage.

Indeed, none of the current initiatives to boost Latin American regional integration resemble at all the European integration process. Nor can they be considered the first tentative steps towards such a shared destiny, in the manner of the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, which began the project for European unity.At first glance, the almost constant bombardment of integration proposals in Latin America makes it appear as if the region’s presidents are trying to outdo each other in seeing who can come up with the greatest number of proposals. All the while, scant attention is paid to the region’s already established bodies, which are in sad shape.Consider MERCOSUR, the main post-Cold War regional initiative. According to the Argentine scholar Roberto Bouzas, MERCOSUR is in a critical state of affairs, owing to the inability of its institutions to maintain “the common objectives which drove its member states to engage in the process of regional integration and the consequent loss of focus and capacity to prioritize underlying political problems. Similar diagnoses are made with respect to the Latin American Economic System (SELA), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), and other regional organizations.Contributing to this loss of dynamism is the flood of proposals rushing out of Venezuela, including the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA, with its own standing army), the Trade Treaty of the Peoples (TCP), the Bank of the South, and the South Atlantic Treaty Organization (OTAS). Some of the Venezuelan initiatives are going nowhere, but others, such Petrocaribe, Petrosur, and TeleSUR, are taking off.Meanwhile, Brazil is intent on assuming a regional and global political role that corresponds to its growing economic weight. The challenge is to find a regional role that is compatible with the country’s size, but that does not create mistrust and, at the same time, benefits the rest of the region.

The proposed Union of South American Nations (Unasur), like the South American Defense Council, is part of a Brazilian regional strategy to encourage cooperation within Latin America in order to counterbalance the power of the United States and act as a mediator in regional disagreements. While the Unasur proposal may have been formulated in a more rigorous way than other initiatives, its failure to contemplate trade integration means that there is nothing to tie member states together beyond political will.Discussions about international free trade, however, have generally been held outside the region, in Doha or in the G-20, with Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico representing Latin America. Although Unasur aims to progress beyond free-trade agreements, this requires a more streamlined integration within the organization – one that expands its current role as a forum for discussing problems and seeking solutions for Latin America as a whole.Unasur, however, has highlighted the cooling of relations between Brazil and Mexico, which is not a member of the new organization. This may well have an impact on future regional political coordination, although Mexico’s future membership has not been ruled out. (Furthermore, Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s participation in the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development in Bahia in December 2008 suggests that Mexico has not turned its back on the possibility of coordinating regional positions.)The South American Defense Council, however, has stalled. To increase its effectiveness, the mistrust that permeates Unasur must be quelled, and the goals of member states must be more clearly defined. This is especially true of Brazil, the source of much of this mistrust.Finally, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, some time ago proposed an Organization of Latin American States to replace the Organization of American States (OAS). Although the inclusion of all Latin American states goes some way towards repairing the weakened Brazilian-Mexican axis, and creates a new and more positive environment for future political coordination, this new organization is unlikely to contribute much to actual regional integration.The lack of regional common policies is particularly noticeable in the areas of regional defense and internal security, where it has been impossible to identify a common position on inter-state tensions, the fight against organized crime, and drug trafficking. These difficulties are exacerbated by the OAS’s inability to address complex situations such as the coup d’état in Honduras, the conflict between Ecuador and Colombia, or broader regional problems.This regional stasis may worsen as a result of growing nationalism; an increase in social divisions within states; weapons proliferation and an increase in military spending; and environmental degradation. It seems that Latin America has abandoned the principles, commitments, and foundations of full regional integration. Indeed, national interests and nationalistic egos have now moved to center stage.