The Obstacles to Regional Integration in Latin America

The Obstacles to Regional Integration in Latin America

Theme: Despite the increasing rhetoric about the external obstacles that hinder the process of Latin American integration, the main problems originate within the continent itself.

Summary: A common suggestion is that the main obstacles to the process of Latin American integration are external ones that most often have to do with the attitude of US governments, which are more interested in policies of ‘divide and rule’ than in promoting unification. This is the same line of thought that in the 19th century referred to the ‘Balkanisation’ of Latin America. However, beyond the rhetoric expressed in different forums (for example, at the recent Summit of the Americas held in November in Mar del Plata, Argentina), the main causes lie in the internal realities of the region. This paper focuses on three of these realities, two excesses and one deficit: an excess of nationalism and rhetoric, but a deficit of leadership.

Analysis: It is often said that regional integration in Latin America is not advancing due to the existence of serious obstacles, generally of an external nature. Euphemisms aside, this generally means US imperialism, which is interpreted as a policy of ‘divide and rule’ contrary to continental unity. Applying conspiracy theories to the analysis of regional divisions is nothing new. Since the 19th century, imperialism in any of its forms (British, French and American) has been interested in the ‘Balkanisation’ of Latin America. This argument was present during the entire process of national construction in the first half of the century, with the formation of Uruguay raising conspiracy theories to a high point. In some circles, regional integration is considered a key to fostering development in Latin America. However, no clear explanation is given for this theory, nor is there any explanation of why other regions in the world such as Asia are not integrated but nonetheless are growing faster than Latin America.

The nearly simultaneous occasion of the Ibero-American Summit in Salamanca and the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata provides a good opportunity to consider these issues. While not denying the importance of external factors in the internal political life of countries and regions, or the role that Great Britain played in Latin America in the 19th century and that the United States played in the 20th century, I propose to emphasise certain internal issues that generally receive less attention. Though this is not an exhaustive study, I would highlight the existence of two excesses and one deficit as being among the main obstacles to the progress of Latin American integration. The excesses involve the heightened rhetoric and the heavy weight of nationalism embedded in Latin American public opinion; the deficit is essentially the lack of regional leadership.

The Lack of Leadership as an Obstacle to Regional Integration
Let us begin with the lack of leadership. There is no doubt that neither of the two Latin American giants, Brazil and Mexico, have played the role that should correspond to them, given the size, capacity and wealth they would be capable of bringing to the regional integration process. When Argentina’s political and economic circumstances allowed it to foment regional integration, it also failed to take the lead in Latin America, being more immersed in its own internal issues than interested in a strategic association with the rest of the region.

This lack of leadership can be explained basically by the lack of any real need for integration, with the various countries being more concerned with their own problems than with what is happening around them. There has also been a significant lack of resources to finance operations of this kind, although this should not disguise the fact that the various governments have lacked the political will to foment integration. However, although the lack of leadership was a key factor in the repeated failures of Latin American integration, most of the common explanations focus on the omnipresence of the United States –and, obviously, we must see in this a clear attempt to avoid accepting responsibility at home–.

Academics who study Latin American integration often look to the European Union (EU) for inspiration or appropriate models to foment similar processes in Latin America. Indeed, in the course of European unification, in which the political component was more important than economics, the famous Franco-German axis (now in crisis) played an outstanding role. Without the leadership of Paris and Bonn, European unification would never have reached the point it has, despite the fact that US interests in Europe were, and continue to be, both qualitatively and quantitatively greater than in Latin America. It is true that Europe was a key front in the Cold War, as can be seen in the degree to which NATO was active in the continent, but after the Cuban revolution and the missile crisis, the importance of hemispheric issues began to be felt. Still, it is worth recalling the totally contradictory experiences of NATO and the Rio Treaty (the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also known by the Spanish acronym TIAR), both of which arose in the same period in the same Cold War context, but with entirely different results. It is instructive to recall the great boost that NATO gave to European growth, compared with the fiasco of the Rio Treaty, due to a large extent to the deep anti-US feeling in Latin America at the time.

The lack of leadership can also be explained by the costs associated with the exercise of such leadership. It is curious that no one in Latin America has yet wanted to take on the role of regional leader, automatically assuming that the benefits to be obtained would be substantially inferior to the cost involved. This attitude, however, has begun to change now that Venezuela has come on the scene with sufficient resources and a clear idea of what it wants to do with them. As is always the case, when there is a vacuum someone fills it –in this case, due to inaction on the part of Brazil and Mexico–. Although Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and Fidel Castro’s Cuba have the support of part of Latin American public opinion, the big difference between Chávez and Castro is that the former has the economic resources that the latter has always lacked. This puts the Venezuelan leader in a position to gain political backing in multilateral bodies such as the OAS, through companies such as Petrocaribe, which distributes oil charitably at subsidised prices and finances oil purchases with loans at symbolic interest rates. As a result, it is reasonable to question the permanence of support that is garnered by mechanisms that have little to do with conviction or persuasion.

Nationalism and the Transfer of Sovereignty to Supranational Bodies
Nationalism is the first among the excesses. Despite the continuous stream of declarations (and more on rhetoric later) on –or in favour of– Latin American unity, the fact is that the region has made very little headway towards unification. However, excessive nationalism should not be confused with the autarchy that was dominant from the 1950s to the 1970s and that imposed a near total closure of national borders, preventing any kind of opening to trade or any attempt at integration.

Starting with the initial attempts made by the ALALC (Latin American Free Trade Association), followed by the LAIA (Latin American Integration Association –also known as ALADI, its Spanish acronym–) in the early 1960s, and up to the more recent efforts by Central America and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), there have been very few tangible results. The long process of integration has been a veritable alphabet soup with regional and subregional ingredients, spilling across the continent in all directions. Even Mercosur (the Southern Cone common market), once the most advanced example of subregional integration in Latin America and the model for one and all to follow –in fact the one chosen by the EU as its most favoured interlocutor for negotiations that have turned out be interminable– is now facing serious internal difficulties.

Although the turbulence facing the Brazilian government of President Lula does not favour Mercosur’s consolidation, the difficulties of a shared venture by Argentina and Brazil, along with other smaller partners, have been long in the making. To this we must add the possible entry of Venezuela into Mercosur (according to the announcement made by a member of the Uruguayan government), though no one can say for certain how this story will turn out. In all likelihood, if Venezuela joins Mercosur it will mean more problems than benefits for all member countries and it may also have an impact on negotiations with the EU. Brazilian problems also have an impact on the process of creating the South American Community of Nations (one of the most recent attempts at integration, in this case, of South America). This initiative has also been backed by Itamarati –the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs–, but has not been received with universal enthusiasm by the various countries in the region.

In these and other cases, little headway has been made towards the creation of supranational structures capable of developing regional integration. And this is where we come to the question of excessive nationalism: no Latin American country is willing to give up the smallest amount of sovereignty for the construction of supranational institutions, and without such institutions there is no way that regional or subregional integration processes can advance or be consolidated.

The Excess of Integrationist Rhetoric
Finally, let us touch on the excess of rhetoric, which is omnipresent in Latin America. We often allude to ‘magical realism’ in dealing with the issue and this generally gets in the way of a proper diagnosis of what is happening in the region. It seems that Latin American unity is the necessary end of Latin America’s historical development –at least we seem to accept this as the gospel truth–. We also hear that this is the best way to shake off the heavy yoke of foreign domination: faced with ‘divide and rule’, the contrary or counter-thesis is the idea that ‘in union there is strength’.

From this perspective, Simón Bolívar has lately and repeatedly been presented as the great new apostle of Latin American unity. Even Hugo Chávez’s big project to oppose the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) is ALBA (Bolivarian Area of the Americas). Proof of this was the stage management of the Venezuelan delegation at the Summit of the Americas and at the counter-summit held by the anti-globalisation movements, where Diego Maradona was a star performer.

I do not want go into a detailed analysis of Bolivarian ideas here as they deserve a somewhat longer essay to themselves. Rather, I simply want to suggest that the Liberator’s ideas on unification were directly linked to the structure of the Spanish empire in America –an empire already breaking down when Bolívar wrote his famous Jamaica Letter in 1815–. Apart from the fact that the figure of Bolívar has nothing to do with Mexican history, we could also ask what Brazil and the non-Spanish Caribbean have to do with his thought and, therefore, what an initiative carrying the Bolivarian label could possibly mean to them.

This is where we come back to the starting point, where excessive rhetoric meets a lack of leadership. Given the lack of clear leadership in the Latin American integration process, and thanks to abundant resources that continue to grow with the rising price of oil, the Venezuelan government has decided to take on the enormous costs of this leadership, which neither Brazil nor Mexico are willing to do. This means that energy is now at the heart of the integration process and, similarly to what occurred in Europe with coal and steel, the idea here is that oil and gas will provide Latin American integration with the required boost. What is overlooked, however, is the political component of the European project. Rhetoric aside, this component has not been clarified in the Latin American context.

This makes it valid to ask –regardless of the impact of this particular case– how long-lasting and sustainable a regional integration process can be if it is spurred on by money, rather than being based on convictions and detailed political agreements. In any case, if the existing deficits and excesses are not corrected, little headway will be made in the regional integration process –a process that appears necessary for the future of the region, but also for Europe and the rest of the world–. The excessive rhetoric also tends to minimise the importance of the numerous bilateral disputes in the region and the way in which they may condition the specific results of the integration process (see Carlos Malamud, ARI nr 61/2005, “The Increase in Bilateral Conflicts in Latin America: Its Consequences In and Outside the Region”, available at ARI 61/2005).

Conclusion: The lack of tangible results in the regional and subregional integration process in Latin America is due more to internal issues than to external considerations. An excess of integrationist rhetoric and nationalism, combined with a lack of leadership considerably hinder any kind of significant headway in this direction. The rhetoric has led to confusion regarding goals and it has been forgotten that without any clear political goals shared by all players, any integration process is doomed to failure. Excessive nationalism has prevented –and continues to prevent– the transfer of the smallest amount of sovereignty for the creation of multinational bodies, which are essential to any integration process. Finally, the lack of clear leadership makes it impossible to give any process the impetus and direction necessary to reach its destination. If these problems are not solved –and insisting on the danger from the north will do nothing to solve them– little headway will be made towards integration, if in fact integration really is the key to removing the obstacles to development in Latin America.

Carlos Malamud
Senior Analyst, Latin America, Elcano Royal Institute