Latin American Integration – just a long-lost dream?

Emilio Faulkner is a third year IR student in the Department of War Studies. Due to his Honduran heritage he is motivated to take on the position of Latin America Editor for IR Today. He believes Latin America is often understudied and disregarded in the study of IR. Emilio is therefore excited to have the opportunity to fill this void and explore the region’s role in international affairs. As well as Latin America, his academic interests lie in the concepts of Grand Strategy, Statecraft and the recent re-emergence of major power rivalry on the global stage. 

The possibility and goal of integration in Latin America has been a dominating part of political rhetoric in the region for decades. We are now three separate ‘waves’ down, moving into a fourth and well into the 21st Century. Yet, Latin America seems no closer to pooling into a unified integration project. Therefore, we must ask ourselves these questions. Firstly, why have Latin American states failed to achieve this historically long-held aim? And secondly, is integration in the region a realistic possibility?

Regional integration in Latin America over the years has taken on a plethora of forms and focus. Immediately after WWII into the 1950s, 60s and 70s, integration focused on economic cooperation, with states complementing each other’s industrial production through specialisation. The second wave in the 1990s, which aimed at inserting the region into the global economy through market-based, neo-liberal resource allocation, was subsequently followed by the anti-US, anti-neoliberal projects of ALBA and UNASUR in the third wave of the early 2000s. More recently, the Pacific Alliance is aiming to promote integration through the free movement of goods, capital and labour, while creating a platform for Latin American states to communicate among themselves and with the rest of the world. We are yet to see whether this project will be successful, but Latin America’s CV with regard to integration doesn’t lend to a particularly hopeful outlook.

However, attempts at regional integration have been hindered by the realist, self-focused aims of the political leaders guiding Latin American states. Regional integration has often represented competition between opposing visions and leadership for Latin America. The US-driven neoliberal projects of the 1990s, continuing its direct hegemonic role in the region from the Cold War, were met with opposition, prompting the creation of ALBA in Venezuela and UNASUR in Brazil. These projects of course, represented action against perceived incursion from the US. However, these integration attempts also represented Venezuela and Brazil’s selfish attempts to assert their dominance and leadership over the Latin American region. This lent to a sense of divide and mistrust, sentiments which have long proved to be the greatest hindrance to the success of integration efforts in Latin America. Moreover, the fact countries like Mexico and a number of other Central American states have committed to bilateral agreements with the US through NAFTA, yet again highlights how states’ pursuit and prioritisation of their own individual interests, leading to the creation of blocs and alliances, hinders regional wide agreements being reached. Malamud and Gardini summarise this perfectly – “The reality is that every time a new bloc is formed, it does so by excluding neighbouring countries and by intentionally differentiating itself from other (sub)regional organizations.”

The vast plurality and nature of integration attempts in Latin America poses another problem. Beyond the creation of blocs and rivalries which have hindered the development of real, deep integration, lack of regulatory and institutional clarity, leaves the door open for countries to act opportunistically and to their own advantage. It provides the opportunity for members to go against the spirit of these projects and again, look to advance their own interests over the collective, seeking separate, bilateral agreements with extragroup countries. Further than creating divides between blocs, the realist tendencies of Latin American states leads to tensions within institutions and between countries who should be, on paper, working together. This all contributes to the lack of material belief and political will for integration in Latin America. Years of lack of respect for regionalism have created a sense of mistrust that will only with great difficulty be overcome.

Although past attempts have essentially failed – all hope is not lost. Rivalries and divergences in ideology still dominate the region, but the transnational and globalised nature of the world in which we live today, is a source of many issues and problems with potentially unifying effects. As I mentioned previously in my article on COVID-19, events like the pandemic provide an incredible opportunity for integration and cooperation. As per my last article on mining in the region, Latin America as a whole suffers from vast illegal mining operations. Furthermore, Latin America is sitting on a literal gold mine for the future of sustainable technology. It also experiences significant environmental problems, which as Costa Rica has demonstrated, can be mitigated with a sense of purpose and leadership.  In a region full of countries with divergent interests and aims – all these issues provide a possible forum for cooperation. Integration has never been more in the interest of Latin American states. While these opportunities still exist, integration in the region will always be possible, although highly dependent on the wills of those individuals in power. Petro’s election victory in Colombia earlier this year, means 4 out of the 5 most powerful Latin American countries are now broadly ideologically aligned to the left. By the end of October, if Lula succeeds in ousting Bolsonaro from power in Brazil, this could be 5 from 5. Integration could be increasingly on the cards.

If Latin American countries and therefore, their leaders, put a singular ounce of belief and respect into an integration project, the results could be immense. Not only will it allow them to deal with issues which have for decades and even centuries troubled the region, but it will also give them a voice on the international stage. Many don’t realise but, there are many emerging factors in the current international system which are moving greatly in the region’s favour. If Latin American countries play their cards right, turn problems into opportunities, and choose to take charge of their own destiny, the region has the potential to be a vital global player. Integration would be a logical way to start – but as we know, Latin American politics rarely follows the script.

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