Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Latin America’s New Era of Regionalism

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Images by Lars Klove

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The twenty-first century has witnessed a change of era in Latin American regional governance projects. Those projects seek—explicitly or implicitly—to reduce the influence of countries north of the Rio Grande in political, economic and social processes and outcomes in the region.

With these regional policy initiatives has come a new academic focus on diplomacy and regional integration. In a field loaded with studies and analyses that focus on U.S. hegemony and U.S. foreign policy, often at the expense of understanding regional dynamics and inter-state relations, this new field of inquiry is a welcome—if a little overdue—development.

As Pía Riggirozzi of the University of Southampton and Diana Tussie of Argentina’s Facultad Latinoameriana de Ciencias Sociales (Latin American School of Social Sciences—FLACSO), show in The Rise of Post-Hegemonic Regionalism: The Case of Latin America, today regional integration processes look like nothing anybody could have imagined 15 years ago. Especially in South America, regionalism “cannot be seen any longer as a slow movement of blind following and adjustment to Anglo-American free-trade doctrines.”

Rather, changing domestic realities and policy choices have helped bring about the “collapse of U.S.-led hemispheric leadership” in the region and the emergence of “alternative institutional structures and cooperation projects.”

The volume explores some of those projects, which emphasize social development, community action and “new forms of politics and organization” that have begun to overlap and even compete with market-oriented and Washington Consensus–inspired regimes. Examples include the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR), the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America—ALBA) and the Iniciativa para la Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana (Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America—IIRSA).

Together with the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC), such regimes are designed to find Latin American solutions to Latin American problems. Tinted by a “return of the state” ethos and a model of “anti-capitalist” and “anti-imperialist” integration based on ideals of social welfare and mutual economic aid, they represent a “new DNA in Latin American regionalism.”

This isn’t to say that market-oriented, free-trade institutions and policies have disappeared from the Latin American landscape. As Riggirozzi and Tussie remind us, projects that prioritize commercial integration—such as the Pacific Alliance, which includes Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru—are alive and well. Most aim at involving actors outside the region, including Asia and Europe. Still, on issues ranging from defense and security to infrastructure, trade and the environment, the contours of regional governance in Latin America look strikingly different from the way they’ve looked in the past.

Nevertheless, for all the achievements of what is an historically unprecedented mosaic of integration agreements, there is an underside. Even as the emphasis shifts from north to south, the proliferation of forums addressing similar issues and challenges may burden the region with excessive politics and unrealistic expectations, and dilute the ability of any to reach their objectives.

But considering the adage that what’s past is prologue, integration efforts will continue to be a defining feature of the region’s international engagement, regardless of whether or not they are successful. That is one of the central points argued by Andrés Rivarola Puntigliano of the University of Stockholm and José Briceño-Ruiz of Venezuela’s University of the Andes in their volume of essays, Resilience of Regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean: Development and Autonomy.

They show that integration projects have been around since independence, not just since the early 1980s (as the bulk of scholars and policymakers in the U.S. assume).

The persistence of such efforts over the years, according to the editors, is explained by Latin American countries’ desire to transcend their often-assumed subordination and limited bargaining capacity vis-à-vis major powers.

Thus, in today’s inter-American relations, the question is not whether countries are more or less committed to integration projects than in the past, but whether, and how, the U.S. and Canada should respond to arrangements that seek to keep them at the margins, even as those arrangements aim to influence issues concerning all countries in the hemisphere.

Issues that the new regional organizations are grappling with, such as the promotion of democracy, poverty alleviation, illegal narcotics, the environment, and human trafficking, are pan-hemispheric issues, in which the U.S. and Canada have a stake and are major players.

Unfortunately, Resilience of Regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean and The Rise of Post-Hegemonic Regionalism do not answer this question. Instead, these books seek to understand the nature, genesis and dynamics of these organizations. Still, they suggest that history and political science offer important lessons in understanding regional dynamics today.

Rivarola Puntigliano and Briceño-Ruiz do well in placing recent integration projects in historical perspective. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United Nations’ Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean—CEPAL) spearheaded efforts to use economic integration to promote industrialization.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, amid widespread disappointment over the scope of trade liberalization and the negative impacts of industrialization, the Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración (Latin American Integration Association—aladi) replaced stalemated institutions and other organizations, such as the Rio Group (inaugurated in 1986), to provide forums of consultation for both economic and political matters.

The economic liberalization brought about by Latin America’s “lost decade” in the 1980s, along with the region’s democratization processes and the end of the Cold War, set the stage for improvement of political, security and trade relations in South America. Mercosur (Southern Common Market) has been a product of such transformative developments.

In Central America, the advent of peace accords helped support the reactivation of the Central American Common Market in the early 1990s. Hemisphere wide projects such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ftaa) were inspired by neoliberal ideas, as free trade—and free markets in particular—appeared to be, in the post–Cold War order, the only ways to foster economic growth and social development.

But as the continent massively turned to the left when concern over economic inequality grew, South American nations found it strategic to prioritize sub-regional integration projects that more accurately mirrored their domestic imperatives and needs.

As the lucid chapter by Olivier Dabène of Sciences Po in Paris argues in Resilience of Regionalism, each “succession of waves of integration processes can be explained by paradigmatic changes” on how to better organize economic and political relations to promote growth, equity and autonomy. The change in paradigm that brought about UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA is no exception.

This new spate of regional initiatives has been led by left-leaning leaders making effective use of presidential diplomacy. As a wide number of the fine contributions to The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy show, this era of presidential diplomacy reflects the “impulse of leaders to try to deal personally with collective action problems” even at the risk of high-stakes failure.

Presidential diplomacy has proven particularly effective at helping countries rapidly adjust to new domestic and international circumstances.  But as the chapter on “Institutionalized Summitry” by Richard Feinberg of the University of California, San Diego’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies argues in the volume—edited by Andrew Cooper et al—this “leader-centric” environment may also render international commitments volatile and given them less traction than expected. The personalities driving current accords are not likely to be around to monitor the implementation phase and see the outcome of their policies, a fact embedded in a region that is still characterized by a gap between what it commits to doing on paper and what it does in practice.1

Any understanding of contemporary Latin American regional politics requires a re-examination of existing institutions and diplomatic practices from a Latin American perspective. These books are therefore a welcome addition to literature on international relations, and on inter-American affairs in particular—bodies of work typically dominated by analyses of North American initiatives trying to make sense of sub-regional dynamics.

One hopes that future efforts in this field of inquiry will also examine how these new organizations shape the interaction of the U.S. and Canada on pan-hemispheric issues.

The new regionalism in Latin America, fueled by rampant levels of social inequity, is clearly at the top of the hemisphere’s new political and social agenda. But, as the bulk of essays reviewed suggest, this new era is only “embryonic,” and yet another phase in Latin America’s long search for sustainable solutions to the region’s many challenges. One hopes it turns out to be more than just a phase.

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Tags: Fresh Look, Latin American regionalism
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