Latin American Integration: Two Hundred Years of Efforts

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A man walks past a banner reading 'Capital of integration' in Caracas (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

A man walks past a banner reading 'Capital of integration' in Caracas (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Latin American integration efforts have been a continuous fixture throughout much of the last century, but in recent years there has been a flurry of new initiatives, with leaders re-emphasizing regional ties. The increasing number of high-profile presidential and ministerial summits have brought renewed promises and commitments to deepen regional political, economic, social, and developmental cooperation, and have spurred the creation of new political and economic bodies tasked with uniting the region.

Though in part due to a global shift toward regionalism, it also reflects the real potential benefits of an integrated Latin America. Economically, the combined markets would give the region substantially more heft on the global stage. Geopolitically, greater unity would enable these nations to garner the United States’ and other world powers’ attention, and better promote their interests in multilateral discussions and negotiations. In general, it could improve the opportunities and wellbeing of the some six hundred million Latin Americans.

Latin America’s integration is also bolstered by its widespread support from average citizens. Within the region, polls show that over half of each country’s population (and in some places up to three-quarters) support both economic and political integration. Democratic politicians have played up these visions for electoral gain—most notably, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has drummed up support by promoting his integration initiatives (often as the way to foil perceived U.S. regional designs).

But Chavez and his contemporaries are not the first leaders to make such promises. South America’s first grand integration efforts began in the early nineteenth century under the leadership of General Simón Bolivar during the wars of independence. He envisioned uniting northern South America into Gran Colombia, and creating a league of American republics with a common military, a mutual defense pact, and a supranational parliamentary assembly. This dream, and Bolivar’s presidency, ended in 1830.

After World War II, integrationist efforts reemerged. In 1947 nineteen nations (which later became twenty three) signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (also known as the Rio Treaty), where they vowed to defend each other against outside aggression. The Organization of American States (OAS) followed in 1948 (building on a previous turn-of-the-century institution), promising to promote social and economic development through a four-pronged emphasis on democracy, human rights, security, and development. In the late 1950s the hemisphere came together to form the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), designed not only to encourage economic development but also to advance regional integration through its internal Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean (INTAL).

In 1960, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico led their neighbors in the creation of the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC), the first attempt at a regional intergovernmental body. Its goal was to establish free trade throughout the whole region in twelve years (it failed). This effort was renewed in 1980 by the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), which promoted a more gradual approach to creating a common market (it is still officially in the works).

Sub-regionally, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru came together to create the Andean Community (CAN) to promote Andean integration in 1969. In the late 1980s onetime rivals Argentina and Brazil, began negotiating agreements that evolved into Mercosur (bringing in Uruguay and Paraguay along the way). Bilateral relations have advanced as well, with over fifty trade agreements signed with neighbors in as many years.

Yet despite the lofty rhetoric and the proliferation of dozens of agreements, a real question remains—whether there is anything to show for all these integration efforts. Many dismiss the weight of these bodies. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that without changes the OAS, one of the longest-standing regional organizations, could soon become irrelevant. The numbers too question the importance of the neighborhood. For instance, the region’s economies still depend more on the United States, the EU, and increasingly Asia than on their neighbors.

The next series of blog posts will look at the current state of affairs in different areas of integration: economic (including trade and regulation), political, and social (students, tourists, and migrants). Overall while the dream of regional integration still inspires, it largely remains just that. Nevertheless, there have been significant changes on the ground in the last decade. The development of new political and social organizations, and, as importantly, informal integration through investment, studies, and the workplace has and will continue to have a significant effect on how Latin American countries cultivate closer ties, and, more broadly, the paths future integration efforts may take.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.