The Limited Integration of Latin American Governance

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A Brazilian Navy boat patrols the Copacabana beach as national flags flutter on the Copacabana Fort (Ricardo Moraes/Courtesy Reuters).

A Brazilian Navy boat patrols the Copacabana beach as national flags flutter on the Copacabana Fort (Ricardo Moraes/Courtesy Reuters).

The aspiration to integrate governance between Latin America’s twenty nations to address issues ranging from human rights to economic development to security concerns are long-held, but have led to mostly ephemeral results. The response for frustrated integrationists has often been to create new organizations, leading to a proliferation of regional and sub-regional negotiating bodies.

The longest standing political and social oriented regional body is the Organization of American States, or OAS, which has brought the hemisphere’s leaders together for over sixty years. In the last decade, however, the OAS’s leadership has been repeatedly questioned, frequently being labeled as ineffective and irrelevant. Since 2008, the organization has also been challenged by the creation of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA (and perhaps soon by the nascent Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, whose structure and goals remain largely on the drawing board). While some see this as the inevitable shift in power toward newer and more energetic (and, in the case of ALBA, ideologically driven) organizations, others see it as an intentional shift to remove U.S. and Canadian influence in regional affairs.

The newer organizations share many of the OAS’s objectives; all stress political and economic integration and promote cooperation for energy projects, sustainable development, and educational initiatives, as well as the need for high-level dialogue between leaders. But they expand on a few components, including defense treaties. Started with the 1947 Rio Treaty and the Inter-American Defense Board’s creation of regional security commitments, UNASUR’s South American Defense Council, or CSD, continues along the same lines, but also requires greater transparency surrounding national defense policies and spending. UNASUR also has a South American Parliament, which will be based in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Many dismiss these numerous bodies as merely talk shops. Yet providing ongoing forums for discussion and meetings has proven useful, particularly when conflicts emerge. UNASUR worked alongside the OAS during a 2008 Andean crisis, when Colombia attacked a FARC camp on Ecuadorian soil, through the police protests (which some saw as a coup) in Ecuador in 2010, and during Honduras’ coup in 2009. Even when the efforts have not been entirely successful—such as in the case of Honduras—they have helped keep international conflicts short and relatively violence free.

Those hoping for European Union style integration will be disappointed. But the OAS and UNASUR in particular have been valuable in easing tensions, and diminishing the likelihood of prolonged violence. In response to University of California Professor David Mares’ quite pessimistic view of the region in his book Violent Peace—which argues that Latin America is just one step away from violent conflict—these overlapping and at times superfluous multilateral organizations do provide a structure for peaceful dispute resolution. And in doing so they, more broadly, lay the groundwork for greater regional communication, stability, and integration.

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