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19 June 2014, Gateway House

Book review: Latin America remixed

'Latin American Unification: A History of Political and Economic Integration Efforts' is an objective and optimistic narrative by Salvador Rivera of the region’s attempts at consolidating its collective strength

Former Distinguished Fellow, India-Latin America

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Latin America is now a part of the global trend of regional integration—it too is forming regional and sub-regional economic groups. Salvador Rivera, a professor of history and sociology at the State University of New York, traces the history of the intellectual and political movements for the unification of Latin America over the last two centuries.

Rivera’sr stresses that Latin Americans were the first “third world” people to recognise the need for, and move towards, regional integration. His research is extensive and it brings forth fascinating details of the personalities who championed the cause of integration.

The unification process, Rivera writes, evolved through four major stages. The first was marked by the role of diplomats in the 1820s, the second by idealists in the 1860s, the third by technocrats in the 1950s, and the fourth stage since the 1980s is being driven by political leaders.

Simon Bolivar, military and political leader across several Latin American countries, laid the foundation for the region’s integration with his vision and practical initiative. He convened the Panama Congress in 1826 where diplomats from several countries negotiated and concluded a Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation, signed on 15 July 1826. It focussed primarily on political matters and left trade issues for consideration in the next congress to be convened in Tacubaya, Mexico.

The treaty is an extraordinary achievement, but it was ahead of its times. The newly-independent countries had numerous teething problems and failed to ratify the treaty. Later, the governments of Mexico, Ecuador and Peru took similar integration initiatives. The Peruvian endeavour led to the signing of the Treaty of Confederation in 1848, which also met with the same fate.

In the second stage, idealists and intellectuals from Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, among other countries, advocated regional integration by publishing articles and books, and forming organisations such as the Sociedad de la Union Americana.

In the third stage, Raul Prebisch and other technocrats created the milestone Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) in 1960. But the association was overshadowed by the political disruptions caused by military coups and divisive Cold War politics. In 1980, LAFTA was expanded into the Latin American Integration Association; but it remains only an expression of intent without any serious action so far.

Rivera blames the” political class” which held power in the different countries for the failure of the efforts to integrate. However, the same political class, but this time representing the people in the post-dictatorship period starting in the 1980s, successfully formed Mercosur, UNASUR and CELAC—these mark the fourth stage.

Although critics point to the failed attempts at regional integration, the drive to regional integration in all parts of the world, including Latin America, has been motivated by perceptions of common external threats and a competition for markets. In the beginning, the newly-independent countries of Latin America came together to deal with the potential threat from Spain and Europe. Later, the Spanish-speaking republics feared the Brazilian monarchy’s extra territorial interests.

Then the U.S. became a threat after it annexed Mexican territories, snatched Panama from Colombia, and destabilised the region by supporting rightwing military dictatorships. Latin Americans are aware that the threat from the U.S. will continue in the future, in one form or another, and that the only way to counter it is through collective strength.

Rivera has described the defeat of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) as a significant moment in the history of the region. I would say it was a defining moment: for the first time, Latin Americans had the courage to collectively turn down a U.S. proposal. This is a triumph of Latin Americanism over the U.S. vision of pan-Americanism, in which the U.S. is the dominant hegemonic power.

The author says the bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) signed by some countries with the U.S. undermined the unionist movement. While this is indeed part of its divide and rule policy, the U.S.  continues to be the top trading partner and investor for those Latin American countries with which it has FTAs. The same countries also have FTAs with the European Union as well as other countries.

The trade agreements with the U.S. need not be a major obstacle to regional integration. For example Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, with individual FTAs with the U.S., have recently formed the Pacific Alliance. The Central American countries, which have a collective FTA with the U.S., are already integrating their economies together in SICA, the Central American Integration System.

Ironically, Brazil, which Latin American unionists saw as a threat and therefore did not include in the first stage of unification, has led the fourth stage of integration. It was the pragmatic and visionary Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who played a critical role in the formation of CELAC and UNASUR.

Although the book does not cover the evolution of sub-regional groups, except Mercosur, region experts are closely following the rivalry between Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance. For the moment, the Pacific Alliance is in the headlines as a shining example of integration, open trade and growing economies; in contrast, Mercosur seems to be mired in trade-restrictive and protective regimes. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s attempt to bring together the two rival alliances is a long shot, but in the right direction.

Rivera concludes on an optimistic note: “we may very well see in our time” a more unified Latin America. He recommends that the unionists enlist the support of all the stakeholders, especially the young people.

Rivera is objective and fair in narrating and analysing the history of Latin American integration; his is an alternative perspective to books informed by U.S. prejudice. In fact, he believes integration is not only good for Latin America, but also in the interests of the U.S. But the State Department has to learn to live with an integrating Latin America, which is becoming more assertive and autonomous in its foreign policy.

Will Latin America become another European Union? Perhaps not in the near future. But every country in the region, big or small, has realised the importance of collective strength. This realisation will eventually drive the region to integration.

‘Latin American Unification: A History of Political and Economic Integration Efforts’, Salvador Rivera, McFarland Publishers, North Carolina, 2014.

Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo.

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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