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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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Regionalism and Regionalization in Latin America: Drivers and Obstacles

Peter Birle

Regionalism and Regionalization in Latin America: Drivers and Obstacles

Abstract: Regional cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased significantly in the past twenty-five years, leading to the emergence of a variety of new bilateral and multilateral cooperation and integration mechanisms. Despite some success, however, there are still strong fragmentation tendencies in the region. This chapter is concerned with the question of why Latin America, despite its efforts to achieve regional cooperation and integration going back to the early nineteenth century, still struggles to make regionalism a lasting success. First, there is a brief discussion of the concepts of “region,” “regionalization,” and “regionalism.” The chapter then gives an overview of the historical development of processes of regional cooperation and integration in Latin America and describes the array of organizations and blueprints that exist today. The second part discusses the current situation of regional organizations in the light of new political developments since 2015. We then ask for explanations why there is a big gap between the objectives and reality of Latin American regionalism. In this context, central importance is attached to the development strategies prevailing in the region, the dominant concepts of sovereignty, and the specific features of regionalization in Latin America.


This chapter is concerned with the question of why Latin America, despite its efforts to achieve regional cooperation and integration going back to the early nineteenth century, still struggles to make regionalism a lasting success. The central concepts of region, regionalism, and regionalization are defined according to The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism. Consequently, a region is not understood as ‘natural’ or as an objective category, but as a social construction. Regions are “made, remade, and unmade—intentionally or non-intentionally—in the process of global transformation, by collective human action and identity formation” (Söderbaum 28). Börzel and Risse define regions “as social constructions that make references to territorial location and to geographical or normative contiguity” (“Introduction” 7). The term ‘Latin America’ is a good example of such a social construction. It is an ethnic-geographical concept that was invented in the 19th century by French scientists to identify a region of the American continent with a majority of languages derived from Latin (mainly Spanish or Portuguese and to a lesser extent French). Since the late 19th century, ←31 | 32→intellectuals have used the term in the sense of delimiting ‘Our America’ from the hegemonic power of the United States. In the wake of a growing self-confidence of many indigenous peoples on the American continent, the term “Latin America” has repeatedly been criticized as Eurocentric, due to the exclusion that it makes of a large number of languages and ethnicities in several countries and regions of the so-called Latin America.

The default term for all countries in the Americas except the United States and Canada is ‘Latin America and the Caribbean’ (LAC). The reference to the continent as a whole is made as ‘The Americas’ or as ‘Western Hemisphere’. For geographical subspaces, terms such as South America, the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean, the Caribbean Basin, and North America are common. By contrast, constructs such as Mesoamerica and Indo-America refer to the indigenous roots and cultures of the continent. Different regional concepts are occasionally used with political intentions. For example, the idea of a ‘South American area’ whose interests differ from the rest of the continent has gained importance in Brazil’s foreign policy thinking since the mid-20th century, and especially since the 1980s. Such a perspective dominated the La Plata basin treaties in the 1960s and the Amazonian cooperation of the 1970s. This was accompanied by a growing distance from the United States, the traditional ally of Brazil in the Western Hemisphere. At the beginning of the 21st century, the then Brazilian foreign minister Celso Lafer argued that South America was a physical entity that offered many opportunities for economic cooperation. Mexico, on the other hand, in his view was becoming more and more intertwined with the North due to its participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well as Central America and the Caribbean, which are much more affected by the magnetism of the North American economy. Lafer saw the future of this part of Latin America, therefore, mainly related to what is happening in the United States. South America, on the other hand, would have more diversified regional and international relations, both politically and economically. This would require appropriate foreign policy consequences (Lafer 55).

This chapter distinguishes between regionalism and regionalization. Following Börzel and Risse, regionalism is understood as “constituting a primarily state-led process of building and sustaining formal regional institutions and organizations among at least three states” (“Introduction” 7). In contrast, the term “regionalization” refers to “processes of increasing economic, political, social, or cultural interactions among geographically or culturally contiguous states and societies” (8). Regionalization refers, above all, to transnational, ‘bottom up’ activities of non-state actors such as interest groups, social movements, enterprises, ←32 | 33→and non-governmental organizations. However, cross-border criminal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking, and trafficking are also part of regionalization. The specific combination of features of regionalization and regionalism is referred to as ‘regional order.’ Börzel and Risse distinguish three types of regional orders: those where degrees of regionalization and regionalism correlate (Europe, Southeast Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East); those with high levels of regionalization, but limited regionalism (North America, Northeast Asia); and those with low-to-medium degrees of regionalization, but stronger regionalism (Africa, Latin America) (“Three Cheers” 628–29). As the text will show, however, the notion of “strong regionalism” in Latin America can easily be misleading. There are many regional and sub-regional forms of cooperation in many areas, but the regional organizations that have emerged in this context usually have little authority.

The chapter is structured as follows. The first part gives an overview of the historical development of processes of regional cooperation and integration in Latin America and briefly describes the array of organizations and blueprints that exist today. The second part discusses the current situation of regional organizations in the light of new political developments since 2015. The third part presents some characteristic elements that define the current cooperation and integration processes that might help us to better understand why the gap between objectives and achievements in Latin American regionalism is oftentimes quite wide. In this context, central importance is attached to (a) the development strategies prevailing in the region, (b) the dominant concepts of sovereignty, and (c) the specific features of regionalization in Latin America. The chapter ends with some general conclusions.1←33 | 34→

2The Historical Development of Latin American Regionalism

In Europe, it is often assumed that the process of European integration that started in the 1950s became a model for integration processes in other parts of the world. While partly true, it should not be forgotten that the discussion on regional cooperation and integration in Latin America dates back to the period of independence in the early 19th century. Examples of such integration efforts were confederate entities such as Greater Colombia (1819/1823–1830), the Central American Confederation (1823–1839), or the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation (1836–1839). In his Carta de Jamaica (letter from Jamaica), the liberator Simón Bolívar in 1815 pointed to the need for close cooperation between the Hispano-American states. Only then would the region be able to assert itself against external powers. During the Panama Congress of 1826, Greater Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the Central American Confederation signed a Union treaty that was never ratified. If Bolívar’s vision of a unified Hispanic America did not materialize, it would be because of growing rivalries between some of the young nation states in the region. Nonetheless, the issue of regional unity remained present in the political debates and was revisited, for example, during the Lima Congress (1847–1848) and in the late 19th century in the course of discussions on Pan-Americanism and the Pan-American Conferences.2

Since the 19th century, there have been two competing visions of regionalism in the Americas that have been present in discussions to this day: ‘Pan-Americanism’ versus ‘Latin American Unity.’ The idea of Pan-Americanism stands for close co-operation among all countries of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States and Canada. It was mainly supported by the United States and led to 10 Pan-American conferences that took place between 1889 and 1954. The idea of Pan-Americanism was institutionalized after the Second World War with the Inter-American System. In addition to the Organization of American States (OAS), founded in 1948, this system includes institutions such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Development Bank as well as treaties such as the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement. The idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), launched in 1991 by the then US president George Bush, was also in line with the idea of Pan-Americanism, with the United States always playing a leading (hegemonic) role.←34 | 35→

By contrast, already early in the 19th century, the idea of a ‘southern’ cooperation designed to increase the region’s autonomy vis-à-vis the United States developed. Simón Bolívar envisioned a united Hispano-America to counteract US hegemonic claims. He also had no great confidence in Brazil, which emerged in 1822 from the Portuguese colonial empire.3 At the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century, thinkers such as José Martí and José Enrique Rodó combined the idea of a unified Latin America with internationalist and anti-imperialist ideas. Unlike the Pan-American idea, however, the idea of Latin American unity did not lead to the formation of formal institutions until the 21st century. Anti-imperialist thinking directed against the United States was re-issued from the late 1990s with Bolivarism propagated by the then Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. With the founding of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC) in 2011, all the sovereign states of the Americas except Canada and the United States joined forces for the first time.

For a long time, Latin American regionalism was largely characterized by efforts to reduce trade barriers between the countries of the region. In the first half of the 20th century, economists such as Alejandro Bunge (1880–1943) and Raúl Prebisch (1901–1986) developed plans for regional economic integration to overcome obstacles to national and regional development. As secretary general of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC; the Spanish acronym is CEPAL) from 1950 to 1963, Prebisch gave decisive impulses for the theoretical discussion about development in Latin America. Under his leadership, CEPAL recommended to the Latin American countries a development strategy based on a combination of import-substituting industrialization and regional integration. A well-balanced economic development was expected to emerge in the region by means of the liberalization of intra-Latin American commerce and the simultaneous application of a protectionist policy in relation to extra-regional trade.4 That should ←35 | 36→also help to foster structural transformation and create productive capacities of industrial enterprises in the region. ‘Cepalismo’ required a deliberately political approach to regionalism. In 1960, the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC) was founded. Its initial objective was to establish a free trade zone between its members within 12 years.5 Despite initial success, this goal soon came out of sight. The dissatisfaction of the smaller countries with the result of regional economic integration led to sub-regional integration efforts such as the Common Central American Market and the Andean Pact (renamed the Andean Community in 1996).

At the latest, with the beginning of the debt crisis in the 1980s, the CEPAL developmental discourse entered into crisis. CEPAL responded by revising their concepts, and starting in the 1990s, they proposed a concept of ‘growth with equity,’ speaking of regional integration characterized by ‘open regionalism.’ While the original CEPAL doctrine had considered protectionist measures necessary to shield national industries against the world market, regional economic integration now was considered as a trampoline off of which one could bounce into the global market. CEPAL recommended the reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers within Latin America. The opening to the global market should be combined with the maintenance of certain preferences towards regional and sub-regional trading partners. In addition, joint Latin American rules should be established for the circulation of goods, services, and investments, as well as for the protection of intellectual property and public procurement. Furthermore, CEPAL recommended a gradual adjustment of the trade, competition, fiscal, and monetary policies of the individual states within the region, as well as the realization of active efforts to reduce asymmetries between states. To assure the success of these objectives, the institutional foundations of regional integration was to be systematically fortified (Thiery).

In the following years, while the concept of open regionalism became the rhetoric of regional integration, the Latin American governments de facto implemented only those parts of the strategy aimed at liberalizing and deregulating markets. By contrast, those elements that would have resulted in strengthening regional institutions and common policies were almost completely ←36 | 37→ignored. In this respect, most Latin American governments followed the neoliberal concepts of the ‘Washington Consensus’ promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 1990s.

Sub-regional integration gained new momentum in 1991 with the creation of Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur) between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Intra-regional trade among member countries increased sharply in the early years, but from 1997, the integration process stalled. To date, Mercosur has failed to develop strong institutions and to move closer to the original objective of creating a common market than is the case in the existing incomplete Customs Union. Nevertheless, for all Mercosur economic integration issues, the contribution of the organization to strengthening cross-border cooperation between governments and civil society actors in the member states should not be underestimated. Amongst these achievements, it is worth mentioning a few standouts: for example, the incorporation of the ‘democracy clause’; the creation of a ‘zone of peace’ in the Southern Atlantic; the creation of a citizen community in Mercosur; and the progress made in terms of societal participation in the integration processes that has given way to new policies of ‘paradiplomacy.’ The international experience of localized administrations (municipal, provincial, and state) and the formation of regions—national, border, and international—are at the heart of paradiplomacy in South America. Mercosur, with its own special dynamic, has also made advancements in this practice, thanks to the gains in representation seen in local societies.

Since the 1990s, the dynamics of intra–Latin American economic integration have been increasingly hampered by processes and cooperative negotiations with external partners. In 1994, Mexico, Canada, and the United States signed into the NAFTA (in Spanish TLCAN). In the same year, negotiations over the creation of a FTAA (in Spanish ALCA), which were encouraged by the United States, began. Shortly after, negotiations began for the creation of an agreement of association between the European Union (EU) and Mercosur.

The dissatisfaction of large sections of Latin American societies with the results of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which provided macroeconomic stability and growth in many countries, but produced neither social improvements nor distributive justice, led to a ‘turn to the left’ at the beginning of the 21st century in Latin American politics. However, the new governments were anything but homogenous. Some were more in keeping with conservative social democracy, others combined macroeconomic stability policies and progressive social policies, and others proclaimed ‘21st century socialism.’ The common denominator of the left-wing governments was the rejection of neoliberal dogmas, the desire for more autonomy, especially towards the long-standing ←37 | 38→hegemonic power of the United States, as well as the quest for more Latin American power in the international system. In contrast, there were severe differences between the individual countries with regard to national development strategies and concepts for incorporation into the international system.

It was precisely this combination of serious strategic divergences within the region on the one hand and the political desire for more regional cooperation on the other hand that led to the emergence of several new regional organizations and networks in the following years. These include the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, UNASUR), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, ALBA), the Latin American and Caribbean Community (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños, CELAC), and the Pacific Alliance (Alianza del Pacífico, AP). A fundamental feature of these new institutions was that, in contrast to the earlier integration processes, which were heavily focused on trade issues, they also highlighted other aspects of economic cooperation and political issues.6


UNASUR, founded in 2008, includes all 12 independent states of South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. According to Article 2 of the founding treaty, the central goal of the organization is as follows:

The Union of South American Nations aims to construct a space of cultural, social, economic and political integration and union between their peoples in a participatory and consensus-oriented manner. Its priorities include political dialogue, social policies, education, energy, infrastructure, financing and the environment, with the aim of eliminating socioeconomic inequality, enabling social inclusion and civic participation, strengthening democracy and to reduce the asymmetries, all in the context of strengthening the sovereignty and independence of States. (UNASUR; author’s translation)

UNASUR was created with the ambition of constructing an innovative integration process that goes beyond the mere convergence seen in Mercosur and the Andean Community, even though its constitutive treaty does not disclose exactly what this innovative element might look like in reality. The ←38 | 39→institutional structure of UNASUR follows a purely inter-governmental logic. Neither the Secretary General nor the pro-tempore presidency has decision-making powers. All decisions must be made by a consensus between the presidents of the member states. Since its creation, UNASUR has demonstrated a strong ideological and economic pragmatism: the condition for membership is not a common conception of development strategies or international insertion, but rather regional membership: belonging to the South American region. The whole range of pre-existing tariff/tax policies has been accepted into the organization: CAN, MERCOSUR, CARICOM, and Chile. An important achievement of UNASUR is that they have incorporated security and defense into the regionalist agenda. Furthermore, they initially demonstrated an important political capacity to resolve, from within the region itself, intra-regional problems, bilateral problems between states, and problems of national politics that might threaten the regional politico-institutional order. Amongst the organization’s deficits are its multiple institutional weaknesses: above all, the restrictive roles created for international representation, which are assigned to the Secretary General and the President pro-tempore.7


The Bolivarian Alternative (now: Alliance) for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) was created by the deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and arose as the direct antithesis of the project proposed by the United States (which has since been sidelined) to create a Pan-American zone of free trade (ALCA). Member countries of ALBA are Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Surinam as well as a number of small Caribbean states. Concerning its programmatic foundations, ALBA does not only present a fundamental criticism of the United States and traditional Latin American liberalism, but it also proposes a social transformation that was born from a critique of neoliberalism and capitalism. ALBA aims to inspire a regional integration based on the ideas of Simón Bolívar and on the fundamental principles of cooperation, complementarity, mutual help, and solidarity. Even though the treaties and joint declarations signed within the ALBA framework often allude to a new form of solidary integration, they do not actually speak of a multilateral regime, but rather of a set of bilateral cooperation agreements between Venezuela and the other participant countries. No further integration is planned in the sense of establishing common institutions, much less supranational ones. Theoretically, ←39 | 40→ALBA proposes a vision of integration of peoples rather than individual nations. Nonetheless, in reality, ALBA continues to basically be an inter-governmental, if not inter-presidential, process. In fact, no real consultation or decision-making spaces have been allocated to political, technical, business, trade union, or civil society sectors.

The creation of ALBA was intended to consolidate Húgo Chávez' regional leadership, and its future is strongly intertwined with the destiny of Venezuela (which was the donor of practically all of the alliance’s resources destined for economic cooperation and development).


Created in 2010, CELAC covers all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba, whose membership in the hemispheric OAS has been suspended since 1962. In terms of its members, CELAC is something of an OAS without the United States and Canada. Indeed, some of the ALBA member countries saw CELAC as an alternative to the OAS. The US attitude towards Cuba, and OAS’ repeated instrumentalization for the implementation of US-led Latin American policy during the Cold War resulted in that many in Latin America still view the organization as a symbol of US hegemony. The founding of CELAC was thus an important symbolic step in the sense of the Latin American autonomy efforts against the long-standing hegemonic power. Nevertheless, the OAS continues to exist as the vast majority of Latin American governments did not join the position of those ALBA countries that advocated leaving the OAS.

CELAC’s objective is to enlarge and consolidate sustainable development, peace, and cooperation. From the former Rio Group, CELAC has taken on the task of maintaining dialogue with extra-regional partners. These include dialogue processes with the European Union, China, Russia, India, South Korea, and Turkey. CELAC does not have the status of an international organization. It is a purely inter-governmental mechanism for political dialogue and consultation. It has no supranational competencies vis-à-vis its member countries. CELAC can adopt political declarations if there is a consensus among all member countries, but it does not have exclusive competencies or competences shared with the member countries. The creation of CELAC was not least in the interest of Mexico, because on a symbolic level, it revived the idea of a unified Latin America, which includes Mexico. For some years, Mexico had feared exclusion from the region, because with the founding of UNASUR, the idea of South America as a central reference area of regional cooperation seemed to prevail. The challenge of CELAC is to successfully establish a multilateral forum ←40 | 41→that permits the Latin American and Caribbean region to express itself with one voice, thereby strengthening its position in the international system based on its shared values, interests, and objectives.8

2.4Pacific Alliance

The fourth newly established regional organization is the Pacific Alliance (PA) between Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. The four member countries have a number of similarities. These are the Latin American countries that rely most heavily on the market economy, private entrepreneurship, competition, innovation, and integration into the world economy. Their economies are highly deregulated and open to the world market due to low tariffs. All have signed a large number of bilateral free trade agreements with regional and extra-regional partners and are working hard to cooperate with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The central objectives of the PA are: to strengthen open regionalism; to deepen economic integration between member countries through progressive liberalization of the circulation of goods, services, capital, and people; to harmonize existing rules and thus reduce transaction costs; to build a platform for political dialogue and political coordination; to enable joint projection towards the Asia-Pacific region; and to promote increased cooperation in science and technology.

In terms of its functional mechanisms, the PA does not differ from the other organizations. Here, too, the principle of consensus applies, important decisions being taken jointly by the presidents, even if a council of foreign ministers and other specialized ministers as well as working groups on trade and integration, services and capital, cooperation, migration, and institutional affairs prepare the decisions. The achievements of the PA include common platforms for export promotion, the establishment of a common stock exchange, elimination of more than 90 % of intra-community tariffs, the mutual abolition of visa requirements and joint projects and programs in the field of scientific and technological cooperation. Critics regard the alliance above all as a successful marketing strategy and point out that intra-PA trade represents only a very small part of their foreign trade for all four member countries. On the part of some ALBA member countries, PA has been criticized as the Trojan horse of neoliberalism in Latin America and as an instrument of US hegemony that serves primarily to undermine progressive integration projects.9←41 | 42→

3Regionalism after the End of the ‘Left Wave’

Undoubtedly, regional cooperation in Latin America has been characterized by very dynamic developments since the beginning of the 21st century. From a theoretical perspective, these developments were explained using concepts such as post-hegemonic or post-liberal regionalism. Many observers hoped that a more solidary form of regional cooperation could prevail in the long term. However, since 2015, Latin American regionalism has been characterized by stagnation in many areas. The end of the presidency of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil (2003–2011), the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías in 2013, the change of power to liberal conservative governments in Argentina (2015) and Brazil (2016), and profound domestic crises in Brazil and Venezuela have affected intra–Latin American cooperation.

UNASUR celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2017, but has de facto been in standby since the beginning of the year. After the end of Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s mandate at the end of January 2017, member countries have not been able to agree on a renewed mandate for the former Colombian president nor on a new candidate. The twelve thematic cooperation councils have hardly met in recent times. In addition to the institutional design of UNASUR (the requirement of unanimity), the changed political balance of power in the region has contributed to the stagnation of the organization. Even in times of Chávez and Lula, conflicting ideological positions within UNASUR existed. Unlike at that time, however, currently there seems to be little political will to discuss South America’s problems and challenges in the context of UNASUR (Gómez and Vollenweider).

Unlike UNASUR, CELAC has never been an international organization but merely a network. On January 25, 2017, CELAC realized its fifth summit meeting in the Dominican Republic. Significantly, a number of presidents, including Argentinean president Mauricio Macri, Brazilian president Michel Temer, and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, did not attend the discussions. As was customary at such meetings, a joint action plan has been signed, but CELAC is a long way from common positions on key challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean, such as the question of how the region should behave towards the US government under Donald Trump. The original objective of coordinating common regional positions on important issues of hemispheric and international politics, and thus strengthening Latin America’s and the Caribbean’s actorness in the international system, remains a vision for the time being.

Both UNASUR and CELAC, which advocate cooperation across ideological and developmental borders, have become increasingly stagnant in recent years. ←42 | 43→On the other hand, ALBA and the PA, each representing very different strategies for incorporation into the international system (‘21st century socialism’ versus ‘open regionalism’), were much more active in their own specific ways. ALBA continues with declarations for a continuity of efforts for Latin American unity ‘succeeding Bolívar, San Martín, Martí, Fidel and Chávez,’10 while the PA pursues its policy of small steps of pragmatic cooperation between the organization’s member states.11

4Latin American Regionalism: Explanatory Factors

Latin American regionalism is characterized by great institutional and organizational diversity. It should be noted that there are a number of other regional and sub-regional cooperation and integration mechanisms in addition to the institutions mentioned in this chapter. The competencies of the different institutions are often not clearly separated. There is a tendency to establish a new institution rather than undergo the hardships of overcoming the shortcomings of existing institutions. Over the decades, this has led to some regional organizations giving the impression of “living museums” that owe their survival more to the law of inertia than to the will of their member countries to use them as instruments of regional cooperation.

Despite large differences in their objectives, Latin American regional organizations as a whole are characterized by organizational weaknesses, low decision-making authority, and narrow scope for action. Therefore, regional organizations cannot play a pro-active role in deepening regional cooperation and integration. Latin American foreign policy continues to be characterized by the dominance of presidential diplomacy, leaving little room for supranational aspirations. In times of active and charismatic regional leadership by personalities such as Lula and Chávez in the first decade of the 21st century, this institutional weakness was less significant. All the more, however, after their resignation, a regional leadership vacuum has emerged, which points to how limited the real scope of action of regional organizations is in Latin America.

In addition, there is a low efficiency of regional rules and norms with regard to influencing the behavior of states and governments. Tolerance for non-compliance with multilateral agreements is high, and the tendency to non-transfer of rules agreed at (sub-)regional level into national legislation is widespread. ←43 | 44→Another important factor, particularly with regard to Latin America’s role in global forums, concerns the predominantly introspective nature of regionalism. A common positioning in relation to global issues only takes place in a very general way. This is essentially due to three key factors, which are discussed in more detail below: first, the divergent development strategies in place in the region; second, the concepts of sovereignty that dominate Latin America; and third, the specific characteristics of regionalization in Latin America.

4.1Divergent Development Strategies

More than 35 years ago, Kenneth Coleman and Luis Quiros-Varela proposed a concept that established relationships between different types of development strategies and foreign policy strategies (Coleman and Quiros-Varela). Of course, the situation of Latin America and the world has changed fundamentally since then, and the development strategies presented by the authors at that time no longer correspond to the currently dominating types. Nevertheless, their fundamental considerations remain interesting. Coleman and Quiros-Varela distinguished between three development strategies, conventional, reformist, and revolutionary strategies, and discussed the foreign policy consequences of each strategy. While not being able to discuss this in detail here, it must be noted that every development strategy has consequences for the strategy of the international incorporation of a country and thus for its attitude towards regional cooperation and integration processes. In this respect, it can be hypothesized that a country will be all the more involved in a regional organization or a regional integration process, the more this organization and/or process corresponds to the respective development strategy. The central elements of a development strategy refer to the issue of domestic versus outward orientation; the preferred role of the state, the market, and private enterprises for economic development; the degree of regulation and opening of the economy to the world market; development priorities, and the role of foreign direct investment. A development strategy also reflects the way in which the relationship between national, regional, and global interests is conceived and perceived. Of course, such considerations have consequences for the respective strategy of international incorporation, the preferred external partners as well as possible concepts of the enemy.

Generally speaking, we can currently distinguish three divergent development strategies in Latin America: neoliberal, heterodox-reformist, and radical strategies. The consequences of these strategies for the factors mentioned in the preceding paragraph have led to the emergence of competing regional organizations such as ALBA and the PA, of which there is no overlap between their members. ←44 | 45→Different development strategies have also made it difficult for institutions such as UNASUR or CELAC, which have a very heterogeneous membership in terms of development strategy, to formulate common positions that go beyond very general wording and declarations of intent.

4.2Traditional Concepts of Sovereignty

A second explanatory element for Latin America’s difficulties in creating strong regional institutions and speaking with one voice to external actors refers to the concepts of sovereignty that dominate the region. Originally, the idea of sovereignty referred to an internal dimension of states. In medieval times, it served as a mechanism that ensured the king’s authority over the feudal lords. With the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, sovereignty became a fundamental norm of international relations. States were considered equal among themselves; they should not be subject to supranational authority and, for their part, not intervene in the internal affairs of other states. In this sense, sovereignty meant autonomy and independence of states over any kind of external authority.

From a European perspective, in times of globalization and in the face of a multitude of international interactions and interdependencies, the concept of absolute sovereignty is an anachronism. Proponents of the idea of shared sovereignty argue for a partial transfer of national decision-making powers to supranational regional organizations. It is assumed that the resulting power of the supranational organization is greater than the sum of the national powers. Moreover, it is understood that shared sovereignty does not mean the end of national sovereignty, but ultimately serves to strengthen and stabilize it.12

While the experience of two world wars in Europe has strengthened the idea that restricting the absolute sovereignty of nation states is necessary to guarantee peace, the historical experience of Latin American countries is quite different. Even after independence from Spain and Portugal, most Latin American countries have experienced a recurring threat to their national sovereignty by external actors, notably European states (mainly in the 19th century) and the United States. While the limitation of national sovereignty in the framework of the European integration process was conceived as a tool to prevent new wars ←45 | 46→in Europe, the basic motives of Latin American regionalism were and are different: they are particularly linked to the objectives of development and guarantee of autonomy and independence vis-à-vis extra-regional actors (Pastrana Buelvas; Pastrana Buelvas and Alegría).

4.3Specifics of Regionalization in Latin America

As mentioned in the introduction, the term “regionalization” refers above all to transnational economic, political, social, or cultural interactions of non-state actors. Although the term “regionness” proposed by Hettne and Söderbaum has been rightly criticized (Schmitt-Egner 180), the authors’ discussion on degrees of regionalization is useful to analyze the translocal interactions and densifications in a given region. Hettne and Söderbaum distinguish five stages of increasing regionalization, ranging from ‘regional space’ (a geographical unit delimited by more or less natural physical barriers and marked by ecological characteristics, but without translocal interactions of larger dimensions) to a hypothetical ‘region-state’ (461–68).

This is not the place to go into detail about the diverse translocal and transnational interactions of non-state actors in Latin America. Rather, I focus on the area of economic regionalization, as Latin American regionalism has long been heavily economic. The economic patterns of production and trade that have emerged during the centuries of colonialism have meant that the international incorporation of the economies of the independent Latin American nation states has been geared primarily towards extra-regional actors (first Europe, later the United States, today increasingly Asia). By contrast, economic and trade relations with neighboring countries always played a subordinate role. As Burges has shown, weak economic regionalization, the ‘reality of trade,’ places narrow limits on a primarily economic regionalism (“Bounded”). Of course, political elites can foster cross-border economic cooperation and integration, but non-state economic operators follow their actions with incentives and logics that are more geared to extra-regional partners than to their own region. The data published on a regular basis by CEPAL on intra-regional trade and intra-regional Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) are very telling. In 2016, only 22 % of South American total exports went to South America. For Central America, the corresponding figure was 31 %, and for the Caribbean 29 %. The most extreme cases were countries such as Mexico (5.3 %), Chile (17.6 %), Peru (19.7 %), and Brazil (20.2 %), which handled only a very small proportion of their total exports within their own region (CEPAL 42–45). Outward FDI flows from Latin American and Caribbean countries, especially from Brazil, ←46 | 47→Mexico, Chile, and Colombia to other regional countries, have grown substantially in the 21st century, but they are still far less important than investments from the United States, Asia, and Europe (ECLAC 48–51). This explains why economic regionalism plays a subordinate role for many Latin American countries, while bilateral and multilateral cooperation with external partners is a high priority.

As we have seen, Latin American regionalism in the 21st century has increasingly distanced itself from purely economic concepts and embarked on new forms of regional cooperation and integration. This is understandable, as cross-border regionalization has increased in many areas and poses new challenges for nation-states. These include, for example, environmental issues, intra-regional migration processes, and security problems. The more these developments are perceived as common challenges by the governments of the region, the more likely it is that efforts will be made to develop regionalism in these areas.


After reviewing key milestones of Latin American regionalism since independence, this chapter first outlined the state of current regional cooperation and integration efforts, and then identified three key issues, divergent development strategies, traditional concepts of sovereignty, and a low degree of economic regionalization as causes of the weakness of Latin American regional organizations.

Regional cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased significantly in the past 25 years, leading to the emergence of a variety of new bilateral and multilateral cooperation and integration mechanisms. Although there has been no political integration in the strict sense, the present situation differs fundamentally from those times when intra–Latin American relations were characterized by reciprocal threat perceptions and rivalries. At that time, military governments and the doctrine of national security prevailed. Today, in spite of profound divergences and asymmetries, there is a fundamental willingness for regional cooperation in many policy areas. This is not to be forgotten despite all legitimate criticism of the present state of Latin American regionalism.


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1This chapter was written as part of the activities under the project “Giving focus to the Cultural, Scientific and Social Dimension of EU-CELAC Relations” (EULAC Focus). It is a collaborative project funded by the Executive Agency of the European Research Council, Horizon 2020, between 2016 and 2019, under Convention No. 693781. The project involves 19 institutions, 9 from Europe and 10 from Latin America and the Caribbean. Its main objective is to “give focus” to EU-CELAC relations. The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut coordinates a work package on four cross-cutting issues: mobility, inequality, diversity, and sustainability. Each one is analysed for the cultural, scientific, and social dimension. In addition, overlaps and interconnections between the four cross-cutting issues are explored. For more information about the project, see the website <>.

2For the history of Latin American regionalism, see Barrios; Birle, “Zwischenstaatliche Konflikte,” “Zwischen Integration”; Briceño-Ruiz, “Autonomía”; Mols, Integration und Kooperation in Lateinamerika, Integration und Kooperation in zwei Kontinenten.

3Mistrust was quite mutual. The political elites of the Empire of Brazil regarded the repeated unrest in South America as an expression of anarchy and disorder, as in their view they were typical of the republican form of government. Accordingly, their position towards the Hispano-American republiquetas (small republics) was characterized by disinterest and a sense of superiority. For their part, the Hispanic-American countries criticized the Brazilian Empire for its ‘backward’ institutions and for the until 1888 ongoing slavery (Capelato 289–92). A first ‘Americanization’ of Brazilian foreign policy in the sense of a turn to the countries of the Western Hemisphere began only with the establishment of a republican state system in 1889 (Lafer 36).

4For the original CEPAL doctrine, see Deciancio, Zimmerling.

5Member countries of the ALALC were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In 1980, the organization was renamed as Latin American Integration Association (Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración, ALADI). Besides the founding members, ALADI also includes Cuba (since 1999) and Panama (since 2012). All Latin American countries can become members.

6For a general overview of recent processes of regional cooperation, see Briceño-Ruiz, “Ejes”; Gardini; Legler; Nolte, Latin; Portales; Riggirozzi; Sanahuja, “Regionalismo”; SELA, Estado; Tussie.

7For UNASUR see Comini and Frenkel; Diamint; Sanahuja, Post-Liberal.

8For CELAC see Llenderrozas, Rojas Aravena, Serbin.

9For the PA see García; Nolte, “The Pacific”; SELA, The Pacific.

10See the corresponding articles on the Internet platform <>, as of 21 Feb. 2018.

11See <>, as of 9 July 2017.

12Such ideas underlie the European integration process. However, even in the European Union, supranational processes and structures only exist in individual policy areas. In addition, the multiple crises of European integration in recent years have led to questions not only of the status quo and even of the continued existence of the Union, but also of its potential role model for integration processes in Latin America.←51 | 52→←52 | 53→