The roots of Latin American regionalism blend together with the birth of the region’s states, and despite its vicissitudes, the integrationist ideal represents the most ambitious form of regional feeling. It is an ancient process that has undergone continuous ups and downs as a result of domestic and foreign restrictions. In the early 21st century, the deterioration of the “open regionalism” strategy, along with the rise to power of diverse left governments, led to the development of a “physical-structural,” “post-liberal,” “post-neoliberal,” or “post-hegemonic” integration model. In this context, Brazil—governed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—constituted itself as a crucial protagonist and main articulator of the South American integrationist project. From this perspective, in addition to the existing MERCOSUR, UNASUR was created, and it encompassed the whole subcontinent, thus reaffirming the formulation of regional policies regarding the concept of “South America.” At present, however, a new stage of these regionalisms has started. Today, the Latin American and Caribbean dynamics seem to bifurcate, on the one hand, into a reissue of open regionalism—through the Pacific Alliance—and, on the other hand, into a fragmentation process of South America as a geopolitical bloc and regional actor in the global system. Regarding this last point, it is unavoidable to link the regional integration crisis to the critical political and economic situation undergone by Brazil, considered as the leader of the South American process. In short, the withdrawal of the Brazilian leadership in South America, along with the shifts and disorientations that took place in UNASUR and MERCOSUR, have damaged the credibility of the region’s initiatives, as well as the possibility to identify a concerted voice in South America as a distinguishable whole. That regional reality poses an interesting challenge that implies, to a great extent, making a heuristic effort to avoid being enclosed by the concepts and assumptions of the processes of regionalism and integration that were born to explain the origin, evolution, and development of the European Union. From this perspective, the authors claim that the new phase experienced by Latin American regionalisms cannot be understood as a lack of institutionality—as it is held by those perspectives that support the explanations that they “mirror” the European process—but rather it answers chiefly to a self-redefinition process influenced by significant alterations that occurred both in global and national conjunctures and that therefore, have had an impact on the regional logic. Given the regional historical tradition marked by vicissitudes, the authors believe that they can hardly talk about a “Sudamexit” (SouthAmexit in English) process, namely, an effective abandonment of regionalisms. Recognizing the distinctive features of Latin American and Caribbean countries, rather, leads us to think of dynamics that generate a complex and disorganized netting in which the political-institutional course of development of Brazil will have relevant repercussions in the future Latin American and Caribbean process as a whole.
Javier A. Vadell and Clarisa Giaccaglia
In 1991, the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) was launched with the aim of fostering regional integration among its four original members—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. MERCOSUR evolved from open regionalism to postliberal regionalism in the course of the first 15 years of the 21st century. The organization has faced several challenges since its inception: internal struggles that result from significant asymmetries between members as well as underlying deficits in the regionalism process and external difficulties in managing MERCOSUR’s relations within the hemisphere and beyond (such as relations with the European Union and China).
Integration attempts in Latin America have historically been linked to the European experience. Transatlantic influence has gone from policy learning through institutional mimicry to direct funding. Modern Latin American regionalism dates back to 1960, when the Central American Common Market and the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) were founded. Both associations were a response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 and the fear that “Fortress Europe” would cut extra-regional markets off, so alternatives should be developed. The Latin American blocs aspired to overcome the small size of the national markets by fostering economies of scale. Shortly thereafter, European-born, U.S.-based political scientist Ernst Haas—jointly with Philippe Schmitter—put to the test the neofunctionalist theory he had developed for Europe to analyze Central American integration, correctly diagnosing the latter’s limitations and forecasting its setbacks. LAFTA also faltered and failed and, in 1980, the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI by its Spanish acronym) replaced it. A decade later, ALADI would become MERCOSUR’s umbrella organization. After the third wave of democratization, which in Latin America started in 1978, new attempts at regional integration took hold, and MERCOSUR was initially considered as the most successful. Successive leaders of the European Union (EU) nurtured big hopes and devoted a great deal of attention to EU–MERCOSUR relations, first assisting with integration technology, material resources, and intellectual guidance and, since 1995, conducting several rounds of negotiations to strike a trade deal. The path that had led to MERCOSUR resembled that of the EU, as it started in 1985 with functional and sectoral integration (wheat and oil prominently, in place of coal and steel) around the Argentina–Brazil axis. A few years later, in 1991, the binational association was opened up to Paraguay and Uruguay and transformed itself into a typical Balassa-like organization, prioritizing broader market integration over focused sectoral integration—just like the Treaty of Rome had done in Europe. Intra-regional trade tripled during the first seven years, but it later stagnated and never bounced back. As a result, the member states decided to up the rhetorical ante and broaden the areas encompassed by the organization rather than fostering economic interdependence or deepening the level of regional authority. An optional tribunal and a powerless parliament were established in 2002 and 2005 respectively. The outcome was grim: more institutions on paper did not enhance performance in practice. Having exhausted the internal agenda, the external agenda remained the only one where positive developments were still expected. In 2019, after twenty years of bumping negotiations, a political agreement on a comprehensive trade deal was reached with the European Union, MERCOSUR’s role model and largest trade partner. If this agreement is signed and ratified, it will become the largest interregional arrangement ever.