Latin America’s weak regionalism in the face of COVID-19

Will the aftermath of the pandemic strengthen region cohesion in Latin America? Predictions indicate no. Unilateralism is expected to linger on.


Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal, a Madrid-based think tank. Jerónimo Ríos Sierra is an associate professor of Political Sciences and Sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid and the author of Brief History of the Armed Conflict in Colombia (La Catarata, 2017). @Jeronimo_Rios_

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The crisis generated by COVID-19 has amplified some of the endemic weaknesses and contradictions known to many throughout Latin America. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to develop a corrective framework to direct future investment and structural transformation, as existing institutions have failed to achieve cooperative management at the regional level. This idea re-enforces the leopardian logic of “changing so that everything stays the same.”

It is increasingly difficult to envision a future where we have overcome the pandemic—let alone a future with greater mutual trust, multilateralism, and strong institutions working toward the common good and fostering solidarity between countries.

Continental integration has remained an ongoing project for the last century, in part due to the United States’ de-stabilizing interventions and nationalistic tendencies. Currently, a mixture of skepticism, supranationality, nationalism, and distrust, combined with a lack of leadership, has led to unsurprisingly weak regional responses to COVID-19. The need for solid regional integration has been noted by political leaders like Alberto Fernández and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, though it is important to keep in mind that statements of this nature are often mis-represented by the media. Regardless, time will tell if the regional prowess claimed by Argentina and Mexico proves true, especially as both countries are in charge of Oxford University’s efforts to produce a vaccine in Latin America. 

Any future scenario is open to pessimism, and most elements are unlikely to change once the coronavirus crisis comes to an end. Regardless, throughout these challenging times, the United States and other regions have prioritized the recovery of commercial relations, often overlooking management of the pandemic and collective regional needs.

Proof of this dynamic can be seen in the Andean Community and the Pacific Alliance. First, their efforts have largely shifted toward information exchange, searches for financial reimbursements, and virtual meetings to address regional interest areas that have yet to be realized on an “if necessary” basis. This integration model has experienced an institutional crisis since 2006, and it appears that, in time, it will become irrelevant because of its minimal agenda and limited capacity to transform.

The Pacific Alliance is struggling from similar challenges. Although it is the continent’s last commercial integration project, it comprises the most geopolitically conservative countries: Mexico, Colombia, Perú, and Chile. The “bare minimum” agenda is exclusively commercial and, during the pandemic, actions have been directed toward lifting commercial restrictions to open the exchange of sanitary and medical goods and promote technological investment in small and medium-sized companies.  

A better alternative does not appear in the regional project offered by MERCOSUR, which has been seriously affected by the confluence of antonymic leaderships such as those of Alberto Fernández in Argentina and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The MERCOSUR integration agenda, which is somewhat more robust than the Andean one, has not led to any notable multilateral responses to manage the pandemic. These, as in the Andean case, have barely invited the joint management of statistics, and have yet to achieve the necessary level of commercial trade or obtain funding from organizations such as the Andean Development Corporation or the Inter-American Development Bank. One strategy could be the provision of a start-up fund of $16 million, designated to purchase testing materials and support “Research, Education and Biotechnology for Health,” which focuses on issues related to COVID-19. Additionally, the greatest certainty at the regional level will be the recovery of trade dialogues that are currently suspended, but seek to achieve free trade agreements with actors such as the European Union, Canada, and South Korea.

To date, the only subregional scheme that has found collective mechanisms to handle the pandemic has been the Central American Integration System. Thus, since the beginning of March, the declaration “Central America united against the coronavirus” has been promoted, committing up to $1. 9 billion to prevent, contain, and overcome the effects of COVID-19. This was based around three central axes (health and risk management; trade and finance; security, justice and migration) and two transversal axes (strategic communication; management of international cooperation). This shows that Central America has an idiosyncrasy that, unlike the Andean region or the Southern Cone, better understands the adjustment of integration with state agendas, since its economies, institutions, and codes are more cohesive than in other Latin American subregional mechanisms.

A more pessimistic scenario can be found in the post-liberal legacy of regional integration in Latin America, which drove the progressive cycle during the last decade. Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian project, initiated in 2004 through ALBA, has become a testimonial. It operates as a framework for deepening relations between Venezuela and Cuba, with only a few smaller Antilles remaining as full members, such as Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Countries that were once more influential, such as Bolivia, Ecuador or Argentina, are entirely detached from the project, and it is expected that this scheme may eventually disappear, as many others have.

The Union of South American Nations seems to have had a similar fate. Ecuador withdrew before the pandemic, whereas Uruguay removed itself amidst the pandemic, leaving only Venezuela, Bolivia, Suriname and Guyana as members. Like ALBA, it seems difficult, even with a return to the progressive cycle, that this scheme could be promoted after the pandemic. Thus, only the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has offered some strategies to address the health crisis from a regional perspective, such as the creation of the Network of Experts on Infectious Agents and Emerging and Re-emerging Diseases, or certain strategic alliances with UNDP, ECLAC or CLACSO to complement possible strategies to address COVID-19. Therefore, only this scheme stands as a strictly Latin American reference, but it is also largely an attempt at policy coordination and consequently represents a weak and superficial level of regional integration.

In similar terms, the Organization of American States continues to be of little relevance in the continent. The only thing that has stood out in recent months has been the re-election of its general secretary, Luis Almagro, to which we can add some support actions that are limited in their focus on Mexico or El Salvador. At the opposite level, but equally linked to the OAS, the role played by the Pan American Health Organization should be highlighted in a positive way. For months now, it has been preparing weekly reports and press conferences in an effort to provide regional diagnostics, management and prognostic tools, as well as direct support to the states that make up the organization.

All things considered, it is likely that regional challenges in Latin America will not be improved as a result of the current global crisis. On the contrary, it has served as an exemplar of the prevalence of this issue at national governmental scales. The reality is that regional integration in Latin America seems largely unattainable. Distrust arises with any indication of supranationality, while economic agendas are used as the primary avenue for collaboration, so that proposals containing a political imprint, such as UNASUR, encounter serious challenges in their construction. Little can be done to preserve the idealization of regional politics when it is conceived as a partisan idea rather than a state policy. Moreover, a deeply fractured geopolitical board, where the populist ultra-right, led by Brazil alongside several Latin American co-religionists, often make it impossible to articulate and achieve collective agreements.

In conclusion, once the world overcomes COVID-19, a positive regional transformation in Latin America is unlikely. Resistance and challenges will continue to arise in a context of superficiality, unilateralism, and imprecision, which is where government actors in Latin American regional policy appear most comfortable.

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