Alexander Main
NACLA Report on the Americas, Volume 48, Issue 4, December 2, 2016

This is article is part of a forum titled "A New Agenda in U.S.-Latin American Relations" published in the winter issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.

See article on original site

The movement for Latin American integration has seen better days. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean appeared to be on the verge of realizing Simón Bolívar and José Martí’s dream of Latin American unity. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was formally established and making major strides in conflict mediation as well as defense and infrastructure cooperation. In 2010, every Latin American and Caribbean government (except for the post-coup government of Honduras) had agreed to create a new regional group—the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)—a regional body that excluded the U.S. and Canada. Shortly thereafter CELAC would adopt a bold agenda featuring plans for “political, economic, social, and cultural integration.”

These exciting developments were rooted in the decade’s seismic political shift: left-leaning movements and parties that rejected socially and economically destructive “Washington Consensus” policies and U.S.-backed free trade agreements were voted into office all across the region. A core group of Left governments, led by Cuba and Venezuela, formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an explicitly anti-neoliberal alliance originally conceived as an “alternative” to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish). By late 2005 the FTAA was correctly pronounced “dead” by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, in large part because left-leaning figures now held the reins of power in two of the biggest economies in the region, Argentina and Brazil. The MERCOSUR (Common Market of the South) trade bloc, which initially had a fairly traditional free trade orientation and only included Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, appeared to be shifting towards a more heterodox and politically progressive integration scheme, with Venezuela becoming a full member of the group, and other Left governments, such as those of Bolivia and Ecuador, poised to become members as well.

But that was then. Today, the regional political panorama is starkly different and the movement for Latin American regional integration is in trouble. The movement’s leading champion—Hugo Chávez—died in 2013 and his embattled successor, Nicolás Maduro, has largely ceased playing a proactive role on the regional stage. Argentina and Brazil, both badly hit by the regional economic downturn, are now in the hands of right-wing governments; one elected, the other the product of a brazen power grab that many Brazilians consider a “soft coup.” Meanwhile, the governments of other countries, like Peru and Mexico, have shifted further to the right. Emboldened by these developments, right-wing leaders appear set on dismantling or neutering the new regional groups. Recently, Brazil’s de facto foreign minister, José Serra, called for MERCOSUR to allow individual members to sign bilateral trade agreements with other countries and blocs, including the U.S. and the European Union.

Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, is heading an effort to deepen relations between MERCOSUR and the neoliberal Pacific Alliance group of Latin American countries; it is widely believed that Macri also wishes to bring Argentina into the U.S-backed, pro-corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Meanwhile, the governments of Argentina and Brazil have joined with the Paraguayan government (another product of a “soft coup”) in its attempt to drive Venezuela out of MERCOSUR.

And the U.S. in all of this? On the face of it, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to have any sort of position vis-à-vis Latin America’s new regionalism. But, as the Wikileaks trove of leaked State Department cables confirmed, the U.S. State Department has been privately obsessed with countering ALBA and the Venezuelan-led Petrocaribe regional energy cooperation agreement throughout the region, while at the same time recognizing the clear economic benefits that such regional initiatives have had for countries like Haiti and Jamaica. There is now abundant evidence—including in Hillary Clinton’s recent book, Hard Choices—that the State Department helped the 2009 coup d'état in Honduras succeed in an effort to counter Venezuela’s perceived regional influence.

What’s more, the U.S. administration has enthusiastically thrown its weight behind new right-wing leaders and movements. Vice President Joe Biden, for example, has gone out of his way to show the administration’s support for the Pacific Alliance, made up of signatories of bilateral trade pacts with the U.S. and described by one of its co-founders, former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera, as a counter-model to ALBA. President Obama himself has engaged in extraordinary diplomatic overtures towards Argentina’s new government, making a rare trip south of the border to stand beside his Argentine counterpart in Buenos Aires and announce that “under President Macri, Argentina is reassuming its traditional leadership role in the region and around the world.” (Shortly beforehand, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew lifted the U.S. ban on multilateral loans to Argentina, which had targeted the administration of Macri’s left-leaning predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner). More distressingly, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a special trip to Brasilia while president Dilma Rousseff’s controversial impeachment trial was still underway and held a high profile meeting with José Serra, thereby helping cast a veneer of legitimacy on Rousseff’s ouster—and on Brazil’s new right-wing foreign policy, more generally.

In addition, the Obama administration has made every effort to re-invigorate the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS)—an institution that, in its location and its political priorities, remains a faithful reflection of the unequal relationship between the U.S. and its Latin American counterparts. OAS Secretary General Luís Almagro is now the region’s lead attack dog against Venezuela, regularly excoriating the human rights “crimes” and “autocracy” of the Maduro government while mostly ignoring more alarming human rights abuses in countries like Honduras and Mexico. Though Almagro’s efforts have earned him enormous praise in Washington, he has horrified many leaders in the region and drawn intense criticism from his mentor, former Uruguayan president José Mujíca.

Does stoking division and undermining the integration movement really serve U.S. interests? If the end goal is to promote stability and prosperity—as the U.S. State Department claims—then the answer is no. In early 2014, CELAC members proclaimed Latin America and the Caribbean a “zone of peace” and, indeed, for the last 20 years Latin America has been— with the exception of Colombia—free of major armed conflict, unlike many other regions of the world. UNASUR has played no small part in maintaining the peace, resolving conflicts that could have resulted in tremendous bloodshed and instability. (Examples of this include UNASUR’s successful mediation in the 2008 internal conflict in Bolivia and the 2009 regional conflict between Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.) And today, the regional body is the only outside actor that has succeeded in initiating a tenuous political dialogue between the government and opposition in Venezuela—an effort that has been undercut by the hardline positions taken by OAS Secretary General Almagro and the State Department.

The region is also far better off charting an independent course than enduring more U.S.-backed “free trade” and Washington Consensus regimes. This is the strategy that resulted in stagnant growth and increased inequality during the neoliberal heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. Though the fallout from the global economic crisis has hit much of Latin America hard, it is worth remembering the great improvement in living standards and drop in poverty levels that countries with Left governments experienced over the last decade.

As a new presidential administration assumes power in Washington, activists in the U.S. must make it clear to policy makers in Washington that if they are genuinely concerned with promoting peace and economic development in Latin America, they should begin by allowing the region to decide its own destiny, without U.S. intervention. By forcefully opposing U.S. government actions that undermine Left governments and independent integration movements, concerned U.S. citizens can help Latin Americans finally accomplish the dream of true unity and sovereignty.


Alexander Main is senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) where he focuses primarily on U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. He also serves on NACLA’s editorial committee.