August 15, 2023
In May 2023, the leaders of 12 South American countries gathered in Brasília to chart a course to regional integration. “The elements that unite us are above ideological differences,” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, said at the meeting. “We are a human, historical, cultural, economic, and commercial entity, with common needs and hopes.” Lula called on neighboring countries to rejoin and reform the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional body that splintered in 2019 when half its members withdrew because of partisan enmity. He concluded his speech with a raft of proposals for the body’s direction: development financing, pharmaceutical innovation, energy production, and defense coordination.
The summit in Brasília received wide attention as the first meeting of South America’s presidents in nine years. Yet the effort to revive UNASUR is just the latest in a broader drive toward Latin American integration. In January 2023, leaders from across the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) signed the 111-point Declaration of Buenos Aires, pledging to work together to improve nutrition, eradicate hunger, develop infrastructure, and produce vaccines. Ministerial meetings scheduled later this year promise to expand these commitments to cover areas such as migration, mining, and the drug trade.
Over the past two decades, such designs for Latin American integration have stirred skepticism. Some deride the continent’s regional bodies as meaningless multilateralism, high on rhetoric but low on substance. Others decry them as excessively ideological, born of a knee-jerk hostility to the United States that is less focused on finding solutions than on sending signals of left-wing disapproval.
Yet such interpretations misunderstand the motivations for Latin American integration and its enduring appeal. Latin American regional bodies, including CELAC and UNASUR, were not designed as playpens for ideological allies. Rather, they reflect an autochthonous tradition of foreign policy — active, assertive, and autonomous — that has grown only more attractive amid the “global Zeitenwende,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s phrase for the geopolitical realignment that will define the era of pandemics, climate change, and rising tensions between great powers. According to Scholz, European nations are now debating how to “remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world.” If that is true, then Latin America, a region ensnared by economic dependencies and excluded from the high table of global governance, faces an even more pressing challenge.
The urgency of integration, however, will not guarantee its success. Latin American integration is hindered today by challenges across multiple dimensions: across the bloc, outside the bloc, and inside each of the countries grappling with domestic political volatility. Allies should respond to these challenges with even stronger diplomatic support. Latin American integration would not only ensure greater resilience in the face of food, health, and environmental crises. It would also make Latin America a more reliable partner for the international community in the turbulent century to come.
New Bloc on the Block
The motivations for Latin American integration are both external and internal. Today, many leaders across the region think that the US-led system of hemispheric governance is broken. The Organization of American States, which includes the United States, has suffered a spate of recent scandals: the OAS botched a corruption probe in Honduras in 2018, intervened to an unprecedented degree in the 2019 Bolivian election, and opened an ethics inquiry into the conduct of its own leader, Secretary General Luis Almagro. Given these embarrassments, several of its member states no longer see the OAS as a credible steward of hemispheric affairs.
This crisis of confidence explained the empty chairs at the 2022 Summit of the Americas, a meeting of most OAS member states. US President Joe Biden, who hosted the summit in Los Angeles, did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, citing a “lack of democratic space and the human rights situations” in the countries. “We reject the exclusion of countries in the continent,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who boycotted the summit along with the presidents of Bolivia and Honduras in solidarity with their excluded neighbors.
Discontent with US influence is nothing new. Controversies at the OAS perennially remind Latin American leaders of the value of strategic autonomy. In 2008, all 12 South American countries joined in founding UNASUR. In 2011, 33 countries — every state south of the US border — formed CELAC with the mission to “leave behind the old and worn-out OAS.” Unlike the OAS, neither UNASUR nor CELAC counts the United States or Canada as members.
Many analysts explain the rise of alternatives to the OAS as a project of left-wing leaders of that time, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. But the institutions garnered cross-partisan support. Chávez welcomed Mexican President Felipe Calderón, a conservative, to Caracas for the founding of CELAC in 2011. Right-wing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera supported UNASUR’s condemnation of a coup attempt against left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in 2010.
Indeed, although many commentators have described Latin American integration as a byproduct of a left-wing “pink tide” that crested in that era, it is in fact rooted in constitutional orders that long predate recent trends. Brazil’s 1988 constitution, for example, directs the government to “seek the economic, political, social and cultural integration of the peoples of Latin America, aiming at the formation of a Latin American community of nations.”
When US President Donald Trump was in the White House, however, the region reversed course, and a new set of right-wing leaders such as Colombian President Iván Duque and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro abandoned the institutions built by their predecessors. By 2020, seven governments had withdrawn from UNASUR, Brazil had suspended its membership in CELAC, and the Southern Common Market — which had overseen a tenfold increase in regional trade in the previous decade — had been dramatically weakened by abstentions, neglect, and budget cuts.
With the region trending toward disintegration, the Trump administration tried to reassert US primacy in the hemisphere. The Trump administration labeled Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela the “troika of tyranny,” rolled back President Barack Obama’s détente with Cuba, and launched a full-scale sanctions campaign against Venezuela. Trump advanced US defense interests by designating Brazil a major non-NATO ally and pressuring Duque to renege on Colombia’s 2016 peace accords with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He also broke with a 50-year tradition of Latin American leadership by appointing a US citizen to the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank. “Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” said John Bolton, the US national security adviser, in 2019, paying homage to US President James Monroe and his vision of a US-dominated hemisphere.
Recoil from the Trump administration’s warmed-over Monroe Doctrine was predictable. And insofar as Biden has maintained some key policies of his predecessor such as Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, many Latin American leaders continue to see regional integration as a strategy for rebalancing hemispheric relations away from an unpredictable, unreliable, and unilateral Washington. But the internal factors favoring Latin American integration are just as important as the external ones.
The primary driver is development. Latin America is highly exposed to the gales of the global economy: its COVID-19 economic contraction was more than double the global average, and the war in Ukraine jolted its food and energy markets, pushing inflation rates to their highest levels in 15 years. Regional disintegration is a major source of this vulnerability. Only 15 percent of Latin America’s total international trade takes place between countries within the region, compared with 55 percent for the European Union and 38 percent for North America. Eighty-five percent of Latin America’s international trade occurs with the United States, the EU, and China, with exports of low-value raw materials exchanged for imports of high-value manufactured goods and advanced technology.
The impetus for regional integration is closely connected to this perception of dependence. In the 1950s, the influential United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean proposed a customs union as a development strategy. Four decades later, the Southern Common Market trade bloc would become a bulwark against a US-led proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which many feared would entrench low-value primary goods specialization in Latin America and assure US commercial dominance in the hemisphere. Today, both left- and right-wing leaders in Latin America remain convinced that sustainable development can be secured only through integrated plans for energy production, infrastructure investment, and pharmaceutical innovation that reduce dependence on wealthy countries.
Regional integration would also bolster defense. In March 2008, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe launched a military assault on FARC members in Ecuador, kicking off a diplomatic row that led Ecuador to cut ties with Colombia and caused Venezuela to move battalions to its border with Colombia. But leaders quickly contained the risk of regional conflict. Just nine months later, the defense ministers of UNASUR countries formed the South American Defense Council to increase military cooperation and establish Latin America as a “zone of peace.” In the years that followed, the council both broadened and deepened this mandate, founding the Center for Strategic Defense Studies in Buenos Aires to develop policy and the School of South American Defense in Quito to train officers. In a region once dominated by military dictatorships and ravaged by civil wars, these bodies were intended to enhance the trust between Latin American armies and prevent the rivalry that typically inflates military spending and increases the possibility of intraregional conflict.
Move as One
The potential gains from Latin American integration have never been clearer. But the prospects for its success will depend on the ability of the region’s leaders to overcome polarization across ideological lines. Doing so will require diplomatic acumen and thoughtful institutional design. Like the European Council, UNASUR has frequently been hamstrung by its rule of consensus. Some leaders, including Lula, have proposed restricting that consensus to only the most critical topics, such as member accession, to prevent a veto from blocking the path to new regional programs.
The progress of Latin American integration will also depend on the region’s external partners, principally the United States. Both the Biden administration and high-ranking members of the US Congress have expressed concerns about Latin America’s increasing economic cooperation with China and its restrained response to the war in Ukraine. “We are losing our positional advantage in this hemisphere, and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend,” Admiral Craig Faller, then the commander of the United States Southern Command, said in 2021. The question remains whether the United States will accept an increasing degree of strategic autonomy south of its borders.
Even in the absence of US intervention, however, the window of opportunity for regional integration may be smaller than Latin America’s leaders hope. Across the continent, presidents have come to power with slim majorities in the popular vote and small minorities in their respective legislatures. In many of the most historically robust liberal democracies — Brazil, Chile, and Colombia among them — the opposition has been radicalized, risking the erosion of democratic institutions if not outright violence. Hampered at home, governments may struggle to invest the political capital necessary to forge regional institutions that can withstand backlash from domestic opponents.
Despite these difficult conditions, the dream of Latin American integration endures. It is one that the international community, particularly the United States, should share. A more integrated Latin America would mean more reliable partners, thriving economies, and resilient democracies. But the clock is ticking. At the regional summit in Brasília in May, Lula gave the gathered presidents just 120 days to present a road map to South American integration. If the region succeeds, the United States should cease its efforts to divide the bloc or isolate its members and instead encourage Latin America to travel that road.