Universität Bielefeld

Regional Integration Processes

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Regional integration processes, in both their economic and political dimensions, represent a long-standing and highly contested issue on the political agenda of the Americas. Until the present day, the basic inter-American lines of conflict have mirrored the historic contest between a “Bolivarian” and a “Monrovian” geopolitical conception: while the former, associated with South American independence hero Simón Bolívar and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts at state-building envisages a united, sovereign and independent Latin America, the latter, as expressed most clearly in then-President James Monroe’s “Monroe Doctrine” (1823), projects US paternalism and leadership over the Western hemisphere (Marchand 2005). Thereby, many of the most heated controversies stem from politico-economic asymmetries and dependencies between the US and Latin America.

The Organization of American States

The Organization of American States (OAS) represents the most comprehensive institutional structure of political integration in the Americas. In 2011, it had 35 members from North and Latin America as well as the Caribbean (the Cuban membership was suspended between 1962 and 2009).

Through its foundation in 1948, the US sought to consolidate its influence over the Western Hemisphere in the Cold War context, while Latin American states hoped to strengthen egalitarian and multilateral relations with their powerful neighbour. The consequent basic tension between the US' assertions of regional dominance and countervailing efforts has historically characterised the organisation. As a result, despite its differentiated institutionalization, which includes a regular General Assembly, a permanent General Secretariat, and a number of semi-independent specialist organisations, the OAS forms a strictly inter-governmental body with weak authority vis-à-vis individual states. Hence, the organisation has been criticised as being ineffective at reigning in, or even providing a vehicle for US regional power politics. For instance, the General Assembly has legitimised or failed to condemn a large number of military breaches of the sovereignty of Latin American states, formally enshrined in the OAS charter (Bloom 2008).

A partial exception is the OAS-led inter-American human rights system which has been greatly strengthened with the establishment, in 1979, of an Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, this regime's reach remains similarly asymmetrical, with the USA refusing to submit to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court (Rincón Eizaga 2004).

Economic integration from ISI to open regionalism and neoliberal free trade

The first major attempts at institutionalising economic integration date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when numerous Latin American governments formed subregional trading blocs (the Mercado Común Centroamericano, the Asociación Latinoamericana de Libre Comercio, and the Grupo Andino). These “defensive” initiatives aimed to strengthen trade in order to complement the import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) strategies which were being pursued at the time, and thus to improve Latin America's economic standing on the regional and global levels, as well as to generate the conditions for broader political integration. By and large, however, they failed to sustain the long-term viability of ISI strategies or to generate significant spill-over effects into the political sphere (Cancino Cadena & Albornoz Herrán 2007).

With the subsequent shift to neoliberal economic strategies, the dominant perspective on the purpose of regional integration (articulated most prominently by the CEPAL) was redefined - under the heading of “open regionalism” - as the facilitation of market-led growth and global commercial integration (de la Reza 2003). This narrowing-down to trade and economic integration led to the political components (e.g. industrial policy coordination or harmonization of external economic policies) of long-standing subregional groupings, as well as of the newly founded (in 1991) and economically powerful Mercosur being weakened considerably (Katz 2006).

From the late 1980s, the US began to push towards establishing a network of regional and bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) throughout the hemisphere. To date, such agreements have been concluded with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA, 1994), Chile, five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR), Peru, Panama and Colombia.

These treaties represent the most consequential manifestations of neoliberal-inspired visions of integration and have made for a qualitative leap in economic integration for at least two reasons: first, because they provide for largely reciprocal free trade and reduce governments' possibilities to implement safeguarding measures, despite the economic asymmetries between the partners; and second, because they go far beyond mere trade liberalisation in requiring far-reaching neoliberal reforms in areas such as public procurement, basic infrastructure, investment regulation, intellectual property rights, etc., while they exclude any attempts at deeper political integration (Estay & Sánchez 2005).

An attempt by the US and its Latin American allies to universalize the model entailed in these agreements through the creation of a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas failed due to resistance by a number of South American governments, in concert with a broad coalition of trade unions, social movements, and some business sectors. These actors criticised FTAs variously for bringing about adverse consequences for enterprises oriented towards domestic markets and for large sections of the populations, as well as for interfering with the sovereignty of national governments to freely define their respective economic strategies. In sum, FTAs are perceived by many of their critics as crucial parts of a US-driven neoliberal agenda for reasserting dominance over the Western hemisphere (Acosta 2004; Sepúlveda Amor 1997).

Alternative integration projects

Historically, the US dominance over and limitations of political and economic integration in the Americas have led Latin American governments to establish alternative fora for advancing their goals and asserting their autonomy. With the recent centre-left turn some more comprehensive attempts at reinvigorating such an autonomous regionalism have emerged. Among them, two are particularly noteworthy: first, the Venezuelan-led Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) which seeks to present a distinctive alternative to FTA-style commercial integration by advancing an agenda centred around the principles of complementarity and solidarity; and second the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur), founded in 2005 and existent as a legal entity since early 2011, which intends to provide the institutional forum for advancing the project of a deep and broadly based South American integration in areas such as infrastructure, finance, social policy, energy, and security (Katz 2006; Serbin 2009).

Despite significant differences in ideological outlook, both projects contrast markedly with the power politics long predominant in the OAS and the neoliberal free trade agenda in their emphasis on sovereign equality, inclusion, and social justice, which directly invokes the Bolivarian conception (Serbin 2007). To what extent they will be able to decisively influence the future course of regional integration processes in the Americas will depend, among other things, on the durability of the current political trend in Latin America, and on the stance taken by the US administration.

Matthias Ebenau

Please cite as:
Ebenau, Matthias. 2012. “Regional Integration Processes.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/r_Regional_Integration_Processes.html.


Acosta, A. 2004. "El “libre comercio” o la vieja práctica de quitar la escalera." In A. Acosta & E. Gudynas, ed. Libre comercio. Mitos y realidades. Nuevos desafíos para la economía política de la integración latinoamericana. Quito: Abya Yala, pp. 81-109.

Bloom, B.L. 2008. The Organization of American States, New York: Chelsea House.

Cancino Cadena, A. & Albornoz Herrán, C. 2007. La integración regional como instrumento de desarrollo para América Latina. Colombia internacional, (66), pp.120-146.

Estay, J. & Sánchez, G. 2005. "Una revisión general del ALCA y sus implicaciones." In J. Estay & G. Sánchez, ed. El ALCA y sus peligros para América Latina. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, pp. 17-96.

Katz, C. 2006. El rediseño de América Latina: ALCA, Mercosur y ALBA, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Luxemburg.

Marchand, M.H. 2005. "Contesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas: invoking a Bolivarian geopolitical imagination to construct an alternative regional project and identity." In C. Eschle & B. Maiguashca, ed. London/New York: Routledge, pp. 103-116.

de la Reza, G.A. 2003. "El regionalismo abierto en el hemisferio occidental." Análisis Económico, 18 (37), pp.297-312.

Rincón Eizaga, L. 2004. "La protección de los derechos humanos en las Américas." Revista de Ciencias Sociales (Ve), 10(3), pp.476-495.

Sepúlveda Amor, B. 1997. "International Law and National Sovereignty: The NAFTA and the Claims of Mexican Jurisdiction." Houston Journal of International Law, 19(3), pp.565-593.

Serbin, A.,2009." América del Sur en un mundo multipolar: ¿es la Unasur la alternativa?". Nueva Sociedad, (219), pp.145-156.

Serbin, A. 2007. "Entre UNASUR y ALBA: ¿otra integración (ciudadana) es posible?". In M. Mesa Peinado, ed. Paz y conflictos en el siglo XXI: tendencias globales. Barcelona: Icaria Editorial, pp. 183-207.

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