Friday, July 12, 2013

Eight challenges facing Latin American integration and a new role for Asia – a view from Cuba


A debate is opening up in Latin America over the future of the movement for continental political and economic integration. It is spurred in part by the growing number of states signing trade and investment treaties with extra-continental powers — both bilateral, like the “free trade agreements” some have signed with the United States and Canada, and multilateral, in particular the Pacific Alliance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), the latter two alliances including the United States, Canada and other imperialist countries.

The Pacific Alliance, the latest entry among these blocs (it was formally launched in June 2012), comprises Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Wikipedia informs us that these four countries “represent about 36% of Latin America GDP, and if counted as a single country they would be the ninth largest economy in the world with a nominal GDP of more than $2 trillion USD, surpassing India. According to information from the World Trade Organization (WTO), the countries of the Pacific Alliance together exported about U.S.$445 billion in 2010, almost 60% more than Mercosur (the main economic bloc in Latin America) exported in the same year.”

In an early contribution to the debate, the Cuban analyst Guillermo Andrés Alpizar writes that the Pacific Alliance “inaugurates an epoch in which there is a transition from a model of subregional integration based on territorial community (Central American Integration System, Caribbean Community, Andean Community of Nations, etc.) to an integration sustained by ideological affinities.”

“In the present conjuncture,” says Andrés Alpizar, “the Pacific Alliance is perceived, politically at least, as the antithesis of the ALBA, and economically, of the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur).” ALBA is the Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, which was initiated by Venezuela and Cuba almost a decade ago as an alternative to the aborted Free Trade Agreement of the Americas promoted primarily by the United States. Now comprising eight countries, it promotes regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, barter and mutual economic assistance.

Also fuelling the debate is the growing evidence that Brazil, the continental powerhouse, is losing interest in promoting greater economic integration with its South American neighbors and is more concerned with reinforcing its own influence in South America than it is with developing mutually beneficial trade and development ties with the other countries.

In the following article, the Cuban author calls for rethinking Latin American integration more along ALBA lines. Each of his “eight challenges” makes this point in different ways, and then he reinforces the argument with an implicit critique of the existing alliances with China and Asia. He states very clearly that Latin America cannot ignore China; it would be “economic suicide.” But since China is becoming so important as a market for LA, the existing relationships have to be reconceived so that there is mutual benefit between Asia and Latin America, and the latter is not left with a neoliberal resource-extraction model.

The Pacific Alliance is not going unchallenged. On May 25, the day after an Alliance summit in Cali, Colombia, newly elected Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro met with Bolivia’s president Evo Morales to sign bilateral agreements in 14 strategic fields in an effort to give a new impetus to ALBA. But the rifts among Latin American leaders were evident when some (including Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff) stayed away from an emergency UNASUR summit called this month to denounce the forced landing of Morales’ plane by four European governments while he was returning from a meeting in Moscow.

Guillermo L. Andrés Alpizar is a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones de la Economía Mundial, Cuba. The original text, “Ocho desafíos para la integración latinoamericana y un nuevo rol para Asia,” was published September 24, 2012, at My translation, with thanks for the assistance of Federico Fuentes and Cristina Rojas.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Eight challenges facing Latin American integration and a new role for Asia

By Guillermo L. Andrés Alpizar

“To join forces, we must begin to understand what we need to overcome.”[1]

With the establishment of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the inertia that was paralyzing regional integration came to an end. Until that moment, it seemed inconceivable that this continent, forged in a shared history and the thought of its Liberators, would lack an independent organization free of US and European interference.

More than two hundred years after starting out on the road toward independence, we needed a space that could become the forum for Latin American unity if we were to achieve that goal.

Such unity, under the present conditions, is of strategic importance for the peoples and governments of the region. In these times, when economic alliances are arising everywhere and huge blocs are being formed and reconfigured in order to compete on the world market, it is essential to have a sovereign space in which to defend our common interests.

Furthermore, in the current crisis, integration is seen as an opportunity to protect trade and encourage economic growth.

But the road to be travelled is not a simple one; rather, it is strewn with obstacles and challenges that will need to be overcome in order to realize all of the expectations that have been placed in the CELAC.

It would be appropriate, then, to begin analyzing — without claiming to be exhaustive, but as a necessary exercise — some of those obstacles confronting Latin American integration. Identifying the difficulties is a part of finding the road to their solution.

1. First, our region has been unable to avoid the presence of many conflicts between its countries. Territorial disputes (for example, the Bolivian request to Chile that it recover its access to the sea), conflicts of a political nature or even military confrontations (recall the incursion of Colombian troops into Ecuador in 2008) weigh against the real potential of promoting a common project.

2. Added to this is the ideological bias of some Latin American leaders, sometimes much more interested in conspiring with the major economies than in developing the potential of the region. Behind them, of course, are the economic powers seeking profits at all costs and not reluctant to enrol in the game of subordination-partnership with capital from the North.

Integration, then, is the alternative which, once it emerges as a defender of what is “Latin American,” contradicts those foreign powers and influences that constitute a serious obstacle to its attainment.

That’s when those referred to as “Judases” by José Martí, when he talked about “the uniting of the peoples of America” in 1883, suddenly appear, working to break up the continental effort, turning up their noses at the construction of genuine prototypes centered on the region, and contributing to its dis-integration.

3. Thirdly, many of the spheres of integration lack a theoretical substratum capable of satisfying the needs of the countries involved. With the exception of the ALBA, what has been conceived so far has a strong free-trade neoliberal influence, and on that basis, given the dominant capitalist relationships of production, it is extremely difficult to offer an adequate way of dealing with the asymmetries among the countries beyond granting commercial advantages that are generally transitory.

4. Nor is it easy to reconcile the demands of the Latin American countries as a whole, which are determined by the lack of complementarity between their economies. Our region, underdeveloped and dependent, in most cases is limited in what it has to offer to natural resources or traditional services like tourism, and that is in practice a disincentive to an integrating effort which then translates into competition between its countries to capture market share and investments.

5. This is aggravated by the lack of adequate infrastructure (energy, telecommunications, transportation, etc.), that is, of a “circulatory system” that makes integration initiatives viable. In this respect, although work is under way on the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) and similar efforts are being made in Central America, the results are still insufficient in light of the region’s needs.

However, even if it is thought that those barriers can be overcome, there remain at least three more that are no less important when it comes to conceiving the project of continental union.

6. Although Latin America does not dispose of a space for integration designed on a regional scale, the subregional prototypes, a dense network of Free Trade Treaties (FTAs) and other, similar accords, mean in some instances that the agreements already reached block the possibility of advancing towards new agreements.

7. Seventh, the key role performed by Latin America in the world geo-economic and geopolitical context, in part because of the enormous reserves of natural resources, makes it a region that is far from negligible for the imperialist objectives of the major powers and a target for their efforts aimed at blocking the unification effort. In this regrd, it is quite a different thing to influence the positions of isolated countries, which if they worked together could offer exceptional resistance to the usual practices of domination.

8. Lastly, the “actually existing integration” exerts pressure on the advances in the signing of integrationist agreements and exceeds the limits of state-led integration. This could be one of the forces that is now determining the development of different varieties of associations with the Asian countries, and it cannot be excluded that their influence works to the detriment of the efforts centered on Latin American integration.

However, all of these obstacles have not been sufficient to slow the desire for regional integration, or to hold back the forces that are bringing it about. Therefore, over and above the individual peculiarities and divisions is the need for unity and a vision of the shared future that is supported by the governments and by the peoples represented by their social movements. It is through that willingness — notwithstanding all the challenges — that the hopes and opportunities for Latin America are being renewed. The CELAC is a part of this.

And it is under these conditions that the so-called Pacific Alliance is emerging.

This new entity, which is comprised of Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Chile, and includes as observers Costa Rica and Panamá,[2] was created to achieve “the free flow of goods, services, capital and persons, in order to put these countries in a better position to tighten and consolidate economic and trade relations with the dynamic Asian region.”[3] Notwithstanding this declared objective, its true raison d’être would go much further. In the complicated chess of Latin American integration, there has been a lack of fraternity among the representative countries of the right and extreme defenders of the free market.

That is why, behind its arrival in the Latin American context, the Pacific Alliance inaugurates an epoch in which there is a transition from a model of subregional integration based on territorial community (Central American Integration System, Caribbean Community, Andean Community of Nations, etc.) to an integration sustained by ideological affinities. In the present conjuncture, the Pacific Alliance is perceived, politically at least, as the antithesis of the ALBA, and economically, of the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur).

To understand this latter idea, we should note the potential effect on the region of a group of countries prioritizing certain Asian countries in their external relationships, enabling them to rank in a subordinate position the opportunities offered by the promotion of integration oriented toward Latin America and especially toward its most dynamic economies. Nor, it is worth noting, does this go against the desires of some major powers to hinder the union of the Latin American peoples, and in fact is doing a great favour to those powers.

But in the relationship between Latin America and Asia, at least two other instruments of biregional partnership must be added: the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which include Asian countries in their membership.[4]

The “gaze” toward the Asian countries is absolutely logical and strategic for our region, considering the new role that this area performs in international economic relations.

To ignore that reality would be economic suicide for Latin America.

The association with Asia responds, then, to the need for a re-dimensioning of relations with a region that has been acquiring a protagonistic role within the Latin American economy. For example, consider the role that China will predictably occupy in trade between both regions. If the present pace of growth in demand for Latin American products in the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world is maintained, and if the demand from this Asian country grows at only one half the pace it did between 2001 and 2010, China will overtake the European Union in 2014 as the second biggest market for exports from the region. Similarly, in the case of imports China is expected to overtake the EU by 2015.[5]

For these reasons, the effort to strengthen economic relations between Asia and Latin America cannot be totally reduced to the simple and routine practice of improving bilateral relations through mechanisms to facilitate trade or investments. The fundamental problem that is posed lies in how those links are to be constructed, whether new mutually advantageous mechanisms are going to be created, or whether, on the contrary, we will continue copying the neoliberal model of integration that generally reproduces the subordinate position of our region and props up the model of primary extraction that reduces it to supplying raw materials with low added value.

In this sense, one of the dangers confronting the Latin American economy consists of not taking advantage of the opportunity to establish new relations that can promote its progress and simultaneously — under the seduction that Asian markets produce in some countries — rejecting the little that has been achieved in regional integration and boycotting the opportunities that this might provide.

And as we know, the frustration of Latin American unity would be welcomed by all those countries that are taking advantage of it, for example, to continue calmly negotiating Free Trade Treaties.

To this point I have been synthesizing some of the most pertinent challenges confronting Latin American integration. Now I want to conclude by identifying a set of premises that cannot be overlooked when it comes to driving it forward.

Returning to the idea that its attainment is a necessity for our continent, we cannot lose sight of the fact that regional integration is not only a matter of interest for the people of Latin America, it must be done in confrontation with the longing for hegemonic domination of the United States or other powers that benefit from Latin America’s subordination and dependency.

And it must be emphasized that integration will not by itself resolve the many problems that afflict the peoples of the region, although it can be a powerful instrument for doing that.

If it is to fulfill that function, it will have to be built starting from the actual conditions of the Latin American countries, without pretending to copy any other approach, however solid or successful it may have appeared to be at a particular moment, in this area or in other latitudes.

Thus the paths through which Latin American integration has to travel have to be built on the basis of its own thinking, which goes back to the founders of Latin American independence and stands on a shared culture and history. […]

Finally, in its conception and advance, Latin American integration cannot be linked only to the realm of circulation, but must include within the economic dimension such spheres as the productive and technological, maintaining the necessary space for the social and cultural as essential articulated axes of the integrative effort. Similarly, the treatment of asymmetries among the countries should not be left off the agenda.

On these bases, the recent creation of CELAC is an opportunity to begin concretizing this space of deep integration that we have sought for so long, starting from our own project. The process will be long, and will not be exempt from contradictions. Now an urgent task is to strengthen its position, to make it much more than a political forum; otherwise, it runs the risk of being supplanted by other approaches to integration that satisfy this regional need.

In the future, without a doubt, Latin American integration will continue to be one of the major topics on the continental agenda.

That is why the debate has to continue. Bring it on.

Further reading

Raúl Zibechi, “The challenges of the Pacific Alliance: Regional sovereignty or a pampered periphery.”

Atilio Boron, “Mercosur, Unsasur y la indecisión del Brasil.” (Spanish only)

[1] José Martí, “Agrupamiento de los pueblos de América.” Published in La América (New York, October 1883). [Available now in José Martí, Obras Completas. La Habana. Editorial Nacional de Cuba. 1963. t 7, p.325 – Tr.]

[2] Uruguay has also requested membership in the bloc.

[3] On the member countries of the Pacific Alliance, as well as their participation in the regional economy, see Marano Bullón, “La Alianza del Pacífico. Posible impacto en la integración latinoamericana” (2012), available at This article also discusses the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

[4] The TPP has eleven members: Chile, Peru, Mexico, Canada, United States, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and New Zealand, and Japan is negotiating membership as well. The APEC has 21 members: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, The Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, United States and Vietnam. See Bullón (2012), op. cit. and

[5] See Osvaldo de Rosales and Mikio Kuwayama (2012), “China y América Latina y el Caribe. Hacia una relación económica y comercial estratégica,” CEPAL document, at

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