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  • Janina Onuki

The New Perspectives of Regional Integration in Latin America

Janina Onuki*

Regional integration has always been a relevant matter in the foreign policy agendas of Latin American countries. This is particularly true in South America where Mercosur was created in the beginning of the 1990s. Even without greater economic articulation, as the European experience, cooperation was taken as a milestone to increase the visibility of Latin American countries in the world, improving their position in various processes of international negotiations that began in the same decade.

For many years, the positive perception about integration grew, as well as about the capacity and benefits of Brazil's leadership, what repercussed on the international level. Public opinion surveys, conducted in 8 Latin American Countries since 2010 – including Brazil, show that the country’s leadership has been consolidated, contributing to the projection of the Latin American region internationally, especially in environmental matters.

For a relatively long time, this perception was built in a stable international context and by governments from a leftist profile. They invested in policies aligned with the approximation with developing countries, consolidated in the South-South Cooperation agenda that marks Brazilian foreign policy.

Probably the last 4 years were the most impactful in terms of changes in the direction of foreign policy. In addition to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries redirected their course after the ascension of governments with a more conservative profile and, in some cases, more reactionary. The pandemic led to a general setback in international cooperation, given the restriction of borders, the increased perception of threat from the virus expansion, and uncertainties about the possibilities of cooperation around a scarce and precious public good, the vaccine.

Right-wing governments changed both, the perception of and the investment around regional integration. In this regard, these governments gave preference to agreements with developed countries to consolidate another type of international insertion in which they experienced more being led instead of exercising leadership. The worldview of these governments guided to radical changes in foreign policies and international priorities of several countries, resulting in important obstacles to cooperation, an element that proved to be so necessary during the last two years of the pandemic.

The absence of a “cooperation spirit”, especially from countries considered as regional leaders, such as Brazil, restricted relations in Latin America, encouraging an individualistic behavior, even when receiving a meager counterpart from great powers.

The year of 2022 will soon come to an end delivering the control of the pandemic and the partial renewal of Latin American leaders with more progressive candidacies. In this scenario, some positive expectations regarding regional integration have been resumed as soon as a “pink wave” started to flow in the region. The election of progressive governments, especially in Brazil, represented the possibility of overcoming the setback of recent years, and of regaining leadership around new contours of cooperation and a more democratic and solidary foreign policy.

The current context, of living with the pandemic, points to new challenges. This resumption will not be as automatic as expected. The rise of left-wing governments willing to recover the foreign policy agenda will not be enough. We have a more tense and suspicious international system, where new international balances are being sewn. Among the challenges, these governments will need to deal with a negative history, with little progress and many setbacks in integration, and the fact many countries have few resources to invest in integration.

Along with that, Latin America have a public opinion that grew more sensitive to international issues and attentive to foreign policy, but probably less favorable to cooperation. This negative perception makes the reconstruction of regional integration processes more challenging. On the one hand, the region has developing countries that faced severe international crises, made a lot of investment in fighting the pandemic, and saw their economic resources reduced to invest in new agreements. On the other hand, we saw the shrinking of regional integration processes, the weakness of spillover effects, combined with foreign policies that prioritized bilateral arenas and left Latin American countries aside.

These new changes bring a renewed perspective, more democratic and with principles aligned with the fostering of regional cooperation and integration agenda, at least in South America. But we cannot disregard the challenges of regional governance. Governments may have been renewed, but Latin America still has the same serious domestic and international insertion problems that will require more investment to regain its place in the world.

*Profesor de tiempo completo del Departamento de Ciencia Política de la Universidad de São Paulo (USP). Es Investigadora del Programa Sabático del Instituto de Estudios Avanzados de la USP y Miembro del Comité Ejecutivo de la Escuela Diplomacia de Innovación y Ciencia (InnScid). Tiene un doctorado de la USP y es ex directora del Instituto de Relaciones Internacionales de la USP.

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