What do this year’s elections mean for regional integration in Latin America?


The results of the intense electoral cycle underway in Latin America are not only changing the composition of many governments – and in some cases their political affiliation – but are also altering regional equilibriums, and affecting the process of regional integration. This process has undoubtedly entered a very difficult phase, as a result of both internal factors and the international climate, which is doing little to facilitate matters in terms of world trade.

The regional organisations most influenced by the Bolivarian process have been the hardest hit by the new set of circumstances. The first example is the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), which is experiencing a long and steady decline, as a result of the crisis in Venezuela, its main economic pillar and political sponsor, together with Cuba. The demise of the ALBA bloc began with the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013, although Manuel Zelaya’s removal from office in Honduras in 2009, had already marked a tipping point, the organisation having reached its maximum level of expansion with the incorporation of this central American country. Ecuador’s recent exit has highlighted the political differences within the bloc, which proved insurmountable, due to the almost heedless management of Bolivia’s former foreign minister David Choquehuanca, executive secretary of the institution.

UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) is the organisation that has been the hardest hit, overall, by the new set of circumstances. Since former Colombian president Ernesto Samper reached the end of his term as its secretary general, during which he laboured, not without bias, to try and mediate the Venezuelan crisis, finding a successor to the post has proved impossible. President Nicolás Maduro’s veto of Argentinian José Octavio Bordón and the subsequent blocking of any mutually agreed solution that did not involve a pro-Venezuela candidate, led to the gridlocking and subsequent splintering of UNASUR, albeit temporary, for now.

In April 2018, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru suspended their membership until the dispute over the choice of a general secretary is resolved. UNASUR was then dealt another symbolic blow, striking the very core of the ideological concept underpinning its foundation. The Ecuadorian government decided to take down the statue of Nestor Kirchner presiding over the organisation’s headquarters in Quito, considering it to be an unacceptable symbol of corruption. The Ecuadorian authorities are now looking into proposals for the future use of the building, which cost millions to erect. One of the options on the table is to turn it into an indigenous university.

The complex situation in Venezuela is also affecting the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), caught up in a rather worrying existential crisis that it seems unlikely to overcome, at least in the near future. The cancellation of the EU-CELAC Summit, which should have taken place at the end of last year, in El Salvador, (a meeting of foreign ministers was finally held in its stead), is solid evidence of the internal divisions within the bloc, sparked by Venezuela.

The emergence of the Lima Group in August 2017, and its active condemnation of the human rights violations committed by the Maduro government, has intensified the internal contradictions within the organisation and inflamed the debates. The Group was established by 11 Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru) and Canada. Guyana and Saint Lucia joined later, making the presence of Latin American governments in the group overwhelming.

Mercosur cannot be overlooked in the list of side effects linked to the Venezuelan crisis, the humanitarian and migratory components of which are already having regional repercussions. A significant development, in this respect, was Venezuela’s temporary suspension from the sub-regional bloc in August 2017, for failing to respect democracy within its borders, a move that led to serious friction between the democratic governments in the bloc and the Maduro regime.

But the region’s reconfiguration goes beyond Venezuela. With the Brazilian elections still to come, the region’s sixth presidential race of the year, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador due to take office as the President of Mexico on 1 December, it is only natural that a few clouds of uncertainty are hovering over the future of both Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance.

In Brazil’s case, the biggest question mark is raised by the potential victory of the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. His hostility towards multilateral bodies such as the United Nations has heightened concerns about his attitude towards Mercosur. It should be pointed out that, following Donald Trump’s example, Bolsonaro is a staunch defender of protectionism, favours bilateral over multilateral negotiations and is a bitter opponent of trade blocs such as Mercosur.

The Pacific Alliance meanwhile finds itself in unchartered waters, with the four presidents of the countries comprising it taking office or due to take office during 2018, which is the case for Mexico’s López Obrador. It is, precisely, Mexico that is raising the greatest concerns, given the protectionist impulses of the president-elect and his failure to attend the Pacific Alliance Summit in Puerto Vallarta in July of this year. The new secretary of foreign relations, Marcelo Ebrard, did however attend, and confirmed his government’s commitment to the Alliance. Another factor to take on board is the reconfiguration of the dialogue between López Obrador and the business community, which is likely to favour a more outward-looking trade policy.

There is no doubt that the election results have affected and will continue to affect the regional and sub-regional integration processes in Latin America. Equally clear are the signs that the region is not immune to the protectionist winds arriving from the United States. The demands made by some Colombian producers in light of the competition that could arise from meat and dairy production and exports from potential new members of the Pacific Alliance, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are a sign of the times. It can only be hoped that the trend is not irreversible.