On July 24, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) gave the most important foreign-policy speech of his administration at a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The speech came on the birthday of Simón Bolivar, the Caracas-born revolutionary leader who liberated a large part of South America from the Spanish in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, earning himself the title El Libertador, or “The Liberator.” Above and beyond his military exploits, Bolivar is known for his vision of a united Spanish America, one strong enough to resist the recolonizing impulses of Spain, the rest of Europe, and a young and expanding United States.
In his consideration of this vision, López Obrador was clear why it had failed to become a reality. In addition to factors internal to the region, AMLO pinpointed the Monroe Doctrine, which, he asserted, fragmented the peoples of the continent and destroyed what Bolivar had sought to build.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century we experienced constant occupations, invasions, annexations, and in the great blow of 1848 [in the Mexican-American War] it cost us the loss of half of our territory. This violent, territorial expansion of the United States was consecrated when Cuba, Spain’s last bastion in the Americas, fell in 1898 with the suspicious sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana. . . . Since that time, Washington has never ceased carrying out overt or covert operations against the independent countries south of the Rio Grande.
The one exception to this pattern, the president went on to note, was Cuba. For its sixty-two-year resistance to subjugation and struggle in defense of its sovereignty, he stated, “the people of Cuba deserve a prize of dignity and the island . . . should be declared a World Heritage site.”
Finally, instead of an exhausted model based on “impositions, interference, sanctions, exclusions, and blockades,” AMLO called for a new form of cooperation among the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The proposal is no more and no less than to build something similar to the European Union, but in accordance with our history, our reality, and our identities. In this spirit, we should not rule out the replacement of the OAS [Organization of American States] with a truly autonomous organization — not a lackey of anyone, but a mediator at the request and acceptance of parties in conflict in matters of human rights and democracy. . . . What is proposed here may seem utopian. However, it should be considered that without the horizon of ideals we will get nowhere and, consequently, it is worth trying. Let’s keep Bolivar’s dream alive.
A Dream Deferred
It is easy to understand the potent draw of this dream. A union of Latin America and the Caribbean would bring together some 660 million people — 8 percent of the world’s population, and also 8 percent of its GDP. All of this is spread out over a surface area of some 7.8 million square miles, an area larger than the United States and Canada combined. Despite centuries of colonial plunder, it remains a region of abundant natural resources, arable land, a head-spinning diversity of peoples and traditions, and a culture of contestation that has produced some of the most transcendent political movements of the last century.
AMLO’s proposal being short on detail, it is important to sketch out what a union of Latin America and the Caribbean should include, starting with a public development bank to liberate itself from international financial institutions, as well as from the United States, EU, and, more recently, China. It should also establish a common green agricultural and energy policy to counter the effects of climate change and achieve genuine regional independence. It would need to lay emphasis on workers’ rights, including full freedom of movement, the right to collective bargaining, and a living wage. Such a union would need a comprehensive regulatory policy to prevent foreign multinationals from pitting one country against another; a joint diplomatic and defense framework to resolve regional conflicts and stymie attempts at foreign intervention; and integration of education, transport, scientific investigation, and health infrastructure, the lack of which has become glaringly evident during the pandemic. It would seek to promote sustainable, local development, including culture, sports, and the arts, instead of a reliance on resource extraction and development for tourism, and form a region-wide media body to counter the effects of corporate press oligarchies, both foreign and domestic.
The Mexican initiative comes at a uniquely opportune time: the Pink Tide–inspired institutions of the 2000s — ALBA and UNASUR, which have piloted landmark attempts at integration — are in varying degrees of crisis while their US-backed rip-offs of the 2010s, namely the Pacific Alliance, the Lima Group, and PROSUR, are stillborn. The ’90s holdover Mercosur, meanwhile, amounts to little more than a customs union between member countries. With fresh impetus from Mexico, the “big brother” that has spent the last thirty years turning away from the rest of Latin America, a renewed push for regional integration would have the potential to overcome the susceptibility to economic downturns and changes of government that have hampered previous attempts.
A Union of Disunion
In a sense, this greater Latin America already exists. Latin Americans from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego share a common reservoir of experience in the form of language, religion, art, and architecture that spills over national boundaries. Generations of Latin Americans of all latitudes have read Condorito and Mafalda comics, listened to La Tremenda Corte on the radio, watched El Chavo del Ocho on TV, and seen movies starring Cantinflas or Libertad Lamarque. Rather than being limited to their respective countries, authors from Jorge Luis Borges to Roberto Bolaño to Giocanda Belli are considered part of a common cultural heritage. When Chile erupted in revolt in 2019 to the tune of songs such as “El derecho de vivir en paz” by Victor Jara or “El baile de los que sobran” by Los Prisioneros, millions across the region could sing along by heart. And when Colombia came out to protest the criminal government of Iván Duque, the same music was sung in the streets.
In another sense, however, it is a region of extreme fragmentation. Poverty, long distances, and adverse media environments have prevented greater contact among political parties, trade unions, and activist movements. Massive wealth inequality has fostered an international jet-setting elite that identifies more with Madrid or Miami than Mexico City or Montevideo. Immigration has hollowed out families and communities. Stubborn strains of classism and racism keep many Mexicans, for example, from sympathizing with the struggles of their Central American neighbors, Argentines from showing solidarity with Bolivians or Paraguayans, or Chileans from embracing the Peruvians to their north.
Brazil, with a similar but separate language and differing historical circumstances, has always been a step apart. Stoked by the United States, the case of Venezuela has polarized relations across the region in ways not seen since the Cold War. As for the region’s Indigenous nations, which gained little in the transition from colony to independence, their skepticism regarding what a new union would hold in store for them is fully deserved.
Complicating matters still further, any new union would have to deal with a morass of existing commitments. The ink is barely dry on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the sequel to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tying Mexico to the United States and Canada (and which was supported by AMLO himself). But that is far from all. Of the twenty countries with which the United States has free-trade agreements, over half are with Latin America, including virtually all of Central America, as well as Colombia, Chile, and Peru. Several more, including Mercosur, have agreements in force or in process with the European Union.
Unsurprisingly, the thrust of the these accords is to strengthen the hand of multinationals, wiring in intellectual property rights, reducing taxes and regulations on business activity, opening countries to uncontrolled trade flows, allowing unrestricted access to raw materials, and channeling disputes to friendly private tribunals. Absent a region-wide move to renegotiate or withdraw, it is hard to see how anything more than a pro forma union could be compatible with this entangling mesh of agreements, whose counterparts would no doubt wield them in courts for years to come in order to block any progress toward serious integration.
Then there is the political situation itself. Despite recent gains, the center-left in Latin America continues to govern a minority of the region’s countries. If elections were held today to a hypothetical Latin American parliament, it is likely the Right would win. And any resulting union could wind up being a far cry from the progressive ideal envisioned by the Bolivarians; indeed, it could very well become a corporate-fueled monster that the world powers could then use as a skeleton key to unlock the entire region in one fell swoop.
If it seems like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have. A generation ago, and spurred by an equally romantic ideal, European social-democratic parties ran enraptured into the arms of an undemocratic European Union and its neoliberal straitjacket in the form of the Maastricht Treaty. Now these same parties are in terminal decline, serving mostly to block the emergence of newer left-wing parties, while those that do manage to break out — like Greece’s Syriza — are batted back with relative ease by the very structures they sought to challenge. Under today’s conditions, and given its historical role of subordination to the global capitalist system, there is no guarantee that a Latin American union would be any better. Indeed, it could be significantly worse.
A Heady Brew
AMLO’s instinct is the right one: Latin America does need to integrate, both to develop on its own terms and to guard against age-old foreign attempts to derail the process. And it needs to do so in accordance with its own “history, reality, and identities.” The fact that Mexico is throwing its considerable weight behind the idea of a union — support that was sorely missing in the Pink Tide era — gives it a ring of plausibility it has not had in a long time. But precisely in this lies the danger: the Bolivarian ideal of regional unity is, at its heart, a romantic notion. If a union of Latin America and the Caribbean is to be seriously considered as a political option, the region’s Left would be well advised to recall that romanticism is a heady brew, one that can all too easily cloud the judgment needed to avoid falling into traps of its own making.