Regional cooperation after a new Pink Tide in Latin America

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On January 1st of this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated as Brazil’s 39th president after an unprecedentedly close race against Jair Bolsonaro, beating him by only 0.9% of nearly 119 million votes cast  [1]. Few days after his initial address, groups of Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed the Supreme Court, the presidential palace, and the Congress. The latter has an opposition majority, forcing Mr. Lula to compromise heavily on his anti-austerity measures in one of the countries hit hardest by Covid [2], and narrowing his already tight space for maneuvering around rising inflation, as well as economic slowdowns in the US and China.

He is not the only one facing hardship. The wave of newly elected left-leaning presidents in Latin America face a region devastated by the pandemic. The daunting challenges they face in rebuilding their respective countries, like reestablishing educational standards and restarting growth, are on many leaders’ agendas. The true size of the effects is still unknown, but governments must not wait to invest in social programs and infrastructure, as the World Bank suggests [3].

In fact, the problems have affected the region so deeply and comprehensively that effective solutions may only come from joint action. It is urgent for Latin America to commit to efficient collaboration. It may be the way to break the endemic cycles that riddle the region with seemingly insurmountable problems. Isolationist narratives do not help to construct comprehensive solutions to transnational issues. Though these are never complete transformations, the trend seems to indicate that the region is poised to re-engage regional cooperation in a renewed way. Hopefully a new type of undertaking is achieved through a renewed commitment: it may be the only way for Latin America to turn its fate around. 

Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s new president, is the newest member of the “Pink Wave” of democratically-elected left-leaning presidents across Latin America. It includes six of the largest economies in the region. All throughout the continent, different styles of left have risen to power over the last decade, most notably since 2018 with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. These ideological differences run deep, however. Newer electees, like Mr. Boric and Mr. Petro, have more internationalist views, with a strong emphasis on social justice and environmentalism. Others, like Peru’s Pedro Castillo and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, are heavy-handed leaders with an isolationist focus on nationalization. The latter includes dictatorships, such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa [4]. 

There is not a real dichotomy between the two groups. Mr. Obrador has shown enthusiasm for fossil fuels, as has Brazil’s former president (and now poll-leading candidate) [5]. The latter’s views on abortion have been forced by the Evangelical voter base to be considerably more cautious than his progressive counterpart in Chile. Other differences include the degree at which constitutional reforms are applied, from a potential power-grab in Peru to the meticulous Lula ex-presidency. 

All these differences make for a fragmented region in a time when cooperation is of utmost importance. Latin America has been constantly assailed by social, economic, and political crises, all of which were exacerbated with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, being one of the most affected regions. This overlaps with two other crises: economic contractions and a continuous degradation of democratic institutions [6]. 

Trouble in Regional Organizations

Discord runs high in the region’s foremost cooperation agency, the Organization of American States (OAS). Poor leadership, rampant attacks on the organization’s most prestigious branches, as Venezuela’s and Honduras’s assault on the human rights commission, and hesitant support from other members in upholding the institution have caused one of the worst institutional crises in the OAS’s history. Rattled by opportunism and political antagonism, genuine interest in regional cooperation has been fragmented into a plethora of blocs that has rendered chances of cooperation null [7]. 

These issues are not products of simple miscommunication. Nationalist agendas in key countries such as Mexico and Brazil hamper efforts to build significant relations beyond simple market accords. As social unhappiness grows, countries are keen on deflecting blame to their neighbors, and have been negligent in being inflammatory during times of domestic unrest, which has been rampant throughout the region. Tension caused by approaches to pandemic contention created yet another point of difficulty [8]. All these are further increased as public support falls apart, with an already low trust in institutions. 

Transnational Issues 

Historically, Latin America has had an insidious problem of external debt. The events leading up to the infamous “lost decade” and its catastrophic subsequent restructurings have solidified a vicious cycle where an inability to develop industry, and the dependence on extractive industries, cause a need to have a deficit trading balance [9].  As long as there are more imports than exports, the region will maintain an external debt, and its monetary debilitation means that debts are harder to pay [10]. 

A variety of trading blocs have been cropped up in the last decades, like Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, which focus on intraregional liberalization of both goods and people. Other organizations, like FEALAC and CELAC, have served as vehicles of interregional engagement [11]. Though these are proof of a degree of cooperation, they are not stalwart in their operation, and are quick to be paralyzed in the face of crisis and disagreement, resulting in disjointed periods of interest with little continuing goals [12].

Economic integration makes part of a complex array of transnational phenomena that has manifested in immense challenges for each individual leadership. Evidently, these can only be comprehensively approached transnationally. Migration is a destabilizing agent and an unpredictable force. Rebuilding a resilient health system is another challenge, especially in the light of migration and the pandemic. Security, as well as democracy and human rights, will be high on the priority lists as steep increases in violent crime undo the decrease of political violence, and as the responsible actors operate across borders. Economic integration, both within themselves and in the context of larger geopolitical actors like China , intrinsically needs to be addressed transnationally. Finally, the challenge to American hegemony in the region with China’s increased interest –and welcoming– in Latin America [13] will looming above all presidential offices, including Washington. 

Going Forward 

Not all hope is lost, however. With all its shortcomings, the bases for cooperation are set in most relevant areas for regional integration: jurisdiction, trade, health, and security. Organizations in these areas have a long history of successful cooperation, both in achieving larger economic ends and in defusing tensions within the region, and countries have followed a trend of coming to increasingly shared goals by which depolarization can happen. 

Though historically quarrelsome among themselves, the Latin American countries have a much greater sense of cultural unity than elsewhere. Traditions usually transcend borders, with an Incan past painting large swathes of the Andean states and a vast majority of Roman Catholics (up to 90% of the Latin American population) [14]. This is true in a historical sense too: South American countries, for example, share a Bolivarian independentist root, a cause that has bound the nations together. 

Despite their many deficiencies, what is most encouraging about these organizations is that they show that the groundwork for a heightened stable connection exists. All the relevant areas of regional integration have established commissions: trade, security, health, and politics. 

New leaders show enthusiasm to work with others in the region. Mr. Obrador has shown a break from his cold relations with Latin American leaders as Mr. Boric and Mr. Petro have expressed looking forward to working together with him [15]. Furthermore, ideologically different leaders such as Mr. Castillo and Bolivia’s Luis Arce were included in these statements, showing promise for amendments in the region’s fragmented face [16].

Prospects

Streamlining the operations of organizations like CELAC will help alleviate the region’s pressures in many ways, among them increasing reliance among neighboring countries and taking load out of domestic policy and relations with other foreign powers. This is particularly important in the midst of a change of the international order, and as Latin American countries are being forced to choose between spheres of influence. 

Moreover, being on the same page can provide the opportunity to show a more cohesive interest towards the larger international community. It can increase the weight of Latin American countries’ demands when setting multilateral agreements, like NAFTA, such that they represent their comparative advantages more accurately. 

Cooperation is a key tool for Latin American countries to face up to a renewed set of challenges. Establishing diplomatic synergy has proved difficult in the past, but perhaps the Pink Wave will reposition the continent more favorably. It is necessary that countries overcome narratives of isolation to break the economically unhealthy cycles that have been worsened by the pandemic. It may even be the case that opportunities to emerge arise from this: times of crisis are times of extra possibility. 


References

[1] Person, & Brian Ellsworth, L. P. (2022, October 31). Lula narrowly defeats Bolsonaro to win Brazil presidency again. Reuters. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/brazil-votes-heated-bolsonaro-vs-lula-presidential-runoff-2022-10-30/ 

[2] Acosta-Ormaechea, Santiago, Ilan Goldfajn, and Jorge Róldos. “Latin America Faces Unusually High Risks.” IMF Blog. International Monetary Fund, April 26, 2022. https://www.imf.org/en/Blogs/Articles/2022/04/26/blog-latin-america-faces-unusually-high-risks

[3] Latin America and Caribbean Overview: Development news, research, data. (2022, October 7). World Bank. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/lac/overview

[4] “A New Group of Left-Wing Presidents Takes over in Latin America.” The Economist. March 12, 2022. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2022/03/12/a-new-group-of-left-wing-presidents-takes-over-in-latin-america. 

[5] The Economist. “Left-Wing Presidents.” 

[6] Merke, Federico, Oliver Stuenkel, and Andreas E. Feldmann. “Reimagining Regional Governance in Latin America.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 24, 2021. https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/24/reimagining-regional-governance-in-latin-america-pub-84813. 

[7] Merke et al., “Regional Governance.”

[8] Merke et al., “Regional Governance.”

[9] Sims, Jocelyn. “Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s.” United States Federal Reserve System. November 22, 2013. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/latin-american-debt-crisis. 

[10] Jaramillo, Carlos Felipe, and Marcelo Estevão. “Latin America Isn’t at Risk of a 1980s-Style Crisis (but an Era of Missed Opportunities Looms).” World Bank. August 29, 2022. https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/latin-america-isnt-risk-1980s-style-crisis-era-missed-opportunities-looms. 

[11] “Latin American and Caribbean Regional Organisations.” Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/latin-american-regional-organisations#community. 

[12] Merke et al., “Regional Governance.”

[13] Merke et al., “Regional Governance.”

[14] “Christians,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center. 18 December, 2022.

[15] Torrado, Santiago, and Manetto, Francesco. “El Triunfo De Gustavo Petro En Colombia Afianza El Camino De La Nueva Izquierda Latinoamericana.” El País Colombia. June 19, 2022. https://elpais.com/america-colombia/elecciones-presidenciales/2022-06-19/el-triunfo-de-gustavo-petro-en-colombia-afianza-el-camino-de-la-nueva-izquierda-latinoamericana.html. 

[16] The Economist. “Left-Wing Presidents.” 

Author

l.orozco@yale.edu