Regional (Dis)Organisations: Latin American Integration Process

By Fabio Almada-


Since the second half of the 20th century, the international community has been characterized by a popular trend which many different states across the world have followed. The creation of geopolitical and geostrategic integration blocks has led countries to integrate their political and economic ties and ameliorate diplomatic relations to ultimately increase interstate cooperation. The most well known political and economic integration process to date is the European Union, which began after the Second World War with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community that aimed to further integrate European economies and eliminate any desire to enter into military conflict against each other. The Latin-American region is no exception- economic and political integration organisms have been founded in the region as well, nevertheless, despite being a region made up of countries with many similarities such as cultural traits, language and common history, the success of these organisations have been very limited.

There is no exhaustive definition of the concept of integration, yet, we can say that it is a dynamic process that seeks the harmonization and unification of the different political, economic and social policies as well as the creation of common organisms that ensure the achievement of regional objectives. Most regional integration processes in the current context of globalization are characterized by the existence of conditions that lead to overcoming differences, tensions and conflicts that may arise between political units. Integration is a vibrant, gradual and flexible progression.

Despite continuous European efforts to promote its model, Latin America is following its own trajectory towards integration. The real question to be asked is whether or not, by using different elements, this region will ever be able to reach a similar level of integration as Europe?

Integration “a la American”

Latin America is the place where regional integration appeared for the very first time. It can be traced back to the independence movements in the continent in the 19th century when the newly-created states expressed their interest in forming a regional confederation of Latin American nations to protect their recently won independence. However, all projects failed and attempts at integration did not resume until the United States supported Pan-American movements which were ultimately aimed at facilitating American presence in a region that they claimed was their natural sphere of influence. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the idea of granting regional organizations a political purpose gathered strength and in a climate of international cooperation, Latin American organizations were created.

However, integration did not come back to be a principal element in the region’s foreign policy until the late 20th century when a democratization wave triumphed and most of the continent overthrew autocracies and dictatorships that had been ruling most nations with an iron fist. The Latin American Free Trade Association was established in the 1960s to foster regional trade as well as foreign trade with other economic blocks such as those in Europe and North America. The institution was later replaced by the Latin American Integration Association in the 1980s, and a de facto preferential trade zone was created. Nevertheless, the European model of a common economic market was still too ambitious.

A resurge of integration tendencies gathered momentum in the mid-1990s in the context of the wave of economic reform and liberalization processes across the continent with the announcement of the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) negotiations. Almost simultaneously, Argentina and Brazil brought forward their own common market project, MERCOSUR. Whilst these new projects reflected a will to cooperate and coordinate economic measures, no continent-wide efforts were sought. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was an attempt, however, the organism did not gather much traction in Latin American geopolitics, as there were no common guidelines that motivated the countries to work towards its consolidation.

Mexican President, Carlos Salinas, U.S. President, George H.W. Bush, and Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney (standing, L-R) at the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 1993 Source: GlobalFramework

All current Latin American organizations and institutions target regional integration but differ in their reasons and goals: MERCOSUR desires principally to achieve economic integration. The Central American Integration System is oriented more towards accomplishing regional security, strengthening peace and democracy. UNASUR attempts to cover the cooperation dimension to create a common market; The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States aims to become the voice of Latin America and the Caribbean in the world and work as a political dialogue forum; and last but not least, The Pacific Alliance, which is less absorbed in the political dimension, and focuses in the economic dimension of integration to the highest level.

Why has integration been largely unsuccessful in Latin America?

As has been discussed, there have been several projects which aimed to achieve different interests, but the general results have not been too promising. This is due to a variety of reasons- the main issues being a clear lack of clarity of concepts and little political interests. But other factors are to be considered as well, especially when the process is compared to the European experience. The first aspect is the geography of the continent which is crucial for understanding economic and financial integration. Easily travelled land and maritime routes, as well as the proximity between states, are essential for trade and economic flow to flourish. European economic ties were strong due to the vast level of commerce between countries and their physical closeness to each other.

The case of the American continent is different, aside from the important fact that modern states thrived way later than in Europe, there was never a strong communication between the different areas in the landmass. The enormous distance, challenging terrain and geographical obstacles such as mountain ranges, jungles, and non-navigable rivers hindered the establishment of strong trade routes and led to the poor quality of the region’s hard and soft infrastructure. If products were to be transported from one side of the continent to the other they had to be sent by plane or shipped in a container (the latter grew substantially after the construction of the Panama Canal). These geographical conditions meant that Latin American countries didn’t develop strong transport infrastructure, making the movement of goods across borders difficult.

Furthermore, it should be noted that when comparing the European experience with any other region in terms of integration we have to consider that it was determined by a very specific historical context. Post-War European leaders such as Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer chose to balance power using the community method, this complexity makes European integration a unique process. It would be a mistake to use the European experience as a measure for evaluating the level of success of the integration of other regions, only regional policies and institutional developments should be compared.

Although there were some interstate conflicts in 20th century Latin America, when compared to other events that took place in this era in terms of their duration, the intensity of the equipment used and death tolls, interstate conflicts in the Latin American continent are largely much less significant in terms of their long term impacts. Wars among Latin American countries were mainly over territorial disputes and most were solved through diplomatic efforts, thereby saving the region from having to witness the horrific consequences that total war entails. Not having to go through these traumatic experiences could explain why there is no historical lesson resonating in Latin America’s population about the consequences of international tensions and rivalries, meaning that perhaps there is less urgency for integration in the minds of those in power.

The future of Latin American Integration

The world’s current climate is not great for the projections of further regional integration. Among some of the factors that damaged the integrative attempts, we can find the 2007-2009 financial crisis, the rise of China as an economic partner, the pragmatic and ideological turn in the region, and the absence of coordination among members of regional integration initiatives, without mentioning the tremendous economic crisis that the world finds itself after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the fact that some Latin American institutions have executive bodies such as those in the institutional structure of the European Union, they mostly take decisions by consensus, at the presidential level, a decision-making process that slows down the development of policies and common action. Another important aspect that very much influences the political dynamics in the region is ideology. In some cases, difficulties in reaching consensus are due to ideological differences within an organization which ultimately makes the integration process move at a slower pace, or stagnate entirely.

A different example, on a positive note, is the Pacific Alliance which was created by states with similar ideologies and economies. This institution is succeeding in its objectives as it remains attached to its initial purpose; to create a common market, which is becoming a reality. However, critics say that its political dimension is modest and that it has no institutions. Nonetheless, let us not forget that the European Union started as a minor economic community that later gradually developed into becoming the complex apparatus we now today.

South American Presidents at the PROSUR summit, at the presidential palace La Moneda, in Santiago, Chile, 2019. Source:

Bearing in mind these two sorts of organizations (the more inclusive ones, which mix together different ideologies and economies, and those with few members, but coherent on all aspects), we can ask ourselves if economic integration can only be achieved by sacrificing a political dimension and vice versa. A complete integration as a whole such as the European one might never be feasible in the Latin American context.

The future of the Latin-American integration process depends on the political commitment towards integration. Unfortunately, there is no defined group of Latin American states with a shared vision, willing to take the lead and prioritize regional objectives over national ones, pushing forward integration efforts. Even the biggest states, such as Brazil or Mexico which could have a significant influence, are not very interested in assuming this role.

The COVID Pandemic and its economic consequences further hinder any integration effort as borders are hardening to impede any outsiders that could be potential carriers of the virus from entering without being detected.

Other than the relative success of the Pacific Alliance and the recent advances between the EU and MERCOSUR on a free trade agreement, nothing else has been exhibited as a prospect of a solid project of, cooperation, proximity and regional integration. It is possible that, at least in Latin America, regional integration, as it is theoretically and conceptually understood, will not work. It might be time to forget this concept and start thinking about other ways to promote regional dialogue.



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