Throughout the history of Latin America, there have been several attempts, theoretical and practical, to develop a supranational institution that governs parts of the continent’s common interests. From Jose Martí’s Our America essay to Simón Bolivar’s Grand Colombian Nation, to Hugo Chávez’s and Fidel Castro’s union to combat the United States, there have always been leaders to promote unity. None have endured.
While these attempts have been noble and well intentioned, from combatting the Spanish crown to trying to prevent American imperialism, all of them have been misconstrued and poorly executed, either by incompetence, corruption, or, as is typical in Latin America, both. Their planning was lackluster, the legal basis for unity nonexistent, and most of all they all depended on caudillos, Latin American warlords. In the past decades, there have been a few minor attempts at integration such as the Pacific Alliance or the Central America-4 border control agreement which essentially opened up the labor market for highly skilled workers but did little in terms of intergovernmental cooperation and has not bolstered Latin American economies as much as needed.
As much as Simón Bolivar was a hero of Latin American independence, his achievements were acquired through war and rebellion against the Spanish crown and embodied an entirely different skillset than the one required to unite nations in peacetime. The union attempts accurately encapsulate the perpetual Latin American effort to rid themselves from playing second fiddle to larger powers. However, all the union attempts were based upon the regional desire to become more important. Furthermore, they overlooked key differences between the states. Despite all countries stemming from colonial rule, they still differ largely in ethnic, cultural, and economic terms. For example, there are vast cultural differences between someone from Sinaloa, Mexico to Montevideo, Uruguay. Even today, if a non-native Spanish speaker heard people from these places talk, they might not even realize that they speak the same language.
Jorge Volpi accurately reflects the intercultural differences in his book Bolivar’s Insomnia, where he recounts his experience studying in Spain and mentions that him and his Latin American colleagues were united during their studies as they all identified as Latinos. It was not until the Spaniards left for the holidays that the Latinos started to notice the cultural differences between themselves, as the Nicaraguans would realize they did not have as much in common with the Bolivians as they thought.
Despite previous failures, I still believe that a Latin American Union is possible, especially after living in Europe for the past two years and studying the intricacies of the European Union. The major hindrances to integration and efficiency which trouble European countries are non-existent for Latin America. The region speaks the same language, with the exception of Brazil and a few smaller countries in the Caribbean. The small language barrier would not impose significant challenges for integration as opposed to the EU, whose enormous interpretation department poses a great challenge for effectively legislating and cooperating between nations, both logistically and economically.
Another of the enormous problems which the EU has encountered are the complicated histories between countries: Germany and France were at war for 4 centuries before they successfully enacted the European Commission on Steel and Coal in 1951 in order to mitigate the threat of post-World War II hostilities; the integration of former USSR countries; the integration of post-Yugoslavia countries which still have difficult relations; Austria and Hungary had a troubling past with Eastern European nations; Czechia and Slovakia were peacefully separated in 1991. These are troubles that the Latin American region would seldom encounter, notwithstanding a few minor border disputes. Since independence there have been few interstate conflicts, approximately only 15, and so the region has not seen any major restructuring of the political order. Most of the countries had to deal with American interventionism and civil wars and are now trying to deal with Chinese influence in the region which might be impactful in the coming decades.
The issue that Latin American countries would encounter is a different beast altogether: complacency. Whilst Latin America has been the worst hit region economically since the pandemic, there have been little to no initiatives to shift the modus operandi in politics. Political cycles are still determined by revanchism, as people vote governments out as an act of revenge rather than elect in government officials who are qualified and ready to be public servants. Revanchism, as mentioned by José María Paz of the Bolivian Political Science Association, erodes democracy, and takes away its true purpose as a vehicle for popular change. “Further polarization between left and right and political revanchism may be eroding democracy in the region; polarization, violence and geopolitics conspire against people power,” Paz said. In essence, there is a lack of long-term vision in the political and civilian bodies of Latin America and this lack of vision hamstrings any significant development which could take place.
Barring a few countries such as Costa Rica and Uruguay, there has been no real social development carried out this century, with the issues of drug trafficking and marginalization of economic and ethnic minorities still running rampant throughout the region. The countries may not be as similar as thought, but they do share some commonalities such as the Catholic background and the Presidential system.
After studying European History and European law for the past two years in Vienna, I have learnt that the EU has many challenges and the history of the continent is more complicated than I thought, as we seldom study Eastern European history in the Americas. Nevertheless, the countries which are part of the EU have managed to unite and overcome their language barriers and violent pasts. Latin America does not have the language barrier, and our violent pasts have little to do with interstate conflict but more so with domestic cleavages of societies. Hence, the region has the potential to unite and get out of its stagnation, but its citizens and governments alike must have a paradigm shift and believe that a better future is possible through cooperation, even with governments who have (on paper) different ideologies.
With all these challenges ahead, there is still a long way to go, and nothing will change unless the citizens and governments of Latin America willingly embrace the fact that polarization is an issue, and a long-term vision is needed. Cooperation may be hard, but it is not impossible as seen in the European example, and their histories are a lot more complicated than the Latin American ones. The benefits for Europe have been enormous, as they have not seen large-scale war and have managed to economically prosper. However, I do not wish for Latin American countries to unite because of peace or potential wealth. I do so because of the freedom of travel, the ease with which one can explore different parts of the world, and the sense of community which is felt across the EU. These are incredible boosts for the freedom of people, which must ultimately be the goal of any economic or political development.
Written by Daniel Starr Tenorio; Edited by Caspar Friedrich Kleine
Photo Credit to Shutterstock