Petro, Lula and the future of Latin American integration

SÃO PAULO — The success of regional integration in Latin America, it is often said, depends on ideological alignment between governments. It is therefore not surprising that the possibility of a Gustavo Petro presidency in Colombia and a victory for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil has raised expectations for a new round of cooperation on the continent. Indeed, if Petro and Lula were successful, the five most powerful presidents in Latin America next year – in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Chile – would all, by and large, be aligned with the ideological level and, in principle, open to the establishment of constructive bilateral relations.

Recent years have seen a complete collapse of regional presidential diplomacy, symbolized above all by the absence of dialogue between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his Argentinian counterpart Alberto Fernández. Yet while the return of open communication between Latin American heads of state – and perhaps even regional presidential summits to which everyone, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, is invited – would contrast with recent years. , those who expect a strong emphasis on regional cooperation in the event of a new “pink tide” may be disappointed.

Four main factors explain why ideological alignment may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for greater regional integration:

First, compared to the late 1990s and 2000s, which saw a series of significant regional initiatives, most leaders today face a much more difficult national scenario. Public frustration has been building after years of lackluster growth, rising inequality and a slow recovery from the devastation of COVID-19. There are few signs of an improvement in the macroeconomic environment in the near future. If he returns to the presidency in October, Lula would likely have to devote far more time and energy to resolving Brazil’s internal crises than he did when he was president – and present at major regional summits. – from 2003 to 2010. Gabriel Boric in Chile, Fernández in Argentina and, if he wins, Petro in Colombia would all face a complex set of problems of their own. Likewise, the ideological alignment is unlikely to change Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s essentially anti-globalist worldview, making meaningful engagement with the rest of Latin America more difficult.

Second, the return of great power politics in Latin America adds a layer of complexity to regional diplomacy that is unlikely to facilitate cooperation. The Brazilian Armed Forces, for example, have quietly expressed deep concern over Argentina’s strategic rapprochement with China, evidenced by the presence of military space station in Patagonia. This problem is unlikely to be solved by a simple friendly relationship between Fernández and Lula. As tensions between Washington and Beijing are set to rise and seep into other areas such as technology, finance and security, they are also likely to make it more difficult to debate America’s future role. Latin, given that opinions on how to react to a “new Cold War” are bound to be different.

Third, while a more uniform recognition of Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela could end the awkward and ultimately failed experiment of the interim government of Juan Guaidó, the main question remains how the region should deal with a an increasingly repressive regime overseeing an economic collapse so severe that six million citizens have decided to emigrate in recent years. The most likely scenario is that the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world will remain a source of economic instability, continuing to act as a major obstacle to greater regional cooperation.

Fourth, and most importantly, hopes that regional cooperation can flourish in a new political environment tend to overlook the degree to which regional disintegration has been the main economic trend in Latin America over the past decade. It is a process that has little to do with the ideological orientation of national leaders. A renewed interest in commodity exports and a growing reliance on China help explain why intra-regional trade has grown much less than extra-regional trade in recent years. It also shows why manufacturing, traditionally the engine of regional trade, is losing relevance. A lack of economic complementarity and increasingly similar export patterns explain why intra-regional exports in 2021 were only 13% of Latin America’s total exports, compared to 21% in 2008. Bilateral trade between Brazil and Argentina decreases in relative and absolute terms over the past decade, and China has overtaken Brazil as Argentina’s most important trading partner. Similar trends are visible when looking at Chile’s and Uruguay’s trade ties, not to mention Venezuela’s trade ties with the region, which have largely collapsed. Further north, Mexico and Central American countries have very limited trade ties with South America. Uruguay’s willingness to negotiate a free trade agreement with China, the biggest buyer of its exports, is a clear sign that policymakers in Montevideo believe their future is tied to Asia rather than their neighbors.

This explains, for example, why Bolsonaro’s lack of regional leadership and attacks on Argentina’s government drew much more limited criticism from Brazilian business leaders than his anti-China rhetoric, which ultimately led the Senate to push for the ousting of Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo. In other words, there are few organized interest groups powerful enough to convince presidents to prioritize the region.

This does not mean that it is not worth investing in regional integration, quite the contrary. A recent investigation shows that seven in 10 Latin Americans support regional integration – perhaps aware that it is crucial to addressing a myriad of common challenges ranging from transnational crime, migration and deforestation. Similarly, despite limited economic complementarities, part of the problem in the region is a lack of coordination in trade facilitation, harmonization of rules of origin and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of a common vision to build physical infrastructure to connect the region.

Petro and Lula, if elected, could well be an opportunity for regional cooperation. But the odds will always be against significant short-term progress.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oliver Stuenkel is a columnist for Quarterly Americas and teaches international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order (2015) and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order (2016).

Key words: Brazil, Colombia, Gustavo Petro, Lula da Silva, Pink Tide, regional integration

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