Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review of Salvador Rivera's book "Latin American Unification – a history of political and economic integration efforts"

Latin America is catching up with the global trend of regional integration by forming regional and subregional economic groups. Critics point out the flaws in these integration schemes and the failed attempts in the past. In this context, Salvador Rivera, a professor at the State University of New York, has given in his book a historical background of the intellectual and political movements for unification of Latin America over the last two centuries. Rivera has done exhaustive research and has brought out fascinating details of the evolution and the personalities who championed the cause of integration. Rivera's book is the first comprehensive one in English on the subject.

According to Rivera, the unification process has evolved through four major stages. The first one was marked by the role of diplomats in the 1820s, the second by idealists in the 1860s, the third by technocrats in the 1950s and the fourth stage since the 1980s being driven by political leaders. He stresses that Latin Americans were the first ' third world' people to recognize the need and move towards regional integration. 

Simon Bolivar laid the foundation for Latin American integration with his vision and practical initiative. He convened the Panama Congress in 1826 in which diplomats from several countries negotiated and concluded a Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation, signed on 15 July 1826. This Treaty with 31 articles is an extraordinary achievement. It had focussed more on the political matters and left the trade issues for consideration in the next congress to be convened in Tacubaya, Mexico. But the Treaty was far too ahead for its times. The newly independent countries had too many teething problems and failed to ratify the Treaty. Later Mexican, Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments had taken similar integration initiatives. The Peruvian endeavor  lead to signing of the Treaty of Confederation in 1848, which also met with the same fate as the previous one. 

In the second stage, some idealists and intellectuals from Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay among other countries advocated regional integration through publication of articles, books and formation of organizations such as Sociedad de la Union Americana. 

In the third stage, technocrats like Raul Prebisch succeeded in the creation of the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) in 1960, which was a milestone. But it got lost in the political disruptions caused by military coups and divisive Cold War politics. In 1980, LAFTA was expanded and changed into Latin American Integration Association ( ALADI) which remains as an expression of intent without any serious action so far.

Rivera blames the" political class" which held power in the different countries for the failure of integration efforts. However the same political class, but this time representing the masses in the post-dicatorship period starting in the 1980s, had taken initiatives and formed MERCOSUR, UNASUR and CELAC which mark the fourth stage.  

Regional integration in other parts of the world have been motivated by perceptions of common external threats and competition for markets. Latin America is no exception to this trend. In the beginning, the newly independent countries of Latin America came together to deal with the potential threat from Spain and Europe.This was followed by the Spanish –speaking republics fearing the Brazilian monarchy as a threat with extra territorial interests. Later, USA emerged as a real threat after its annexation of Mexican territories, snatching of Panama from Colombia and the destabilization of the region by US support to rightwing military dictatorships. The Latin Americans are conscious that the threat from US will continue in future too in one form or another and that the only way to face it is through collective strength. 

The author has described the defeat of FTAA ( Free Trade Area of the Americas) as a significant moment in the history of the region. I would even go further and say that it was a defining moment for Latin America. For the first time, the Latin Americans got together and had the courage to say no to a US proposal and kill it decisively. This is a triumph of Latin Americanism over the US vision of Pan Americanism in which US would dominate as the hegemon.

The author is critical of the bilateral FTAs signed by some countries with US as undermining the unionist movement. While this is certainly part of the divide and rule US policy, one has to recognize the fact that US continues to be the top trading partner and investor for those countries. In fact, those Latin American countries which have signed FTA with US have also done the same with European Union too, besides a number of other countries. The FTA with US need not be a major obstacle to their integration within the region. For example Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico who have signed individual FTAs with US have recently formed Pacific Alliance. The Central American countries which have signed a collective FTA with US are already integrating their economies together in SICA, the Central American Integration System. 

Ironically, Brazil, which was seen as a threat by Latin American unionists and therefore not included in the first stage of unification, has been wholeheartedly participating and leading in the fourth stage of integration. It was the pragmatic and visionary Brazilian leader Lula who played a critical role in the formation of CELAC and UNASUR while Chavez, the self-proclaimed heir of Bolivar had divided the region with his radical and quixotic Bolivarianism. 

Those who follow Latin American integration are watching closely the rivalry between Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance. For the moment, it is the Pacific Alliance which is catching headlines as a shining example of integration, open trade and growing economies as against Mercosur mired in trade-restrictive and protective regimes. It is heartening to see the initiative of President Michelle Bachelet of Chile to bring together the two rival alliances towards integration. It is a long shot but it is in the right direction.

The author has concluded with an optimistic note that " we may very well see in our time" a more unified Latin America. He has advocated that the unionists need to enlist the support of all the stake holders including especially the young people. 

Rivera has not covered in his book the evolution of sub regional groups except for MERCOSUR since his focus was on the larger continental unification. Let us hope that Rivera will write another book on the sub regional integration, with his vast knowledge of the larger picture.

Rivera has shown exceptional objectivity and fairness in narrating and analyzing the history of Latin American integration, free from the usual American bias and prejudice. In fact, he has shown understanding and sympathy for integration as something good for the prosperity of Latin America which he believes is good for US too. But the State Department has to change their mindset and learn to live with an integrating Latin America which is becoming  more assertive and autonomous in foreign policy.

Will Latin America become like a European Union? Perhaps not in the near future. There are many more challenges. But there is no doubt that every country in the region, big or small, has realized the importance of collective strength and the benefits of regional integration. This realization will be the key driver which will move the integration forward in future.

Rivera's book is a must read for those who follow the ongoing the process of Latin American integration to get a historical perspective.

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