Open Pacific and Closed Atlantic

Patricio Navia


Buenos Aires Herald, January 14, 2014


Behind the amicable relations among Latin American leaders hides a tension between two models of economic and political integration. While market-friendly leaders have rallied around the Pacific Alliance and focused on promoting economic integration, leaders who favour a bigger role for the state continue to favour other integration initiatives such as Mercosur or Unasur.


The emergence of the Pacific and Atlantic blocks will redefine political alliances in the coming years in Latin America. The president-elect of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, and the soon-to-be-elected presidents of Costa Rica and El Salvador will be instrumental in tilting the balance in favour of the market-friendly Pacific alternative of the state-driven Atlantic initiative.


Three years after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva retired from power in Brazil and almost a year after the passing of Hugo Chávez, Latin American integration initiatives do not regularly make headline news. Part of the problem lies in their excessive number. Depending on how one counts, the number of integration initiatives is larger than the actual number of Latin America countries.


The fact that they were so enthusiastically promoted by Lula and Chávez, two very charismatic leaders, makes Unasur and ALBA two of the most popular integration initiatives in the region. Although they no longer have their main promoter pushing them forward, both Unasur, initially promoted by Lula, and ALBA, an initiative championed by Chávez, should not be declared dead. Both alliances are built on the premise that political integration drives economic and trade integration. Thus, the political will of governments interested in strengthening ties within the region is a necessary condition to move these initiatives forward. Unfortunately, in recent years the political priorities of Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela — the larger countries involved in supporting Unasur and ALBA — have been elsewhere. As a result, progress and growth in Unasur and ALBA has been slow.


Concurrently, other countries in the region have pushed a different initiative forward. The Pacific Alliance, that brings together Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, has placed an emphasis on economic and trade — rather than political — integration. Though those countries’ governments are right-of-centre, political similarities have been put to the common goal of promoting market-friendly integration that does not depend on the political ideology of the government in power. Though strategic and political leadership implications are inevitable whenever there is a new integration initiative, member countries of the Pacific Alliance have made an effort to avoid being labelled as ideological opposites of the left-wing ALBA or an a regional counterbalance to the hegemonic role played by Brazil during the Lula administrations. Precisely because it wanted to avoid an open confrontation with Venezuela and Brazil, the Pacific Alliance has been advanced without the fanfare that normally accompanies new integration initiatives. Yet, in its three years of existence, the Pacific Alliance has achieved some real progress. In addition of the move to integrate the Stock Exchange markets of Colombia, Chile and Peru, the Pacific Alliance has made real progress in creating joint embassies in Asian and African countries where the member countries did not previously have representation.


Recently, Panama and Guatemala have expressed interest in joining the Pacific Alliance. Depending on the upcoming presidential election results in Costa Rica and El Salvador, those two countries might also become potential candidates for joining the Pacific Alliance. Though the centre-left ruling coalitions are likely to retain power in both countries, a surprise victory by the right-wing opposition — a possible outcome in El Salvador — will make it easier for the Pacific Alliance to attract new members.


The recent presidential election in Chile will test the strength of the Pacific Alliance. President-elect Bachelet is ideologically closer to the left-wing governments that champion state-oriented Atlantic Ocean integration initiatives. Bachelet will likely seek to strengthen relations with Brazil rather than deepen the Pacific Alliance. Still, because the Pacific Alliance has been designed as a gradual and commercial and trade pragmatic initiative, Bachelet can still strengthen her political alliance with Brazil and the Atlantic initiative without undermining the slow and gradual progress of the Pacific Alliance.


Latin American history is filled with failed and short-lived integration initiatives. Every successful president in the large countries has sought to create a new institution that promotes integration. The diverse and often confusing map of integration initiatives that currently exists is a testimony to the lack of continuity and the insufficient follow-up that has characterized Latin American integration in recent decades. As Atlantic countries, led by Brazil and Venezuela, continue to push for integration initiatives that depend on the political will of the government in power, Pacific countries are trying a new approach. The Pacific Alliance is built on the premise that progress can be achieved even in the absence of political will and strategic considerations. If it survives the apparent shift in strategic focus to the Atlantic that Chile’s next president Michelle Bachelet seems determined to embrace, then the Pacific Alliance can end up achieving more success than all other integration initiatives that Latin America has seen in the past few decades.