A Dysfunctional Latin American Community of Nations

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 5, 2015


From the political crisis that has Venezuela failing to live up to the minimum standards of democracy to the legal battle between Bolivia and Chile in The Hague over Bolivia’s demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean, the Latin American community of nations has shown little ability to act collectively to solve its own problems. Just like a building with many different tenants’ organization but none capable of solving crises when they arise, the Latin American community of nations is not rising to the expectations of a middle-income region.


Latin America has an abundant number of integration initiatives and multilateral organizations to promote co-operation. By some accounts, there are more integration initiatives than countries in the region. Because some seek to promote integration among Spanish-speaking countries (including Spain) while others promote hemispheric integration (like the Organization of American States), these multilateral institutions are not fully redundant. Though they all share common goals including the promotion of trade integration, human rights and democracy (loosely defined), they are distinguishable by their specific objectives.


This multi-layered approach to building a stronger network of Latin American republics has its costs and benefits. With so many institutions in place, there is flexibility to bring the United States, Spain and other non-Latin American countries to the table, depending on what the agenda is. Furthermore, since controversies are often centred on specific institutions which promote controversial agenda items — like the re-incorporation of Cuba into the OAS — other integration initiatives can move forward even if there is stalemate over sensitive issues elsewhere. Yet, having many integration initiatives also carries a high price-tag. The excessive presence of diplomats who shepherd the integration process results in the growth of a bureaucracy with weak mechanisms for accountability. Moreover, since all organizations try to push forward feasible initiatives, they end up competing to do the same and shirk the more difficult challenges.


Recent developments in Venezuela exemplify how Latin American integration initiatives evade tackling the most difficult issues. Supporters and friends of the Maduro regime agree that there are big problems in the country. The opposition is sharply divided over how to move forward. The legislative elections, scheduled for 2015, have yet to be formally announced. Some opposition leaders believe the government will not hold an election it is poised to lose. Others bet that Venezuelans are ready to give the opposition a majority in Congress. Moreover, since an opposition-controlled legislature can more easily convene a presidential recall referendum in 2016, the legislative election can turn into a de facto plebiscite on Maduro.


Fearing an imminent loss, the government might want to pass a reform to restrict the power of the unicameral assembly before the opposition wins a majority. By limiting the power of the legislature — including the prerogative to convene a recall referendum on the President — the Maduro administration can minimize the cost of losing the 2015 election and solidify its admittedly weak current position. Thus, many expect that before setting the date for the legislative election, the government will make sure it strips the legislature of all relevant powers and attributes. As the situation in Venezuela grows increasingly more complicated and democratic rule looks weaker, the rest of Latin America seems content with taking a seat in the audience. After the OAS failed to facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between moderates in the government and opposition, other integration initiatives have chosen to avoid tackling with Venezuela.


Similarly, now that the Court in The Hague is deciding whether Chile must sit down and negotiate with Bolivia to find a mutually acceptable solution granting Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean, the rest of Latin America prefers not to get involved in a long-standing dispute which grows less likely to be resolved as time goes by. If it cannot ease the way for its member nations to speak to each other directly, Latin America will have little sway in promoting dialogue elsewhere in the world.


After more than 20 years of uninterrupted democratic rule in most countries in the region and with literally dozens of existing integration initiatives, at least on paper, Latin America has little to show in terms of an organizational structure which can deal with problems within and between countries. As tenants who seem resigned to live in a building without a condo board that can solve grievances and co-ordinate collective security, Latin America constitute a dysfunctional community of nations incapable of rising to the occasion when democracy is threatened in a country or two countries fail to solve their issues bilaterally.


Moreover, in the absence of a smoothly functioning community of nations, Latin America is badly placed to face the reality of an increasingly multi-polar world. Still trapped in a Cold War logic where the world was divided under areas of influence of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Latin America as a region is missing out on the opportunity to emerge as a relevant regional economic and political bloc which can speak with a unified and influential voice.