Latin America’s regional integration promises to make the region more resilient to pandemics, extreme weather, and geopolitical turmoil. The U.S. should recognize a potential partner—not a threat.
by David Adler, Guillaume Long
Last summer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued a warning from the Senate floor. “Already,” Cruz said, “nine governments across South America, Central America, and the Caribbean are controlled by socialists.” Since then, Gustavo Petro has formed the first left-wing government in the history of Colombia, and Lula da Silva has made a dramatic return as president of Brazil. In total, 80 percent of Latin America’s economic power is now concentrated in the hands of left-of-center leaders.
Cruz fears the consequences of a new “pink tide” in Latin America that is “overtly and ideologically anti-American.” But is it? Each new government may have come to power with a call for social reform: providing free education in Chile, ending hunger in Brazil, or bringing peace to Colombia after decades of civil conflict. Yet there is little evidence of a common “anti-American” agenda—or even shared “socialist” ambitions. Whatever similarities can be found between Latin America’s left-leaning governments, the differences in their political coalitions, policy programs, and guiding ideologies are no less striking.
It is true, however, that Latin America is today increasingly united on one point: the urgency of regional integration. On November 14th, seven ex-presidents from across the region published a joint letter calling for new institutions to bind Latin America together in the face of climate crisis, great-power conflict, and a “weakened and often powerless” multilateral system. “Integration is more necessary today than ever,” they wrote, to produce vaccines, to build railway networks, and to reach environmental targets.
Latin America is today increasingly united on one point: the urgency of regional integration.
Governments across Latin America heard their call. Within ten days, Colombia’s Petro and Chilean President Gabriel Boric traveled to meet Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and form concrete commitments to end the U.S.-led War on Drugs and develop a common strategy for managing valuable resources like lithium. Lula, for his part, expressed his ambitions to “resume the work of South American integration” in his inaugural address this week.
It is this shared drive toward regional integration, not socialist sympathies, that threatens U.S.–Latin American relations—if the Biden administration passes up the opportunity to re-evaluate its role as a regional partner.
For two centuries, the United States has set out to dominate the affairs of the Western Hemisphere under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine. President James Monroe developed the doctrine as a way to repel the old powers across the Atlantic. But over the next two centuries, the United States deployed this doctrine to keep Latin America subordinate to U.S. interests, whether through direct interventions like coups, invasions, and assassinations or institutional arrangements like free-trade agreements and painful structural adjustment programs. As a result, Latin American countries remain highly dependent on exporting raw materials to large powers like the U.S., and importing high-value products and sophisticated technology. Consider this statistic: Of all the international trade conducted in Latin America, only 15 percent is traded within the bloc itself. By contrast, the European Union’s internal trade in 2021 was over 60 percent.
The institutions of hemispheric multilateralism reflect this imbalance of power. The Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1948 on the principle that every state has the right to “choose, without external interference … its political, economic, and social system.” Soon after, however, the United States took advantage of its majority stake in the OAS to expel Cuba on the basis that “the alignment of such a government with the communist bloc breaks the unity and solidarity of the continents.” The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), meanwhile, is also headquartered in Washington, where the U.S. wields veto power over its lending and leadership. President Trump went so far as to break the gentleman’s agreement that guaranteed Latin American stewardship of the IDB to appoint a U.S. American as its president, who then presided over a “reign of terror” at the most important regional development institution.
Latin American leaders have long recognized the need to rebalance hemispheric relations through regional integration. Back in December 2008, in the throes of the first pink tide, President Lula hosted the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development, marking the first time that all the region’s heads of state met without the sponsorship of the United States or Europe. The result was the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, which set out “to leave behind the old and worn-out OAS” with a new space for hemispheric dialogue. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) went further. Sealed by a treaty in 2008, it established councils of defense, health, energy, and infrastructure to drive coordinated development across the southern continent.
In the decade of reaction that followed, however, the leaders of the Latin American right set about dismembering these institutions and disintegrating the region. Seven states abandoned UNASUR and formed an alternative Lima Group to exclude governments of what Jair Bolsonaro called the “damn left.” In place of these mechanisms for regional integration, they once again pursued direct alignment with the United States, through fresh loans from the IMF (negotiated by Macri in Argentina, Moreno in Ecuador, and Añez in Bolivia) and military measures to deepen the role of the U.S. Southern Command in Latin America (carried out by Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duque in Colombia, and Hernández in Honduras).
Latin America’s new governments now aim to revive the institutions that guided Latin American integration a decade ago. “Today we need to be more joined and united than ever,” said Colombian President Gustavo Petro in his inaugural address in August. “We have just lived through perhaps the worst of the Covid pandemic, and Latin America was not able to come together to coordinate, to buy the cheapest vaccines, it was practically exploited without negotiation capacity, dispersed in its governments.” Petro joins a chorus of Latin American policymakers speaking about the need to strengthen CELAC and refound UNASUR. “UNASUR is not Castrochavismo,” Petro has said, referring to the socialism of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. “It is the idea of an integration independent from the U.S.—just like the European Union.”
The looming question is how the United States will respond to this new push for Latin American integration. John Kerry declared the Monroe Doctrine dead back in 2013, promising to view southern neighbors “as equals.” But since then, the U.S. has continued to bully Latin America with unilateral measures and to bungle relationships with unforced errors. At June’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, for example, the U.S. decided to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the list of invitations without consulting any of its regional partners, prompting a wave of boycotts by the presidents of Mexico, Honduras, and Bolivia.
President Biden has called the defense of democracy “the defining challenge of our time.” But democracy is not only about the ballot box. Latin America must be free to build the independent institutions that it deems necessary to guarantee health, security, and a strong economy in an increasingly turbulent world.
The U.S. foreign-policy establishment tolerates this logic of strategic autonomy when it is articulated on the other side of the Atlantic. When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz calls for stronger European institutions in the face of a global Zeitenwende—an epochal shift of the international order—policymakers in Washington nod along. Latin America should not be bullied away from its parallel ambitions for integration that could make it more resilient to pandemics, extreme weather, and geopolitical threats.
A strong Latin America may threaten leaders like Sen. Cruz, for whom any government that empowers its citizens at the cost of foreign companies can be labeled as “anti-American.” But the Biden administration should know better. It is clear that a more stable, prosperous, and democratic Latin America would be a less volatile region and a more trustworthy stakeholder.
Two hundred years on, the United States should finally learn the true meaning of President Monroe’s famous speech: “Each Government, confiding in its own strength, has less to apprehend from the other, and in consequence each, enjoying a greater freedom of action, is rendered more efficient for all the purposes for which it was instituted”.