Are Regional Blocs Leading from Nation States to Global Governance? a Skeptical View from Latin America

Article excerpt


Regionalism was once thought to be an intermediate step towards global governance. Through it, nation states would gradually transfer sovereignty upwards to the regional level. Regional groupings would therefore constitute stepping stones, as opposed to stumbling blocs, in an increasingly regionalized world system of governance. However, the global stage still is mainly configured by both powerful and failing states as main actors, while regions -the European Union included- have hardly met the optimistic expectations raised just a decade ago. This article analyzes the experience at regionalization in Latin America, assesses the level of interdependence and balance of power among the countries of the Western Hemisphere, and illustrates its insights through the scrutiny of one representative case: Mercosur. The main conclusion is that, at least in Latin America but probably also elsewhere, there is a growing gap between rhetoric and accomplishments as regards regional integration.


Worship to the alleged natural unity of Latin America has been a permanent component of the regional political discourse. As Mace (1988: 404) points out, "the wars for independence were not yet over before proposals for political unity began to be heard throughout the newly independent territories." Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan liberator, established his belief in a sort of United States of Hispanoamerica in his messages to the Congresses of Angostura (1819) and Panama (1826), which can be fairly considered as the first attempts at regional integration in the continent.

As pervasive as the idea of a continental union could appear, the real unity of Hispanic Latin America was never but a myth. Although it was true that most of the region shared a common culture, language and religion, the divisive factors at work long outweighed those pushing toward unity. Among the natural obstacles, large distances were paramount -be them by ground or by sea. Geography made communications extremely difficult, and contemporary technology was not enough to overcome such a shortcoming. Still, the social obstacles were even more serious: Spain had developed an administrative system aimed at extracting resources and controlling the territory from a single center, that of Spain itself. Consequently, its American colonies were seldom connected to one another, and territorial as well as regulative disputes were conducive to jealousy, rivalry and competition between them. This is why the end of the independence wars frequently led to civil strife, and conflict over borders has become an enduring source of problems that some Latin American countries still face today.

Administrative necessities, along with the impossibility of arriving at any kind of confederate arrangement, ended up in the division of Hispanic South America into nine independent countries out of the originally established Viceroyalty of Peru. Central America, though of a much smaller size, followed a similar pattern of fragmentation, Mexico standing as the only original viceroyalty that managed to conserve most of its territory. On the other hand, Portugal's larger colony -Brazil- kept its unity in spite of its huge extension and its many internal differences. In part, this was due to the fact that the Portuguese Imperial Court was directly transferred to Brazil between 1808 and 1821, thus contributing to the centralization of power -and to the legitimization of the hence strengthened central government.

The numerous obstacles to cultural and economic interrelations faced by the Latin American countries, combined with the failure of the attempts at political unification throughout the nineteenth century, led to a decline in support for the idea of integration. It was later replaced by panAmericanism, a water-downed concept of continental unity for the management of international relations in the region, from the 187Os to the late 1950s. …