Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

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Latin America Charts Its Own Course: Reflections on the Mexico City CoC Meeting

by Stewart M. Patrick
December 5, 2013

Secretary General of the OAS José Miguel Insulza delivers a keynote speech at the Council of Councils Fifth Regional Conference in Mexico City, at a dinner hosted in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. November 25, 2013.


For more than two centuries the United States has loomed—for good and ill—over its southern neighbors. But that longstanding hegemonic role is fading. After two decades of robust growth and democratic consolidation, Latin America is increasingly charting its own course, not only in the hemisphere but, increasingly, around the globe. The diverse and dynamic region below the Rio Grande may still be America’s “backyard”, but it’s no backwater. And it’s evident that the United States is only beginning to adjust to these realities.

This was the clear message of the fourth regional conference of the Council of Councils, titled “The Future of the Americas in Global Governance,” which was convened in Mexico City on November 24-26. Co-hosted by the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and Brazil’s Gitulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), the meeting united the CoC’s global network of think tanks and the parallel Hemispheric Councils of International Relations.

Two questions guided our agenda and deliberations: What is the state of regional integration in the hemisphere? And how can Latin America contribute to global governance?

Our discussions—in the grand confines of the Mexican Foreign Ministry—included keynote addresses from José Miguel Insulza, the director-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), and José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, the Mexican minister of foreign affairs. The panel sessions focused on five issues: whether a “Latin American” region actually exists; how regional and global trade initiatives should relate to one another; what role Latin America can play in the Group of Twenty (G20); whether it is time for new approaches to combat drug trafficking and criminal violence; and how the Americas should respond to the revolution in global energy markets.

In the coming days, we’ll describe these deliberations in a comprehensive meeting report. In the meantime, I’ll try to summarize the most compelling take-aways:

  • Latin America exists, but in various guises: The conversations in Mexico City revealed a common “Latin American” identity but also the limits of that unity. To be sure, the countries of the region have broadly shared economic and other interests, but their political values often diverge, as evinced by frictions between Venezuela and other members of the Bolivarian Alliance and more conservative states like Colombia or Peru. A major point of contention remains the limits of national sovereignty, particularly when it comes to promoting democracy and human rights norms. Coherent regional policies are also complicated by the proliferation of competing frameworks of cooperation. As in Asia, Latin America is awash in regional and sub-regional institutions. These sometimes overlapping bodies include the OAS (of which the United States and Canada are members), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) (of which which they are not), the Pacific Alliance, Mercosur, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Central American Integration System (SICA), and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA)—to name just a few. While such diversity has advantages, it also suggests a politically fragmented region, in which institutions are weak by design.
  • Latin America’s coherence—and future—will depend on relations between Brazil and Mexico: As the continent’s only Lusophone country, Brazil has long been ambivalent about its status as a “Latin American” country. That is slowly changing, as it emerges as (by far) the most powerful nation in South America . Brazil’s challenge is to balance its natural leadership role in the region with its growing global ambitions. Meanwhile, north of the isthmus, the center of gravity focuses increasingly on Mexico, which has recently enjoyed impressive growth of its own. Today, Brazil and Mexico account for some 60 percent of Latin America’s total GDP. Yet, while the two countries are linked by growing commercial and cultural ties, their diplomatic relations remain underdeveloped—correct but distant. Unless these two giants develop a more sophisticated strategic partnership, it will be difficult for Latin America, per se, to develop a coherent, independent international voice, underpinned by robust institutions.
  • Preferential trade agreements present both opportunity and risk: The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) suggest a world that has given up on global multilateral trade “rounds” through the WTO and instead moved toward the more easily grasped benefits of “plurilateral” trade liberalization. The response in Latin America has varied by country. Most governments have moved to open their economies and pursued preferential trade agreements, with the Pacific Alliance nations of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile at the forefront. Others, including the ALBA nations, are clinging to more defensive, protectionist policies that show little promise. The risk is that a “two-speed” Latin America may emerge, with more closed economies left behind. There is also a danger that Latin American countries will be pulled in one of two directions—across the Pacific, to take advantage of trade with Asia—or across the Atlantic—to exploit openings with Europe. More generally, all participants stressed that TPP, TTIP, and other such arrangements must remain open, in principle, to Latin American economies (including Brazil) that are currently excluded.
  • Latin America is determined to seek new approaches to drugs and crime: In Carl Sandburg’s epic poem The People, Yes, a little girl watching soldiers march in a parade muses, “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” Governments and opinion-makers across Latin America are increasingly adopting that very attitude toward Washington’s bankrupt, forty-year old “war on drugs.” In 2012, at the request of its member states, the OAS produced a groundbreaking report, The Drug Problem in the Americas. It documented, in meticulous detail, the devastating impact that current supply side approaches to combating the illegal drug trade have had in both producer and transit countries, generating—among other things—horrific levels of violence in Mexico and Central America. The report—and the conversations in Mexico City—revealed a growing appetite among Latin American countries for alternative approaches to crop eradication and interdiction. From Guatemala to Colombia to Uruguay, sitting political leaders are, for the first time, considering alternatives to criminalization and prohibition—mirroring experimentation occurring among some states in the United States itself. Conference participants agreed that the time had come to take a public health approach to the drug problem and focus more on harm reduction—including lowering levels of violence in the most affected nations. (By coincidence, today the United States celebrates the 80th anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition. We might consider the lesssons of that failed policy in the context of the ongoing drug war).
  • The United States lacks a strategic approach to the Western Hemisphere: Repeatedly, participants complained of the drift that seemed to characterize Washington’s policy towards Latin America. The Obama administration appears to operating by the seat of its pants, they noted, rather than developing a coherent, strategic approach to its southern neighbors. Washington’s clear preferences are to deal with individual nations on a bilateral, case-by-case basis; to ignore troublemakers like Venezuela and other ALBA members in hopes their influence will fade; and to work behind the scenes to extinguish fires like the diplomatic fallout from the Snowden affair, which have alienated many Latin American leaders, not least Brazilian president Dilma Roussef. The conferees in Mexico City had searched in vain, they said, to find a more positive U.S. agenda for the hemisphere—including on the vexing issue of migration.

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