During the presidential campaign and in his inauguration speech, President Lula declared that Latin America would once again be a priority in Brazilian foreign policy, in accordance with the constitutional precept that establishes as one of the principles of Brazil’s international relations the pursuit of integration and the formation of a Latin American community of nations. The presence of numerous presidents from the region at the inauguration demonstrated support for Brazilian leadership and the strength of Brazil’s return to the international scene.
Recently, Presidents Lula and Fernández re-launched the strategic partnership between Brazil and Argentina and highlighted, in a public letter, the relevance of the region in terms of food production and strategic mineral resources. Several economic issues were mentioned: the need for re-industrialization, the attraction of investments, energy integration, investment in infrastructure, and boosting international trade.
“We want Mercosur to provide a platform for our effective integration into the world, through the joint negotiation of balanced trade agreements that respond to our strategic development objectives” In addition, in the signed document, the presidents “committed to initiating a process of dialogue at the presidential level with the countries of the region for the re-launching of Unasur”. The momentum is being given and there are favorable conjunction elements.
At the systemic level, regionalism has become a fundamental element of international politics. In addition to economic integration, centered on markets, regionalism refers to the phenomenon of articulation and coordination of regional policies in an attempt to optimize their results.
In this context, the major world powers adopt assertive regional policies as state projects. In the case of the U.S., NAFTA (renamed USMCA) is a central axis of its foreign action and an important part of its current economic model. In Europe, the EU policies, in addition to having built peace, underpin all areas of regional political action.
In Asia, the most economically dynamic area of the world in this century, regional relations have been fundamental to the establishment of virtuous development models, such as those that generated the rise of the Asian Tigers. Asian economic ties have grown closer in recent decades and good relations with neighbors are a priority of Chinese foreign policy. In addition, recent events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have highlighted the importance of regional supply chains and reinforced the trend toward nearshoring.
At the regional level, there are also elements in favor of integration. The affinities between center-left governments are one of the most visible facets, as well as a certain rapprochement on identity and cultural issues. Similar challenges — such as the fight against poverty and inequality — are elements of convergence. In the process of building Unasur, for example, there was agreement on the definition of a new socioeconomic development agenda (after the failure of neoliberal recipes); the establishment of a positive agenda with incentives for South-South cooperation mechanisms; and the focus on the region’s infrastructure bottlenecks.
Integration in the Brazilian project
In Brazil, rapprochement and integration with its neighbors represent a state project, originating in the military governments and maintained by all democratic governments from Sarney to Temer, except Bolsonaro. Certainly, there were differences in the design and integration objectives according to the historical moment, but the resilience of institutions such as Mercosur, which even survived the last government, is notorious.
Despite the favorable contextual elements, there are many challenges. Integration is a complex phenomenon and, throughout our history, progress toward union has been hindered by economic difficulties and structural issues, as well as by political obstacles and less interest from regional leaders. Ideological issues and discontinuous government policies (not consolidated as state policies) directly affected the performance of institutions. Alignment with external powers was also a known element of disintegration.
The articulation of the far-right networks, both in Europe and in the Americas, is critical of the processes of regional sociopolitical articulation, and their racist ideology: Latinos (as) are treated in a pejorative way. In the case of Bolsonaro’s government, direct alignment with the U.S. has been privileged, and Brazil’s relations with Latin America, besides not being a priority, have been relegated to an ideological issue and used to increase the country’s polarization. This is an anachronistic action, typical of the Cold War period, which shows a mistaken vision of the contemporary international scenario, as well as an ignorance of the advantages that regional cooperation can bring to the country. With the pandemic, for example, it was evident that the Unasur Health Council was lacking in order to define a faster and more effective response to the challenges that were posed.
Integration is experiencing a new favorable moment and much remains to be done. Brazilian leadership, understood here as proactive, proposing policies built together with partners, goes hand in hand with responsibilities.
Hard work is required in coordination and the search for convergence. The path towards regional strengthening requires the establishment of a consensus and a precise definition of the objectives to be achieved. The broader and more diffuse the objectives, the more difficult it will be to achieve them. One of the greatest challenges, therefore, is to define actions that can be implemented in the coming years, as well as to strengthen institutions so that they can survive political changes, because our similar difficulties require, in fact, coordinated actions.
At the social level, it is essential to refute the fake news of the far right, clarify the confusing points, and deconstruct the falsehoods spread. It is necessary to broaden the social dialogue, deepen instances of cooperation and participation, consolidate institutions and establish a more solid regional bureaucracy, stimulate education and democratic and civic culture, strengthen South American identity and the sense of belonging, as well as develop regular mechanisms to publicize the results achieved by regional policies and institutions. In the medium term, the challenge of identity is perhaps a key element. There is a need to foster South American identity and mutual knowledge and to go further.
There are no easy options in terms of international development policies. However, the historical moment is very favorable and the time has come to promote South American regionalism. What is at stake is the reversal or deepening of the process of peripheralization of the region in the international scene.
*Translated from Portuguese by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva