Regionalism in the words of Latin American Presidents

by Nicole Jenne, Luis Schenoni and Francisco Urdinez

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Official photo of the 14th Extraordinary Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), March 2017. Image: EneasMx via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps more than in any other region, reality and discourse stand in stark contrast when it comes to regionalism in Latin America. While the prospects of integration have always been rather dim and limited to rickety cooperation schemes, talk about the unity of Nuestra América (Spanish for Our America, in contrast to the America of the North) has been well alive since Bolívar and Martí, until the present day. Yet, scholarly work on Latin American regionalism has focused almost exclusively on integration (or better, the failure thereof) rather than on the unionist discourse. Our work takes a different perspective. It provides a comparative analysis of Latin American declaratory regionalism, that is, the practice of referring to the region and its institutions in political speeches.

The importance of presidents and their promises

If one is to analyse the gap between the practice and discourse of Latin American regionalism, presidents are the obvious place to begin. As heads of state, presidents wield the power of signing treaties. They also represent the interest of their country in international summits, where they act under little constraint by domestic constituencies.

Studying what presidents say about regionalism might seem irrelevant at first, but it is in fact highly important. First, since presidents can always choose not to mention anything about their region, doing so needs to be seen as a strategic decision. Second, talk creates expectations and can serve as a benchmark against which the actions of presidents are measured. In this way, thirdly, rhetoric can ‘entrap’ presidents by giving other actors leverage to make them do what they had promised.

To learn more about the pervasive phenomenon of Latin America’s declaratory regionalism, we chose to analyse the presidential speeches of 19 Latin American countries delivered at the annual United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) meetings from 1994 to 2014. These can be found online here. The UNGA represents an interesting laboratory in which presidents address similar audiences in the same environment roughly at the same time. Therefore, we inferred, potential differences in declaratory regionalism must be due to factors other than particular constituencies or thematic emphases as set at by summits dealing with specific policy areas. What can we learn from these speeches? We limited our analysis to three questions: How much do presidents talk about their regions? How far do they see their region extending in terms of geography? And, in their view, how broad and how deep should regional commitments be?

Describing declaratory regionalism: How much? How far? How deep?

Presidents in different countries and years might refer to their regions with varying frequency. Effectively, we find that some presidents – particularly those of Peru and Panama – are more or less constantly inclined to talk about their region while others – those of Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico – are less prone to declaratory regionalism. Yet, the practice varies notably in time as presidencies come and go. During the 1990s, the most vociferous were those countries that heralded a more liberal understanding of regionalism, e.g. Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, while the subsequent post-liberal regionalism of the 2000s brought to the forefront the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) – Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

We also find that the region varies in its geographical extension. Brazilian heads of state are the ones most inclined to refer to South America in their speeches. In fact, roughly one third of their references to any region are to this sub-region. Brazil’s partners of Mercosur (the Southern Common Market, Mercado Común del Sur) tend to follow a similar practice, while Colombian and Chilean presidents give almost no credence to such geographical constructs at all. Overall, most Hispanic American states refer to Latin America as their primary region and smaller states also find comfort in a more comprehensive, hemispheric view of the Americas.

Finally, presidents’ understanding of how deep their engagement with the region should be varies quite notably, too. There are two forms of regionalism that need to be distinguished: cooperation and integration. References to cooperation denote a more narrow, even issue-specific and a more shallow type of engagement. Importantly, cooperation does not entail any transfer of sovereignty to a supranational bureaucracy, as this is the case with integration. Integration refers to a EU-like type of broad commitment where a certain transfer of sovereignty is required. We find that Latin American presidents used the term cooperation consistently more often to refer to an ever-broadening range of issues, primarily liberal policies such as institutions and markets. Integration, on the other hand, has been used in the same context of more limited policy areas and in relation to South American (rather than Latin American) projects like Mercosur and Unasur.

Explaining exaggeration

The last section of our analysis takes an explanatory turn. The puzzle that bothered us was the following: If presidents across Latin America all show a low disposition to renounce certain sovereign competences in order to promote regionalism, why do some of them talk about deepening and broadening their regional commitment, while others do not? To answer this question, we developed a count model analysing the frequency with which individual presidents referred to cooperation or integration, respectively.

Our analysis shows that as countries become more democratic and presidents move to the left on the ideological scale, references to integration in UNGA speeches increase considerably. At the same time, references to cooperation decrease. The results tap into a marked ideological divide where leftist presidents who see themselves primarily as Latin Americans or South Americans tend to be more prone to declaratory regionalism. Rightist presidents that see the Americas – including the United States – as their region of reference, on the other hand, speak less about regionalism and its institutions.

Yet, these are still preliminary conclusions. We hope that our efforts to shed light on the phenomenon of declaratory regionalism and to provide a sound methodology for its analysis will be followed by our colleagues for that the importance of presidential discourse in Latin American international politics has been unrightfully ignored.

About the author

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Nicole Jenne is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Her research is on regional international relations and security governance with a special focus on South America and Southeast Asia. Her recent publications include: ‘The Thai-Cambodian Border Dispute: An Agency-centred Perspective on the Management of Interstate Conflict’ in Contemporary Southeast Asia. Nicole is currently preparing a book manuscript on the management of territorial disputes in South America and Southeast Asia and working on a research project that examines the effects of peacekeeping on the sending countries domestically. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, Florence.

Luis Schenoni is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at the University of Notre Dame. He specialises in IR Theory, International Political Economy and Foreign Policy Analysis with a particular focus on Latin America. Before arriving at Notre Dame, Luis received his MA in International Studies from Torcuato Di Tella University (2012) and worked as Assistant Professor at the Argentine Catholic University, both in Buenos Aires. Luis is the author of a number of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in English, Portuguese and Spanish, which analyse the dynamics of international politics in Latin America.

Francisco Urdinez is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He received a joint-degree PhD from the University of São Paulo and King's College London in the field of International Relations. Francisco researches issues related to International Political Economy, with a focus on emerging powers, particularly Brazil and China. Before being appointed as Assistant Professor in Chile he was a scholar of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in Brazil.

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