Regionalism in the Time of Coronavirus: The Only Way Forward?

By Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Coronavirus Latin America

Map of the COVID-19 outbreak in Latin America as of 30 April 2020/ Pharexia/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

To overcome the multiple challenges of the COVID‑19 crisis, Latin America’s leaders will need to build regional cooperation around pragmatic solutions – an elusive goal for countries with a legacy of disunity and weak collaboration. The coronavirus has hit at a moment of economic vulnerability. Regional growth averaged only 1.9 percent in 2010-19, worse than in the “lost decade” of the debt-crisis 1980s (2.2 percent). Labor productivity, which in 1960 was almost 250 percent of the world average, has fallen steadily in every subsequent decade, and in 2019 sat at a mere 90 percent of the global mean. Persistent squabbling among Latin countries has meant that major global trading states, including the United States and more recently China, could dictate the terms of bilateral trade and investment agreements in ways that favored these larger powers.

  • In negotiating global trade, Latin America and the Caribbean have shown little shared identity or cohesion, whether as a region or as sub-regions. As of late 2018, as global value chains coalesced around three regional hubs – China/East Asia, U.S./North America, and Germany/European Union – Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean were linked to the U.S. but lacked bargaining power to seize more advantageous positions vis-à-vis the United States. South America has deindustrialized since the turn of the century, returning to its historic role of commodity exporter to all three hubs. Intra-regional trade as of 2017 was only 22 percent of all Latin American trade and had fallen since 2013.
  • This is a shaky foundation from which to face the health and economic challenges of COVID‑19. The IMF’s scenario, which assumes an optimistic return to business mostly-as-usual in the third quarter, predicts a contraction of GDP in 2020 of 5.2 percent in the region, driven by brutal collapses in the two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, of -5.5 and -6.6 percent respectively. The extra-regional markets for Latin America’s exports certainly will shrink due to both short-term reasons of global depression and longer-term ones of enhanced economic nationalism abroad. Remittances and tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere will not return to their previous numbers for a long time.

A coronavirus-solidarity virtual summit last month showed that some regional leaders realize the need for joint action. Nine of 12 South American presidents participated, although Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – who has made intemperate and dismissive remarks about his fellow leaders – gave his seat at the video conference to his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo.

  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández participated despite Bolsonaro’s snub (including on previous occasions) and his previously chilly relations with the sponsoring body, PROSUR, founded in 2019 by center-right Presidents Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile as an explicit counter to the pre-existing regional body, UNASUR, which leaned left during the presidency of Bolivia’s Evo Morales (now in exile in Argentina). In so doing, Fernández demonstrated the pragmatism and understanding that Latin American and Caribbean leaders often eschew: if you want to solve policy challenges, you must maintain dialogue with people with whom you disagree.

If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it could be psychological, as crises tend to focus minds. The disruption in international relations beyond Latin America probably will accelerate the move away from the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and fuel domestic economic nationalism that will shake up the three major global trading hubs – a reorganization in which the region could redefine its place. In this scenario the best defense for Latin America is a strong offense. As Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), said recently, the region’s resilience likely depends on “investment in strengthening regional production chains” to create “complementarities in production structures and regional integration.”

  • Diplomacy enables states to share knowledge and engage in collective action to meet real cross-border challenges, including those of the current crisis. Regional solidarity does not require headquarters buildings, formal treaties, and summit pageantry, nor even similar domestic political systems. The considerable achievements of the loose, informal clubs known as the G7, the G20, and the BRICS prove the value of cooperative models that need not boast costly institutional scaffolding. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), formed in 1967 by 10 countries that were at least as mutually suspicious of one another as they were of China, provides another lesson about somewhat effective regional cooperation that Latin America would do well to note.

April 30, 2020

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is an associate professor at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Her most recent book, coauthored with C. Roberts and S.A. Katada, is The BRICS and Collective Financial Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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