Regionalism and Covid-19

LEGO map of South America dirkb86 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Last year, in Unfulfilled Promises we argued:

Despite their rhetoric about Latin American brotherhood, governments prefer to keep public policy in their own hands and refuse to cede any autonomy to regional institutions. Without this capacity to act somewhat independently from their creators, Latin American regional institutions simply cannot perform their functions…In Latin America, integration projects fail to transcend the specific circumstances that led to their creation…Latin America has developed a circumstantial regionalism, characterized by a repeated cycle of optimism and institution creation, followed by prolonged stagnation and neglect by national governments which prefer to act unilaterally…

Covid-19 arrived in a fragmented Latin America, and in a particularly effervescent year. Before the pandemic hit, groups such as women and students were protesting in many countries against discrimination and violence, and in favor of democracy, free education and other public services. Social upheaval, however, soon gave way to empty streets and health concerns as SARS-CoV-2 spread throughout the region. The world was not prepared for the pandemic; Latin America had to respond with weak domestic and regional institutions. In the absence of clear leadership, the region has not acted as one; not surprisingly, Latin American countries have privileged unilateral action and contacts with outside powers.

The pandemic has promoted only a minimum of cooperation and coordination of policies among Latin American and Caribbean countries, especially through subregional organizations. CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), the most extensive regional organization in terms of membership, has tried to encourage measures to cope with Covid-19, with no concrete results so far. Thus, the pandemic has once more demonstrated the fragility of Latin American regional and subregional organizations, and the reasons for it: the weaknesses of domestic institutions, the lack of shared interests and values, and the dependence on foreign powers. Let us elaborate.

The purpose of multilateralism is to promote cooperation and policy coordination among states. Throughout history, Latin American countries have attempted to use multilateralism as an instrument to adjust to adverse or changing external conditions, or to advance domestic interests. Multilateral initiatives in Latin America are numerous, as Unfulfilled Promises argues, because they are the result of concrete political moments, and depend on the political will of particular leaders in very specific circumstances. However, regional efforts rarely consolidate or institutionalize because there is no consensus on shared interests and values, and because domestic institutions in most countries are rather weak. Thus, regional efforts tend to stagnate after a period of activity and relevance. While a rhetoric of common purposes and a shared identity, solidarity and cooperation endures, effective policies fade, —or never take place. Then, when the circumstances become favorable again, a new cycle of regionalism begins, either by resorting to existing organizations or groups, or by creating new ones.

Covid-19 has been an external shock that might have triggered cooperation and coordination of national policies in the Americas, not only on health issues but also on borders, trade, immigration, economics, etc. However, there have been almost no regional policies to tackle the crisis. Public policy responses remain squarely located in the domestic sphere.

Most regional organizations have limited their reaction to providing information about the general situation of the pandemic and communicating national policies implemented by member states. This is the case of the Pacific Alliance, which includes Chile, Mexico, and Peru, which have faced significant outbreaks of the disease, and Colombia, which so far has fared better. Other organizations, like MERCOSUR and SICA, have provided some emergency funds for its members. CARICOM and SICA have also implemented policies to assure the free transit of food and medication in the Caribbean and Central America. The Organization of American States (OAS) has focused on the protection of human rights, producing a series of reports and recommendations to protect vulnerable groups. Naturally given its expertise, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), an organ both of the OAS and the World Health Organization (WHO), has been the most active organization in the region. It implemented a regional program and provided member states with technical assistance in specific areas such as vigilance, testing, and risk-management (the Caribbean Public Health Agency has also produced more effective results in the area).

The role played by CELAC confirms the arguments developed in Unfulfilled Promises. Underlining an admittedly largely rhetorical preference for Latin America in foreign policy, the Mexican government became CELAC’s pro tempore president in January. Mexico’s objective is to reactivate and reinvigorate a paralyzed organization by proposing a non-politicized agenda (i.e. leaving the Venezuelan problem aside, and avoiding issues such as democracy and human rights). So far, CELAC has put together a network of virologists and has established alliances with other institutions such as ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), two UN agencies, to assess the pandemic’s consequences in regional economic and social development, and in areas such as food security.

As the Americas became the region with the highest rates of contagion and deaths, the lack of regional coordination became even more evident. While the United States and Mexico started opening their economies relatively quickly, Argentina, Colombia, and Cuba maintained strict lockdowns; Brazil and Nicaragua did not have a national policy; Cuba kept its borders shut; and Venezuela continued to experience a humanitarian disaster. Months after the pandemic hit the Americas, national governments continue to act individually, underlining the region’s political fragmentation.

More importantly perhaps, except for ECLAC’s reports, countries in the region do not seem to be engaged in devising a collaborative scheme to cope with the very serious economic, political and social consequences of the pandemic. Moreover, there are no signs that regional leaders are contemplating the characteristics of a post-pandemic international order and the Americas' place in it. One of CELAC’s original purposes was to give the region one voice and to strengthen its place in the international system. This has become particularly important given growing indications of a more intense competition between the United States and China for influence in the region, especially IN the economic arena. For instance, there have been no discussions among Latin American countries about the future of 5G networks in the region, one of the key areas of tension between Beijing and Washington.

There is no indication that this type of cooperation is happening. So, business as usual…a region without leaders, institutions nor common interests. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was never interested in regional organizations, and his handling of the pandemic suggests he has no interest in pursuing a role of leadership in Latin America. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s visit to Washington, DC raises many questions about his declared preference for Latin America. Not only had López Obrador not traveled to any Latin American country, but the timing and the purpose of the visit confirm that even he had to accept —and embrace— Mexico’s structural reality and dependency on the US market. His speech at the White House was an unambiguous recognition of Mexico’s belonging to North America, and an invitation to act as a region to improve its position in the international economy. Thus, the presidents of Latin America’s two largest countries are not willing or capable to act as regional leaders.

One might argue that existing regional organizations were not created to deal with a situation like the pandemic. However, given its global reach and profound impact, Covid-19 is perhaps one of the best examples of the need for cooperation among states. What we see in the Americas, nonetheless, is lack of leadership, heterogeneous responses to the crisis, inward-looking presidents, and a very weak disposition to embark on collective initiatives. Although Covid-19 has demonstrated, once more, the weaknesses of Latin American countries’ institutions, Latin America’s marginal place in the international system and a disinterested regional hegemon, the pandemic is far from over, and its consequences will be long-lasting.

It is not too late to turn the pandemic into an opportunity to acknowledge the existence of common interests, and the value of pursuing them collectively. Regionalism should not be limited to a common identity based on history or language; it is also about the coordination of day-to-day public policies in health, the promotion of trade, managing immigration, preventing organized crime, and cooperating on science and technology. Covid-19 has revealed many areas in which countries in the Americas can coordinate policies and cooperate. Though very unlikely, the severity of the crisis might encourage governing elites and societies to give regionalism another chance, and finally, make the transition from circumstantial to enduring regionalism.


In 2019 the Dialogue published Unfulfilled Promises: Latin America Today, a collection of six essays analyzing six of the region’s most salient challenges: rule of law and democratic institutions; citizen security; poverty and inequality; economic growth; regional integration; and global insertion. The volume was edited by Dialogue president Michael Shifter and fellow Bruno Binetti, with an introduction by Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica and current Dialogue co-chair. It was published in English, Spanish and Portuguese, with launching events in Washington DC, Mexico, and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.

The book is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.  

Ana Covarrubias in her chapter "Latin American Integration: Circumstantial Regionalism" explained the reasons and consequences of Latin America’s inability to turn regional solidarity into deep integration, and analyzes recent attempts to promote cooperation in the region. 

More than one year after the publication of the book, the Covid-19 pandemic has upended the world. How does the new environment affect Latin America, and what are its impacts on the six issues explored in the volume? To answer this fundamental question, we asked each author to reflect on the implications of the public health and economic crises for Latin America’s future.



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