South America's integration at risk

Image: AXP Photography


Javier Milei will throw not only Argentina into a cycle of crisis but also the whole of South America. Difficult times will come

Starting with far-right and ultra-conservative governments in the region, such as that of Jair Bolsonaro, integration between South American countries has regressed in relation to the first years of the 21st century. This freeze in integration policies was not due to nationalist reasons, on the contrary. This regression was due to ideological alignment with American policies and also due to the direct economic interest of some subordinate sectors of the local bourgeoisie.

The consequence was that the interference of the United States and its companies occurred more fluidly through these right-wing governments, which created a more comfortable environment for the American hegemonic power. Different from relations between South American states that suffered obstructions and challenges.

Integration effectively increases the capacity of South American countries to interfere in international relations agendas. Disintegration, in turn, favors the maintenance of international relations in the correlation in which they have historically found themselves, that of subordination to the regional hegemonic power.

During recent years, hegemonized by right-wing governments, the ideological war has created a political context favorable to the acceptance of the US State Department's guidelines. The isolation of the Venezuelan government, Operation Lava Jato and the illegitimate impeachment in Brazil, the political coups in Paraguay and Bolivia, the destabilization of Peru and other episodes, served as justification for the weakening of priority relations between South American states.

However, the election of progressive governments revitalized the expectation of a new boost in cooperative relations between countries in the region. This is because such governments, whether center-left or left-wing, as a rule, apply policies of greater independence and sovereignty in relation to American hegemony, seeking to expand, albeit with differences, international political and economic relations.

In a multipolar world, with three major political and economic protagonists – the United States, the European Union and China – the most effective way for South American countries to weigh more in this balance is to act as a bloc. Taken in isolation, each country in the region will have less capacity for permanent interference. Obviously we know about the classic ways used by the continental power to obstruct this integration process, such as offering unique advantages to that country that is willing to be a dissident in this process.

The combined six years of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro's governments in terms of South American integration were a period of setbacks and obliteration of relations between the states of the region. The furious wave of rise of right-wing and extreme-right ideas and policies that occurred during that period allowed all South American integration initiatives to be negatively stigmatized, especially their aspects of affirming national sovereignty. There was a “turn” from the center of international relations policy towards a rapprochement with the United States, which meant a setback in regional relations and a cooling in relation to European countries.

This international policy was directly related to the majority economic policy of the period marked by the “commoditization” of the Brazilian economy, focused on the export of extractive and agricultural products with low employment generation and little capacity for densification and complexification of services and new technologies. The result was that Brazil repositioned itself on the global stage in a subsidiary way, progressively retreating in its political capacity in international relations.

It was a kind of “jewel” charged by international rentiers for this association with central Western countries, where Brazil ended up fulfilling a logistical role, supplying large global trade with primary products and serving rentiers with high interest rates and financial dividends. .

During 2023, the Lula government's policy inflected the South American continent towards a stronger expectation towards resuming the integration agenda. There were convergent expectations with the election of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Gabriel Boric in Chile. However, other new governments such as Paraguay and Ecuador have less active positions in this regard.

In this new moment of debate and confrontation between integrationist and anti-integrationist policies, there are three distinct aspects to be faced: the fragmentation of relations produced between countries, the effective reinsertion of Venezuela into the bloc and direct and individual relations with economic super powers. USA and China. The fact is that the basis of the Brazilian government's understanding of integration is, precisely, the importance of South America acting as an economic and political bloc.

This strategy faces challenges, including among progressive and left-wing governments. Colombia and Chile, for example, have a history of relations with the USA that is very different from Brazil's. The line of right-wing governments is to privilege the unique relationship with central economies.

Effectively, the theme of integration is identified with governments on the left. While governments on the right cool it or effectively reject South American integration as a policy. The role played, very cunningly, by the way, by Lacalle Pou, president of Uruguay, is evidence of this political alignment. Without failing to attend or deny relations and meetings between South American countries, the Uruguayan government has adopted a policy of soft obstruction to integration, always interposing critical issues, such as the possibility of unique agreements and criticism of the Venezuelan government. However, Lacalle Pou's position must lose ground to that of Javier Milei, much more aggressive and explicit.

Javier Milei's positions must mean new difficulties in this relationship. The position already expressed by his government regarding the withdrawal from the BRICS already points to the expansion of restrictions on the formation of a South American bloc, as it places the two largest economies in the region, Brazil and Argentina, in very different positions on the world stage. Without Argentina, Brazil's position in the BRICS weakens.

In Argentina, Javier Milei's histrionics, typical of the extreme right and ultra-neoliberalism, left politics in relation to the region in the shadows. The bi-monetarism proposals, which would allow the US dollar to circulate freely in the country, with increased autonomy of the Central Bank, simplification of financial activities, labor reform to reduce rights and the centrality of fiscal adjustment, seem to repeat the steps of Temer-Bolsonaro, however , in a condensed period of time. Javier Milei's first measures are violent, authoritarian, anti-sovereign and anti-popular to the surprise of zero people on the planet, including President Lula.

It will be a new and different situation from that experienced in Lula's first two governments, for whom integration is of high importance for his economic and geopolitical policy. Javier Milei will not only throw Argentina into a cycle of crisis but also the whole of South America. Difficult times will come.

*Jorge Branco is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

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