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United and integrated, the region would be a force to reckon with on the world stage. But does Latin America’s unification reality match up to the rhetoric?
LIMA, Peru — Of all Hugo Chavez’s grandiose dreams, perhaps none was quite as lofty as his “Bolivarian” vision of unifying Latin America.
The late Venezuelan president’s speeches were peppered with references to finally realizing the hopes of his idol, Simon Bolivar, the father of Latin American independence, to unite the peoples of the region in freedom and prosperity.
“We think it is a possible dream, a realizable utopia,” Chavez once said. “I believe that no other dream can be achieved if we don’t start with a process of Latin American unity.”
If it were ever achieved, a unified Latin America would be a major power on the world stage.
Yet now, after Chavez’s 14 years in power, how far has Latin America actually advanced on the road to unification?
At first glance, the answer may appear to be a long way.
An alphabet soup of regional organizations has emerged. All aim, in various ways, to integrate the region economically and politically.
They include Unasur, Mercosur, Ceclac, the Pacific Alliance, and Chavez’s own pet project, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), to name the most important.
ALBA members have even begun trading in a new currency, the sucre, and have launched a regional development bank that's supposed to rival the International Monetary Fund.
But, analysts say, the very proliferation of regional organizations shows how little weight some of them actually carry. Meanwhile, Latin America actually appears to be splitting down the middle between blocs such as the Pacific Alliance and ALBA.
The Pacific Alliance groups together pro-market, liberal democracies friendly to the United States.
ALBA is a league of mostly leftist nations, some of which have fraught relations with Washington and oppose the free trade and globalization it preaches.
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Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico comprise the Pacific Alliance. Last month, they agreed to scrap tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded among them.
Now their goal is to build commercial bridges with Asia.
That’s a club the United States wants to get in on.
"This pact, involving four of the region's fastest-growing countries, now has nations across the world seeking to participate or to play a positive supporting role. We're one of those nations," US Vice President Joseph Biden wrote in The Wall Street Journal, following his visit to the region last month.
In a dig at other blocs, Biden added, "alliance members are showing that pragmatism, not ideology, is the secret to success.”
As for ALBA, its members include close Venezuela allies such as Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Although they have strong ideological ties, their economies are largely unintegrated — other than a shared dependence on Caracas for cheap oil exports or subsidized loans of its petrodollars.
Yet the group's trade in sucres in 2011 totaled the equivalent of just $212 million. Venezuela's proposed contribution to the ALBA bank’s reserves was $300 million — peanuts for a country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Often described as “polarizing,” Chavez himself may have been a major reason for the lack of unity, with his bombastic rhetoric turning off many in the region, according to polls.
And that divisive influence appears to have survived the Venezuelan leader’s death from cancer, at 58, earlier this year.
Unasur, the forum that brings together South America’s 12 nation states, unanimously approved the narrow victory of Chavez’s anointed heir, Nicolas Maduro, in April’s presidential elections — despite huge controversy surrounding the result.
Yet since then, Peru’s foreign minister, Rafael Roncagliolo, quit his post in apparent frustration at the failure of Unasur’s members to enforce the condition for that approval, namely that Maduro provide an audit of 100 percent of the votes.
“The problem is that no one wants to bear the political costs of challenging Maduro’s election,” said Sandra Borda, a politics professor at Bogota’s University of the Andes.
The most obvious of those costs is being cut off from Venezuela’s largesse. Maduro, unlike the opposition, promises to continue Chavez’s policy of showering the region — or at least sympathetic governments — with petrodollars and cheap crude.
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Meanwhile, Latin America is riven with other rivalries, some of them with deep historic roots.
Argentina is at loggerheads with Uruguay and Brazil over the protectionist policies of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — despite the fact that all three are members of Mercosur, supposedly a trading bloc.
Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, was said to be so incensed recently that she even cut short a visit to Buenos Aires.
Bolivia continues to bitterly accuse Chile over the 19th century seizure of its Pacific coastline. Venezuela-Colombia relations remain delicate over the former’s alleged support for the latter’s FARC armed rebels.
And almost everyone has it in for Paraguay after it impeached leftist President Fernando Lugo last year.
But perhaps the most vivid — and absurd — example of the levels of animosity generated between some Latin American nations came from a spat between Ecuador and Peru this month that almost sparked a diplomatic breakup.
The row, believe it or not, was triggered when Rodrigo Riofrio, Ecuador’s ambassador to Peru, was caught up in a fight with a local woman in a Lima supermarket over alleged line jumping.
Indeed, Latin America’s very rivalries might have been the reason Chavez’s unification rhetoric rarely focused on concrete integration.
Perhaps the only thing clear in Chavez’s thinking — and which gained genuine traction around the region — was his vision of a Latin America united against US “imperialism.”
“You have to recognize that that discourse is based in reality,” said Leandro Querido, a political science professor at the University of Buenos Aires. “There is still so much poverty in Latin America and many countries have historically suffered as a result of US policy.”
Yet railing against Washington’s past backing for coups and brutal dictatorships, and economic policies that many believe have benefited the United States at Latin America's expense, is no substitute for the diplomatic heavy-lifting needed to integrate the region’s disparate nations.
And now, with Chavez having exited the scene, it remains unclear whether any of Latin America’s surviving leaders have an appetite for regional political integration — as opposed to the kind of market-driven globalization that Chavez campaigned against.