6 December 2013
Victor Bulmer-Thomas

Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas CMG OBE

Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House


Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ( L) speaks during his meeting with foreign ministers and top officials from member states of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Moscow 29 May  2013. Photo by Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Ima
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ( L) speaks during his meeting with foreign ministers and top officials from member states of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Moscow 29 May 2013. Photo by Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images.


Historic barriers to pan-Latin American cooperation are melting away, but sub-regions like South America and the Caribbean continue to have stronger institutions.

That there is a ‘Latin America’ is not seriously in dispute, even if its membership – like that of ‘Europe’ - is fuzzy at the edges. It has a common history, a rich culture and shared interests. It has institutions to reflect its economic interests, notably the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) founded in 1948. Yet when it comes to its political identity, it has only the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization with no secretariat, no home country and no history. Its first summit was this year.

This absence of a meaningful political identity becomes even stranger when one looks at the sub-regions that make up Latin America. Central America has had institutions to represent its interests since 1950 (today called Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana, or SICA), the Caribbean since 1973 (the Carribean Community, or CARICOM) and South America since 2008 (the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR). The more radical governments in Latin America (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela together with a number of small Caribbean states) are also represented institutionally (through ALBA – Alianza Bolivariana para los pueblos de Nuestra América). The more free-trade orientated ones (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) are on the point of finalizing their own organization (Alianza del Pacífico).

It is not for lack of trying. Even before the expression ‘Latin America’ was coined by Catholic intellectuals in Paris in the 1850s, there had been attempts. Simón Bolívar had tried at the Congress of the Americas in 1826 and the Peruvian government hosted a summit in the 1840s. The Peruvians even tried again in the 1860s. All these efforts, however, failed, and there would be no new ones until small steps were taken in the 1980s that would eventually lead to CELAC.

Why was progress so slow, so timid and so unsuccessful? The explanation is surprisingly simple. The two most important countries in the hemisphere – Brazil and the United States – for most of the last two centuries have had no interest in encouraging a Latin American political identity. Their motives, of course, have been very different, but the opposition of the United States and the lack of active support of Brazil have made it very difficult to achieve the goal to which other countries have aspired.

The United States, after the American Civil War, wanted to build an institution that would represent all the independent states of the Americas, but one in which the Latin American states would be subordinate to the US. There was therefore no room for an independent Latin American political voice. The US established the Inter-American Bureau in 1889 (later it would be called the Pan-American Union). It was dominated by the US, although its imperialist policies faced strong Latin American resistance in the 1920s.

After the Second World War, the institution changed its name to the Organization of American States (OAS). During the Cold War the OAS was used aggressively to pursue the US agenda in the Americas, including the expulsion of Cuba in 1962. Again, there was no room for a separate Latin American political identity. However, the end of the Cold War left the OAS struggling to find a new role and the United States has been unable to shape the agenda in Latin America as it did before. The turning point was the failure of the Bush administration in 2003 to persuade Chile and Mexico to vote in the UN Security Council for intervention against Saddam Hussein.

If the US is no longer the obstacle to a Latin American political identity, what about the other hemispheric giant? Brazil was not included in the first definition of ‘Latin America’ in the 1850s and was not invited to the earliest summits. Indeed, Brazil has never been comfortable with the notion of a Latin America embracing all former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Instead, just as Pope Alexander divided the Americas in 1494 by a vertical line, Brazil wishes to do the same with a horizontal one just above Colombia. Below this line is ‘South America’, a region with which Brazil is very familiar and whose political identity is today expressed through UNASUR.

This Brazilian concept, rendered explicit by the foreign ministry in the 1990s, looks increasingly untenable in a hemisphere where countries north of Colombia are not prepared to be dominated by the United States and where many share common interests with South American states including Brazil. Indeed, there is some evidence that Brazil is beginning to accept this and CELAC was eventually established with Brazilian support.

Yet turning CELAC into a meaningful expression of Latin American political interests is still a long way in the future. For that, many things will have to happen. These include much closer cooperation between Brazil and Mexico, a fusion of at least some of the different regional integration schemes in Latin America and a greater willingness by member states to criticize the behavior of others when the rule of law and human rights are breached.

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