Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) Research Assistant, Hannah den Boer sets out the response by regional organisations in Latin America to the Covid-19 crisis and asks what this means for regionalism in the bloc.
The proliferation of attempts at regional cooperation has been a constant characteristic of Latin American politics for more than half a century. Multiple regional initiatives have emerged and old ones have been reframed and transformed, generating a multiplicity of institutional constellations which embody contrasting and overlapping regional objectives. While pessimists argue that the expansion of regional organisations in the bloc signifies disunity and weak collaboration, optimists argue that the variety of projects allows for states to choose to pursue different objectives, hence celebrating autonomy and diversity. The COVID-19 pandemic and the response of intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) in Latin America highlights both the potential of these organisations and the perils of plural regionalism and member states with contrasting political agendas.
The global health crisis that the coronavirus unleashed transcends borders and requires cooperation on multiple levels of governance. This is particularly true in Latin America. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the region’s health systems are characterised by segmentation and fragmentation, which fuels inequities and inefficiencies and threatens universal access, quality and financing. Beyond posing a threat to public health, this pandemic will also have profound socio-economic effects. Especially in Latin America, COVID-19’s impact has to be seen against the backdrop of the bloc’s preexisting issues, including migration crises, poverty, socio-economic and gender inequality, and labour precarity. In the face of the virus, the regional level provides a fruitful space for IGOs in Latin America to use existing strategic alliances to mitigate the outbreak and its aggravating effects on existing precarities. However, there are concerns about if and how regional efforts can complement national and international efforts, and the response efforts from IGOs in Latin America is hampered by rivalries amongst some member states.
Organisation of American States and the Joint Summit Working Group
As COVID-19 reached the region at the end of February 2020, multiple responses emerged from various Latin American IGOs. The Organisation of American States (OAS) has an extensive reach in the region. It is comprised of 35 states, meaning it is currently the largest regional body capable of bringing together Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States, and it coordinates closely with international and inter-American institutions. This coordination across institutions is embodied by the Joint Summit Working Group (JSWG), a group of thirteen inter-American and international institutions, including the OAS and the PAHO, which was created in 2001 to involve multiple institutions in the Summits of the Americas. The JSWG plays a substantial role in coordinating the organisation and agenda of these summits, as well as in coordinating the implementation and follow-up of summit mandates by providing technical guidance and assistance to member states in the negotiation of issues.
In response to the coronavirus the JSWG held a virtual meeting on April 3rd. During this summit, the institutions focused primarily on the adversary economic effects of the pandemic, as well as the crucial role of PAHO in mitigating the crisis. A broad agenda of support was agreed upon. The agenda includes emergency support; strengthening of health systems; mitigation of economic effects; flexibility in the use of financial resources; support to micro, small and medium enterprises and protection of employment and income; support for populations that are disproportionately affected by the crisis; support to highly indebted low and middle-income countries. During the summit, each institution proposed concrete support actions. For example, PAHO’s regional response strategy includes the publication of epidemic alerts and country updates to member states; the limitation of human-to-human transmission, including the prevention of transmission among health workers; the identification and isolation of patients at an early stage. The Economic Commission or Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) developed an observatory which compiles and makes available both the public policies that the Latin American and Caribbean countries are taking to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) is providing relevant information to its member states on food security, as well as concrete proposals for technical cooperation. The Latin-American Development Bank (CAF) has activated emergency credit lines for member states. On April 9th, multiple regional financial institutions facilitated joint public purchases of materials for member states of the Inter-American Network on Government Procurement, which includes all OAS member states minus Cuba and Venezuela.
It wasn’t until April 16th that the Permanent Council of OAS virtually gathered with member states to address COVID-19. During the meeting there was a collective acknowledgement and identification of various broad needs, but no concrete support actions were taken yet. The Council further agreed to coordinate on information exchange across borders on developments; prevention of and response to gender-based violence; upholding democratic principles and human rights; promoting coordinated interinstitutional responses; supporting national efforts; optimising the use of existing forums, mechanisms and resources. A press release of April 29th communicated JSWG’s ratification of its support, but what this means for concrete implementation efforts is vague. Overall, both JSWG and OAS have adopted agendas to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and are coordinating their efforts.
Regionalism in Latin America is complex, and there are concerns among South American states that the OAS is dominated by the United States. Meanwhile, South America has become the epicentre of the epidemic. In South America, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), founded in 2008, positioned itself to reduce the influence of the OAS in the south by cementing its regional identity and counteracting the United States hegemon. Especially Brazil utilised UNASUR as an arena to assert itself as a regional power, aiming to keep the United States at bay. Worth noting is that UNASUR drove a strong health diplomacy agenda and viewed health as a central part of regional integration. However, after a long-lasting leadership crisis, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru suspended their participation to UNASUR in April 2018, leaving the decade old organisation dysfunctional. For now, the largest IGO in South America is Mercado Común del Sur Common Market of the South (Mercosur). It was created in 1991 and has traditionally focused on trade liberalisation. A post-liberal and post-hegemonic political transformation in the bloc at the start of the 21st century, specifically in South America, shifted Mercosur’s agenda toward more social, development and political issues.
In response to COVID-19, Mercosur reacted swiftly. The organisation facilitated coordination among its member states, provided limited resources, and sought to highlight the broader impacts of COVID-19. The organisation reached its first formal declaration on March 17th, which instructed the member states to eliminate obstacles that hinder the circulation of goods and services; to speed up transport channels for essential goods; facilitate repatriation; and to evaluate the possibility of lowering tariffs on goods destined for disease prevention and health care. On April 3rd, Mercosur issued a press release that it had approved a security fund of US $16 million, financed by the Mercosur Structural Convergence Fund (FOCEM), destined for the project “Research, Education and Biotechnologies applied to Health”. A first batch of US $5.8 million was made available to strengthen the virus’s diagnostic capacity, with the purchase of equipment, supplies, materials to protect operators, and kits for its rapid detection. During a virtual meeting on April 21st, the member states resolved to establish a mechanism for the exchange of information on the commercial measures adopted by the States Parties to confront COVID-19. On May 22nd the Mercosur Institute of Public Policies on Human Rights (IPPDH) invited organisations and social movements to participate in a public consultation of its Social Participation Forum “Protection of women against violence and feminicide, and impact of the crisis of the COVID-19”. On May 28th Mercosur announced it would finance additional diagnostic kits, and on June 5th a virtual meeting was held, during which necessary cooperation between member states and the indispensable role of multilateralism among the countries of the bloc was stressed.
These rhetorical and monetary commitments need to be looked at while taking into consideration structural issues and the political will of Mercosur’s individual member states. The deepening of the ideological and political split between the president of Mercosur’s largest economies, Brazilian President Bolsonaro and Argentinian President Fernandez, causes deadlocks in regional cooperation efforts. President Bolsonaro envisions a return to free trade agreements, and has been pressing President Fernandez to accelerate these agreements since mid 2019. Following a virtual meeting on April 24th between the National Coordinators of Mercosur on foreign affairs, the Argentine government communicated in a press release that it wishes to suspend its participation in the various processes of external relations that Mercosur currently negotiates, especially due to the international insecurity as a result of the coronavirus. The press release ends with the comment that Argentina’s position to not move forward in a process of trade negotiations does not arise from a whim, but from a vision on how to strengthen the relations with the nations of the regional bloc. Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro and President Trump of the United States are strengthening bilateral ties between Brazil and the United States, including laying the foundation for a potential free trade agreement, which will inevitably affect Mercosur as a regional mechanism. This not only reveals the divergence in ideological positions between Brazil and Argentina on trade and commerce, but also potential future fissures in the region and the regional institution.
Splits within the region are further exemplified by both leaders’ different responses to the health realities in their respective countries. While President Fernandez swiftly implemented a lockdown, President Bolsonaro adopted a dismissive attitude toward the coronavirus, which is now reflected in the pandemic figures. Moreover, on May 15th Bolsonaro lost his second health minister in less than a month’s time. In short, the various political objectives spearheaded by the agendas of the two leaders obstructs a consorted cross-border effort to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. While coordination efforts are there through the regional body of Mercosur, in reality we see that states rely on their own domestic policies and reasoning. This makes regional mitigation measures very challenging.
The COVID-19 crisis furthermore highlights questions on how organisations with overlapping memberships in the region potentially create overlap in action, and whether they will work together or not. Indeed, member states of Mercosur are as well members of OAS. However, for now there has not been any coordination between the two organisations regarding the pandemic, and both respond to the crisis with separate efforts. On April 20th the General Secretariat of OAS published a document of its integrated response in support of the member states. In the document, the Office of the Assistant Secretary General of the Executive Secretariat for Integral Development recognises the need to cooperate with other IGOs in the Americas to expand cooperation. A tactical move to ensure complementarity and to forego the duplication of efforts. However, strikingly so, these merely include organisations in the Caribbean region, such as Central American Integration System (SICA), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), all of whose member states are also members of OAS. 7 IGOs from South America, such as Mercosur, are not part of these joint efforts. This leaves us with many questions on the dynamics and effectiveness of collaboration amongst IGOs with overlapping member states. What are the consequences for member states of IGOs not included in hemispheric plans spearheaded by the OAS and JSWG? More generally, is there a degree of rivalry or of complementarity among organisations with similar agendas when facing cross-border security threats? And in the case of conflicting agendas, how does this affect the commitments and actions of states that hold overlapping memberships? For now, however, it is clear that the COVID-19 crisis exposes the fragilities embodied by the mosaic of multiple regional initiatives in Latin America. This jeopardises opportunities for cooperation in times of cross-border crises, when a unified regional response is required.
About this Project
This piece is part of a larger project funded by the University of Edinburgh College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Science to map and analyse the responses of regional and sub-regional organisations to Covid-19 in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A series of blog posts detailing organisational responses is the first output, and the project will feed into other collaborative projects. It will also produce in-depth pieces to answer the more complex questions around the impact of regional and sub-regional efforts to combat this pandemic and the possibly long-term effects of the Covid-19 crisis on organisational priorities and practices.
View all PSRP Covid-19 research.
 For a succinct historical overview of regionalism in Latin America, note Bianculli, Andrea C. 2016. Latin America, in T. A. Börzel and T. Risse (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 154-177.
 Quiliconi, Cintia & Salgado Espinoza, Raul. 2017. Latin American Integration: Regionalism à la Carte in a Multipolar World? Colombia Internacional, 92: 20-1.
 For further information on socio-economic impacts and governmental responses, see: OECD. (2020, May) ‘OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19). COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: An overview of government responses to the crises.’ Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean-an-overview-of-government-responses-to-the-crisis-0a2dee41/#section-d1e682
 Quiliconi, Cintia & Salgado Espinoza, Raul. Latin American Integration: Regionalism à la Carte in a Multipolar World? Colombia Internacional, 92: 30-1.
 Riggirozzi, Pia. 2015. Regionalism, activism, and rights: New opportunities for health diplomacy in South America. Review in International Studies, 41(2): 407–428.
 OAS. (2020, April, 20). GTCC/INF 29: RESPUESTA INTEGRADA DE LA SECRETARÍA GENERAL DE LA OEA ANTE EL COVID-19 DESDE SUS CUATRO PILARES EN APOYO A LOS ESTADOS MIEMBROS. This document can be found in the OAS database: https://www.oas.org/ext/en/tools/Document-Search
7 While CELAC, Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, is included in efforts by OAS to coordinate with sub regional organisations, CELAC does not fulfil the requirements for being an international organisation. In fact, CELAC can be regarded as a non-institutionalised consultation mechanism, as it does not ask member states to cede any of their sovereignty, nor does it count on any constitutive treaty (Quiliconi and Salgado Espinoza 2016, 22).
Image: Carl Campbell via Flickr CC BY 2.0