Author: Orazio Maria Gnerre
With the rise to power of President Bolsonaro in Brazil, there is often talk about the granting of military bases to the United States army on the soil of the South American country, and possible concertation between the two states in war and strategic affairs. The dream of a united Latin America, which was interpreted at the beginning of the 21st century above all on the economic level, thanks to institutions such as MERCOSUR, has however strong political implications. The rift that seems to open up in Latin America between very different integrative tendencies, such as in the function of an autonomy from North America, such as with it, is likely to redesign the political scenario for the years to come. The main carrier of a possible pan-American integration with the United States seems to be, therefore, a strategic and military one. There is no doubt, however, that whatever the future developments will be, either one way or another, they will focus on the development of a supranational dimension.
As we know, Brazil has always been one of the leading countries in the process of political integration and unification of Latin America. Its history, its extension and its economic capacity are one of the reasons why it has always been a very important element within the regional scenario. Its effect, in this sense, is also evidenced by the existence in the 19th century of the Empire of Brazil, which then also included Uruguay. The nature of Brazil, which covers a large part of the continent, is that of a large state — not by chance federal — projected like all the great contemporary states towards the future of large political and spatial aggregations. Today, states of this type are the USA, the People's Republic of China and Russia, demonstrating the importance of geographical dimensions in this particular historical context in which the globalization of goods, finance and human movements puts sovereignty of the small countries to the test.
Latin America has always had unification as its implicit goal. This was the "big dream" of Simón Bolivar, the necessary outcome of the process of liberating the continent from the European colonial presence. The myth of Bolivarianism has long fueled the political narratives of Latin American countries, and still remains unchanged today in its prominent symbolic significance. To date, it is Venezuela governed by the United Socialist Party to make it a political flag, the same Venezuela that Bolivar was able to consider "a barracks". Specifically, the phrase attributed to el libertador
Bolivar was that "Ecuador is a convent, Colombia is a university and Venezuela is a barracks". This phrase, which reflected the dimension of unity that the commander of the liberation process imagined for Latin America, also stresses another fundamental point concerning the importance of mastering large geopolitical spaces. That is, the diversification of the roles attributed to the controlled regions, for the maintenance of autarky of a super-State.
Of course, in order to guarantee a vast territorial unity, if this has not been conquered with iron and fire, at least a certain cohesion of intent is required given by ideological proximity. This ideological proximity was given, for a certain period of time, by a major political project, launched in 2004, which represented a very important guideline for South American concerted political planning. Here, we are talking about UNASUR, the intergovernmental organization born of twelve South American nations, which joined the already existing MERCOSUR, the common market of Latin America.
The history of these types of unification, or even before that of regional trade, has in many ways been similar to that of the European Union, which has inspired UNASUR. As in Europe, this process began with trade, starting from the coal and steel sectors, to prevent interstate frictions such as those that had led to world conflicts. In Latin America, in the contemporary age, we can also glimpse the process of rapprochement between states in its early stages in projects such as LAFTA, launched in 1960. This project took full advantage of the knowledge developed over the past few decades on the importance of economies of scale, a principle deeply studied in the era of Fordism and which had guided pre-war European conceptualizations on the need for a continental union. Another ancestor of MERCOSUR, contemporary to LAFTA, can be considered the Common Market of Central America. LAFTA subsequently evolved into LAIA, just as the European Coal and Steel Community changed into various subjects before reaching the European Union as we know it.
In this process, which promoted greater political cohesion through the liberation of market forces internal to the continent, as also suggested by the functionalist school for European integration, the pre-eminent role — together with that of Argentina — was that of Brazil. Relations between these two countries have begun to bind even more, as many scholars note, with the common return to democracy. This occurred in a transformed framework of the political models that were being proposed in Latin America, testifying to the importance of the element of cultural proximity and of the aims, if not exactly of ideological coincidence:
"In the first half of the 1980s, the commonality of perceptions in the two countries facilitated dialogue and understanding. These commonalities came from a varied set of political, economic, technological, and security factors, which displayed their effects and consequences on the internal as well as the international plane. In the political sphere, democratic consolidation and relations with the United States were prominent on the agenda. Reacquired democratic status was arguably the most powerful factor of convergence between Argentina and Brazil. […] Increasing competition on the world markets and the decline of the development models adopted under the military administrations provided Argentina and Brazil with additional reasons to look at each other as potentially close partners."
This clearly had as a compensation, in the same period, also certain global economic trends, which corresponded very specifically to those guidelines that established the need for south-south trade in a context of market transformation. This characterized the international scenario for a long time:
"The United States and the European Economic Community (EEC), two traditional markets for Argentine and Brazilian goods, increased protectionism, targeting both agricultural produce and manufactured goods. Furthermore, these industrialized countries accompanied protectionism with export incentives to facilitate national producers' competitiveness in third markets. This situation was a stimulus to forms of South-South cooperation in two ways. First, the search for new markets reinforced the Latin American orientation of Argentina and Brazil and induced them to look at each other's market. Second, suffering from the same setbacks and complications in the world trade, the two countries coalesced in defence of their common interests within multilateral economic arenas."
These trends were clearly consolidated with a changed system of international relations set by the end of the bipolar opposition between the US and the USSR, but the prodromes were clearly antecedent and could also be traced in the economic level. However, even the experience that Latin America had of the Cold War was reflected in the search for a common paradigm for a new world phase. These thrusts could not fail to be influential in the approach of regional state institutions. A whole series of pieces were forming in a framework that led, in the 21st century, to the founding of UNASUR. This framework is that of the BRICS project, which, from a meeting table between emerging economies, has been able to propose its own precise idea of coexistence and political concertation. This line also ran counter to the development model hypothesized by the West after the end of the Cold War, setting new working hypotheses. Once again, the economic structural outline and ideological synthesis met.
"Given that economic growth rates among emerging powers (principally China) have been consistently higher than those in the core over the past decade, it seems that we are witnessing a process of deconcentration of economic power. Applying this analysis to the BRICS, it is telling that what contributed to the success of the first meetings is a common discontent with the distribution of institutional power in the international system and interest in changing it and solving the "mismatch" between the distribution of institutional power and the distribution of actual power. The desire to revise the current distribution of power has thus been one of the powerful shapers of the BRICS identity and a key motivation for the grouping's creation."
Within this conceptual culture broth, a renewed interest in regional integrations has developed, following a first genetic phase (the Bolivarian one), a second in the second post-war period and a third due to changes in the economic paradigms of the eighties. To date, we are still in this phase in the face of a whole series of needs that are imposed by globalization and at the same time by new technologies.
UNASUR was the result of this type of approach, adding a fundamental political determinant to an area of economic exchange that seemed — at that point — to be no longer enough. One of the reasons for its genesis is indeed to be found in the fact that «China, India and other emerging economies are making profound changes in the international economic scenario, opening up new sources of development and opportunities for the countries of Latin America».
The countries that took part in this project were united by this neo-democratic, continentalist and counter-hegemonic dimension while being in opposition to the previous world para-subordination arrangements. From this came a solid relationship of collaboration. To better specify the mechanics of this type of aggregation we can think, for example, of ALBA, another body which on the one hand aims to bring together the socialist and social-democratic countries of Latin America. Its political neighbourhoods are self-evident, on the other proceeds to greater integration with UNASUR for the guiding principles previously stated.
"ALBA and Unasur have added a new dimension to South-South cooperation and post-hegemonic regionalism via the creation of stable channels for social movement participation in regionalism, alternative media outlets, anti-corporate development enterprises and autonomous pharmaceutical industries, development banks, and a mechanism of asymmetric military cooperation."
Clearly, this type of collaboration in order to move towards integration must also and above all consider the military dimension. This is favoured by the fact that Brazil is «the only major arms producer and exporter in Latin America [and therefore promoted] the development of its military industry, and greater cooperation and integration of companies in the sector throughout the region». In this regard, the South American Defense Council was designed. This body, which currently has a consultative value, was born under the tutelary deities of Brazil and Venezuela in 2008, and its purpose was — in addition to the exchange of information and consultations in the defence field — to create joint commands, on the model of what NATO is in Western Europe. Not surprisingly, this project has also been named South American NATO
«The Brazilian initiative and the [...] creation of this South American Defense Council cannot be released from the proposal made by President Chavez in 2003 to create a South Atlantic Treaty Organization (OTAS) or "South American NATO", or to establish a military alliance based on ALBA [...]. Again, the initiatives of the South American Security Council seem to confirm the strategy followed by this country with relations with Venezuela, "regionalizing" and "South Americanizing" the proposals of President Chavez. That is, by bringing it back to forms that are compatible with Brazil's regional leadership strategy and promoting viable consensus by incorporating the interests of other countries, and by limiting the most radical edges of Chavismo. This also allows to achieve two objectives of Brazil which in another form would be incompatible: on the one hand, gradually remove the political and military influence of the United States in the region, and maintain cordial relations with the superpower, placing Brazil, as "moderate country", in the position of a mediator and preferential interlocutor for the external actors of the region.»
Moreover, this structure is located on a line of continuity with respect to the long process of South American integration. It has, as an ancestor the Congress of Panama of 1826 and, among other things, aims to organize a regional army of 60 000 people. However, if «from a geopolitical-economy perspective, defence and military cooperation is the sine qua non of multi-polarization», it must be said that this process of multi-polarization, which is taking place in these post-Cold War decades, is not entirely clear or unambiguous. Given that it would be correct to identify the current phase as a polycentric
moment, in which the structures are being redefined in the light of a change in the power relations, it is, therefore, necessary to realize two very important elements. These elements allow us to understand the present with appropriate tools: the first is that, in this phase, it is not possible to compete or at least survive without the political and economic disposition of vast territorial spaces; the second is that the lines of demarcation are not as clear as many exponents of purely theoretical geopolitics based on ethnological or cultural aspects want us to believe. Add to this how several different narratives can be conflicting in relation to these phenomena.
We talked previously about Bolivar's dream, but this was not the only Pan-American unification project. Another direction, set by the United States of America on other bases, was that of the Monroe Doctrine. The latter envisaged not so much a federal unity of American states (on the model of what had been created by the Founding Fathers in North America itself), as the idea that the affairs of the western hemisphere were the affairs of the US. His motto was "America to Americans", and it was a way of excluding the powers of the Old Continent from that geographical space.
This concept, according to which there existed a western hemisphere which represented an area in itself with respect to Europe, in its essential foundation was no different from Bolivar's ideas. American republicanism (northern and southern) was often born on very similar cultural grounds and did not make a Simón Bolivar very different from a George Washington. Clearly, it was the historical turn dictated by some structures of the economy and the power relations that profoundly changed the aspect of the matter, in a century that produced, among other things, redistributions of power within North America, as evidenced by the Civil War. On the other hand, the other side of the Monroe Doctrine was the so-called "gunboat policy". This policy allowed North America to guarantee its interests by ingesting in the internal politics of Latin American countries through the use of coastal bombing.
All things considered, it is clear that the organization of differences through structures such as UNASUR, with its necessary military sector of the South American Security Council, is one of the folds that international politics could have taken, but not the only one. Still, it is the only one that has been investigated and attempted with some consistency so far.
To reorganize integrative projects of any kind, on any organizational basis, which is not UNASUR, however, it is clear that a different ideological discourse becomes necessary that can guarantee certain credibility for its purposes, or at least counterbalance the previous discourse. An image seems to have re-emerged in the last period, without having perfectly organized itself into a coherent discourse. This is due to the change in political orientation that many Latin American countries have experienced in the latter period.
If the forces that guided the integrative process were basically of a so-called "progressive" extraction, ranging from social democracy to Bolivarian nationalism, to indigenous socialism, a whole series of profound political changes brought to power heterogeneous political forces. However, these tend to be positioned on the right-wing. This is clearly an extremely reductionist description, which uses categories (such as right and left) whose sense in many ways is running out, as well as many issues (nationalism is one of them), are widely transversal in the political discourse of opposite fronts, although of course, they decline it differently. In addition, where some of these groups came to power through the representative democratic process, others — as in Bolivia — have obtained the levers of command in an unorthodox manner.
Nonetheless, these new command groups are demonstrating that they are pursuing other projects than those brought into play by previous administrations. Once again, the leading country for this transformation is Brazil. With the election of its new president, Jair Bolsonaro, many elements previously taken for granted in the country and in Latin America have been called into question.
Jair Bolsonaro was trained in the ranks of the army, and for this very reason, he understands how the military element can be, under certain conditions, an important driver of politics. Especially if, as mentioned in the lines above, this serves as the engine of the approach and integration processes. Bolsonaro, who previously distinguished himself for political campaigns marked by the opposition to the privatizations of sectors of the public economy, simultaneously transformed his political-economic ideas for the benefit of a neoliberal line in open conflict with the model of the previous governments of the Labor Party. It is implicit how certain economic schemes correspond to as many geopolitical positions, given the stormy past of the region during the Cold War, including guerrillas, coups, attempts at external interference such as Operation Condor.
If the intent of UNASUR was to fundamentally counter-hegemonic with respect to a certain type of dominance that the United States could exercise in the region, the intentions of the new South American governments seem to be different.
It is necessary to understand the reasons why Bolsonaro believes it is essential for Brazil, at this historical moment, to leave UNASUR, despite the country being the most important pivot of both the regional integration process and inter-state cooperation, thanks to its history and its specific weight. The path of UNASUR, which Bolsonaro has scaled down to an invention by Hugo Chavez, without clearly considering neither the role played by Brazil and Argentina within it nor the long previous integrative history, at the moment it is indeed in strong crisis. In 2019, in fact, under the aegis of Chile and Colombia, the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America, abbreviated as Prosur, was born. The latter, which was born in open competition with the institutions of UNASUR, adopts the cardinal principles of the free market and "liberal democracy". A slogan that even President Bolsonaro has rediscovered.
This rearrangement, however, is not only represented by Prosur, to which Brazil has not yet officially adhered: this arrangement has another face and itis not merely diplomatic. Jair Bolsonaro has, in fact, proposed an unusual and unexpected work hypothesis in the military. In a 2019 interview with STB, the President of Brazil said very clearly that he was interested in providing military bases to the United States of America, in relation to the new Brazilian primacy policy in Latin America and the fact that — apparently — the United States is developing the plan to position itself in more strategic points on the continent. For its part, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated how Brazil and other South American countries should join this alliance.
"Trump and the new Brazilian president went along very well when they first met in Washington, Bolsonaro repeating his offer for a strategic partnership with the US, Trump speaking about the advantages of Brazil joining NATO. […] An association of the country to NATO […] is an intriguing thought — and raises the question what could, or should, be done in this respect with Australia, New Zealand, or Japan."
In addition to having very important implications in the context of international relations, the possibility of extending NATO membership outside European borders, or that of being able to collaborate in providing the availability of one's own national territory, has a clear weight on the South American dimension. In a time of structural crisis of UNASUR, which was supported by more or less solid alliances and renewed military and strategic collaboration projects, an important alternative proposed by Brazil, with the support of the United States, could change the game. Specifically, the case of the European Union must once again be taken as an example. The latter institution owes much of its solidity to participation in NATO, which constituted its military backbone in the absence of a real European army. Moreover, this army never existed due to the absence of a clear political dimension, on the contrary to the level of free trade, that of freedom of movement, and precisely that of participation in NATO.
Jair Bolsonaro's vision in this sense seems more realistic than that of countries that simply want to join in the name of the "free market". If this project was to be continued, it certainly could guarantee the basis for a reformulation of some of the fundamental rules of MERCOSUR, and certainly, generate a change of specific weight of the regional actors within this group. Nonetheless, it is important to understand how Bolsonaro's hypothesis of collaboration with NATO, in whatever capacity it takes place, will certainly give greater weight to his country than to others in Latin America, precisely in the function of the role of geographical pre-eminence that Brazil plays always. This decision, which Bolsonaro consciously embraces in the intention of guaranteeing the primacy of Brazil, is, however, made in the specific perspective of the integrative need. A need which, even if we want to speak in terms of mere national interest, represents immediate outlets for Brazil on the internal markets of the region, the possibility of obtaining supplies favourably on the basis of the principle of comparative advantage, and undisputed recognition of a political primacy. For the United States, on the other hand, all this implies not only securing, in a rapidly changing world, very important assets, but also barricading itself once again behind the Atlantic Sea, and this time also behind the Pacific, in a revival for the 21st century of the Monroe Doctrine.
This epoch is ambivalent for the nation-states: on the one hand, they are largely deprived of their fundamental attributions by ever-increasing masses of power. On the other — if they manage to play their cards well — they are able to take advantage of those great conflicts between powers to obtain benefits that they will be able to maintain for an uncertain period. In this case, however, they exchange some small immediate advantages with longer-term planning, which considers a complete vision of the future and a weighted selection of alliances. This, however, is the case of Brazil, which as a proponent of a federative integration, proceeded to the South-South dialogue. It has tried to take advantage of other regional actors thanks to cooperation with the United States.
In any case, integration remains the future, in view of all the determinants at stake in the present phase of the history of the economy and production structures, as well as society and technical progress. It is only necessary to understand, at this point, which integrative vision — and which political and interest group that supports it — will prevail in Brazil and Latin America.