What is Latin America and where is it heading?

When reference is made to Latin America, what does it mean?

What is Latin America?
Yves Hayaux du Tilly
On 26 February 2013 12:44

In his Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting, James Barret Reston said that “The people of the United States will do anything for Latin America, except read about it.”

This affirmation not only continues to apply to the United States of America, but also to other countries, partly because of a lack of interest, and also partly because those who are interested in this fascinating region do not have sufficient material to learn more about it.

This region that we refer to as Latin America can consist of all countries located in the American continent, except Canada and the United States.

From a geographic standpoint, we are referring to parts of the American continent that are separated without a geographic rationale or consideration.

From an historical point of view, the American continent is comprised of multiple and very diverse cultures, including, among many within America, the Apache, Aztecs, Chichimecas, Cibchas, Diaguita, Guarani, Mapuches, Mayas, Quechuas, and Incas to name just a few from hundreds of groups and cultures.

But the external events originated by the Spanish conquest have been the ones used to differentiate the Anglo or ‘Saxon America’ and the Hispanic America. The term 'Latin America' can therefore be used to label those countries in the American continent whose inhabitants speak a Romance language (languages derived from Latin), including Mexico in North America, those in Central America, some islands in the Caribbean, and those in South America.

The origin of the term has a strong political motivation, since it allowed extending the French, and to a lesser extent Italian, influence in a region whose links were at the time limited to Spain and Portugal. Curiously enough, it was intellectuals from this region that coined and used the term, with the obvious French support, to also achieve a measure of distance from Spain and Portugal and to cease the use of the term ‘Hispanoamerica’.

But political organisations or economic divisions that include Latin America, also generally include the Caribbean as a separate region and therefore muddy the waters more. The most important are the Latin American and the Caribbean Group (GRULAC), formed by the United Nations and composed of 33 members, and the division made by the World Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean for analysis purposes – a region composed of 21 countries.

It is also worth noting the CAF – Banco de Fomento Latinoamericano – a development bank established in 1970 and formed by 18 countries of Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal from Europe, and 14 private banks from the Andean region to promote sustainable development and provide technical and financial assistance for private and public projects in Latin America.

As we see then, what is referred to as Latin America has different meanings, depending on considerations varying case by case. It is difficult in that respect to pin down a clear, homogeneous region within the Americas.

The same occurs when viewing the region through the paradigm of free trade and commerce, and efforts at economic integration. There are various agreements forming economic blocks but it has not yet been possible to form an American free zone, per se, such as the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas, or Area de Libre Comercio de las Americas).

Various multilateral efforts have been made; the Caribbean islands have created the Caribbean Community (CARICOM); Canada, Mexico and the United States of America formed NAFTA; Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the United States of America created DR - CAFTA; further south, Mercosur gathers Argentina, Bolivia (currently in the adhesion process), Brazil, Paraguay (currently suspended), Uruguay and Venezuela; the Andean Community includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; and a new initiative, the Pacific Alliance, bands together Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru and intends to lead further regional integration in America.

Despite the fact that commitments had been made to conclude negotiations over an FTAA by 2005, there are currently no meetings scheduled to further discuss the initiative and its future.

So now what? Since the possibility of agreeing on further integration and free trade within the region seems unlikely – now more than ever with certain countries adopting protectionist measures – it seems that those countries that are committed to free trade will cease to make efforts on a wide scale and will instead focus on constructive bilateral – and likely fruitful – negotiations with countries with similar visions and policies vis-à-vis trade and investment.

That is why Chile, Peru and Mexico (and very likely Colombia) are now finalising discussions on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement to enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries (including Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States), promote innovation, economic growth and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs.

Might it be the case that the 21st century has superseded the conception that free trade was circumvented by geographic boundaries?

Proposed new free trade initiatives, between the European Union and the United States, for example, seem to indicate that now, more than ever, it is more important to join forces with those with common goals and objectives, despite their geographic location, than convince neighbors on fundamental aspects and benefits of free trade and investment.

If that is the case, it would indicate another period of shifting definition for 'Latin America'.

Yves Hayaux du Tilly is a lawyer and foreign affairs analyst

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