Alternative Regionalism, competing models in the United States and China approach to Latin America and the Caribbean – Raúl Rodríguez Rodríguez

Raúl Rodríguez Rodríguez

Regionalism is generally accepted as an overarching concept (Nye: 1968), it can refer to, respectively, “the formation of interstate associations or groupings on the basis of regions; and in the doctrinal sense, the advocacy of such formations.” It is the expression of a regional consciousness that develops from a sense of identity in countries situated in geographical proximity, which induces them to cooperate to achieve common goals or to confront political, economic, strategic and other practical problems. It is important to state that the concept of regionalism is broader than regional economic integration.

Regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean

In the evolution of regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean the more recent waves of regionalism have been associated respectively, with structuralist, neoliberal and post-liberal economic and political experiments in the western hemisphere. Structuralist regionalism was inaugurated in the 1950s and somehow survived until the 1970s. Protectionist and industrialising regionalism, which was part of development strategies based on import substitution industrialization was the dominant development model of regional groupings. Examples include Latin American Free Trade association, (Asociación Latinoamericana de Libre comertcio- ALALC) and the Central American Common Market (Mercado Común Centroamericano – MCCA), both formalized in 1960; the Andean Pact or Andean Group, launched in 1969 and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), that evolved from the Caribbean Free TradeAssociation in 1973.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of a second-generation outward-oriented or open regionalism that promoted extensive, unilateral trade liberalization and deregulation of markets for vertical, competition-based insertion of regions into global capitalism (ECLAC: 1994). This new wave was affected by the logic of structural adjustment policies promoted by the international financial institutions (IFIs) under the ‘Washington Consensus’, as it was the lowest common denominator of the neoliberal market reforms that ‘Washington’ could agree were required in Latin America and the Caribbean at the time. The new regionalism would constitute a strategy to improve the international insertion of state and non-state actors, in a world already free from the strategic alignments of bipolarism, and increasingly regionalized and globalized around three dominant economic areas (Europe, North America, and East Asia).

Most first-generation regionalisms were then transformed. The ALALC, in 1980 became the Latin American Integration Association (AsociaciónLatinoamericana de Integración – ALADI); the MCCA, was revived in 1993 via the creation of the System of Central American Integration ( Sistema de la IntegraciónCentroamericana – SICA); the Andean Pact, became the Andean Community (Comunidad Andina) and the Common Market of the South (Mercado del Sur MERCOSUR), by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in 1991.

In the western hemisphere, “open regionalism” had a dominant model of economic integration, the 1993 North America Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, that included Mexico, Canada and The United States. Subsequently, a plan for a Free Trade Area for the Americas was launched at a regional summit in held in Miami in 1994, it was led by the United States and Canada, and it became the most prominent expression of a hemispheric regional economic integration. The project was based on the western hemisphere idea, the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries like Pan Americanism (1889) and its post-second world war institutionalization in the form of the Inter American system in 1948, after the creation of the Organization of American States.

However, a shift to the political left in key south American states contributed to the demise of the U.S. and Canadian plan of an all-encompassing hemispheric free trade area in 1995. Instead, a hub-and-spoke scheme developed in the form of several bilateral Free Trade Agreements of Latin American and Caribbean countries or groupings with the United States and Canada indistinctively.

The outset of the 21st Century saw the emergence of a counter-imperialist post-neoliberal regionalism or alternative regionalism, intellectually drawing from Cuba’s Jose Marti´s Our America and Bolivar´s vision of the La Patria Grande plan for a united South America, distinct from the northern section of the hemisphere. The centrepiece and initial project came to be known as Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de America-ALBA, which was officially launched in 2004.

The Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Agreement (ALBA-TCP in Spanish) is the only regional integration project under construction in Latin America and the Caribbean that not only actively seeks to integrate states in the region, but is a comprehensive and sophisticated project that goes beyond the strictly economic sphere, markets and economic policies. As an organisation, it has developed unity amongst its participants in opposing neoliberal (development) logic. It also seeks to implement an alternative decolonial epistemology to dismantle the colonial matrix. This project advances local and global solidarities and promotes relations based on complementarities, including cooperation in healthcare and education.

ALBA proposes a path to a development project that embodies the spirit of Bandung and principles of South-South Cooperation, thereby opposing the prevailing belief that only (western) knowledge systems lead to economic and social development. ALBA’s theoretical framework establishes an alternative regional development project opposed to the Washington consensus and more explicitly to the ethos of Liberal-Capitalism.

Subsequently, other organisations, emerged as complements of this dynamic regionalism including the South-American Nations Union, (Unión de Naciones Sudamerianas UNASUR 2008) and the Community of Latin American and the Caribbean, ( Comunidad de Estados Latinoamereicanos y caribeños CELAC 2010), the latter is a political consultation mechanism that openly and intentionally did not include Canada or the United States.

The second decade of the current century saw a weakening of those mechanisms due to a visible turn to the right in South America, especially in Brazil and Argentina; also, particularly Ecuador, which left ALBA as a consequence. It was followed by the emptying of institutions such as the South-American Nations Union (Unión de Naciones Sudamericanas -UNASUR ) and the emergence of others like the Lima Group (2017) and the Forum for South-American Progress (Foro para el progreso y la integracion de america del sur -PROSUR ), it demonstrated that, instead of what it may look like, regional integration did not disappear, but it was realigned to the aims and political and ideological positions of the governments as a result of shifts to the right in the political pendulum regionwide.

China and the United States look at Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and China, as the two largest economies in the world, look at Latin America as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century. Latin America and the Caribbean has become another battlefield of strategic competition between the U.S. and China in the last two decades. The initial point of contention is that Latin America and the Caribbean has been defined by the United States as its sphere of influence since 1823. Consequently, the United States actively promotes neoliberal market-oriented regionalism with an emphasis on economic integration based on free trade agreements.

There are two basic takes on China’s growing involvement in Latin America through trade, investments, loans, and infrastructure financing (Peres Milani:2021). This has generated a vast debate about its consequences, both in academic literature and policymaking. Chinese officials are quick to point out that China seeks a relationship that is based on ‘mutual benefits,’ ‘common development,’ and ‘South-South cooperation,’ implying joint gains (Vadell: 2019). Therefore, China-Latin American relations are different from US-Latin American relations because of the following aspects: (1) South-South principles, such as non-involvement in internal affairs of other states and sovereignty and complete equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit, (2) China’s own alternative development model, and (3) the absence of policy conditionality when it comes to investment, loans and development assistance.

China promotes alternatives to the Bretton Woods system, resulting in increased Latin American and Caribbean autonomy without political interference and conditions. Therefore, improving economic relations with China will contribute to Latin American countries’ development and a multipolar world order. This is specifically attractive to countries like Cuba or Venezuela who seek to build alternative political socio-economic models and face United States economic coercive economic measures. Consequently, alternative regionalism, as opposed to United States-led Monroe doctrine-inspired regionalism would lead to increased relations between Latin America and the Caribbean and China.

Others point out and highlight that aspects of China’s relations with Latin America and the Caribbean reproduce of centre-periphery dynamics, given the continuity of Latin America’s global position as an exporter of commodities and an importer of manufacture because (1) an asymmetrical trade relationship that entails new types of dependence for Latin American and Caribbean states, (2) Chinese emphasis on mining, oil extraction, and monoculture farming generates wealth concentration and does not lead to development, (3) Chinese loans are not unconditional and some are linked to the non-recognition of Taiwan.

Given that China does not promote an agenda to change the world, competition with the United States is basically one of an inter-capitalist nature. Also, the prevalence of left-leaning governments as the primary recipients of investments does not imply a Chinese preference to relations with left-leaning regimes; on the contrary, the Asian power has signed free trade deals with Chile (2005), Peru (2008), and Costa Rica (2011). Both assessments of China’s involvement in Latin America and the Caribbean are present in its pragmatic approach. This pragmatism has favoured China’s growing involvement in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Belt and Road initiative has been a key part of China’s foreign policy and has become the People’s Republic’s signature twenty-first-century foreign policy agenda: nineteen Latin American and Caribbean states are part of this initiative already, regardless of political alignment.

In sum, China’s approach to Latin America and the Caribbean approach is guided by geoeconomics rather than by geopolitics (Luttwak: 1990). On the other hand, as the United States approach is chiefly guided by geopolitics, as the northern power sees Latin America as an instrument to expand its model of democracy and market economy. The U.S. ruling elites seem to have no viable approach other than political leverage and the labelling of China as an extra continental threat to their hegemony. The United States also relies on military and security cooperation, the interconnection of corporate elites, media and think tanks and shared western values to consolidate its hegemony in the region. And recently, the Biden administration is considering a U.S.-led competitor for China’s Belt and Road international trade and public works program in several countries in Latin America, mostly for political allies and surrogates for Washington’s hegemonic designs in the region.


ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) (1994) ‘Open Regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean: Economic Integration as a Contribution to Changing Production Patterns with Social Equity’, available at

Nye Joseph (1968), International Regionalism; Readings, – Little Brown and Company, Boston. Luttwak , Edward (1990), “From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics: Logic of Conflict, Grammar of Commerce”, National Interest 20, p. 18.

Peres Milani, Lívia, China-Latin America Cooperation: An Alternative for Autonomy and Development? April 2021.

Vadell, J. A. (2019) ‘China in Latin America: South-South Cooperation with Chinese Characteristics’, Latin American Perspectives, 46(2), pp. 107–125.

Xing, L. and Shaw, T. M. (2013) ‘The political economy of state capitalism’, Journal of China and International Relations pp.88–113.

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