Legislators and foreign policy in Latin America – an interview with Asbel Bohigues and José Manuel Rivas, by Victor Thives

Free trade agreements and regional alliances are no novelty in Latin America. Nonetheless, scholarly works haven’t thoroughly analyzed the role played by and, for that matter, the world views of the ones who have the last say in deciding whether foreign policy instruments will be implemented: legislators. In an effort to narrow that gap, Asbel Bohigues and José Manuel Rivas, from the University of Salamanca, have analyzed the determinants of support, by Latin American legislators, for free trade agreements with the United States and with the European Union, and for the Pacific Alliance and ALBA. The results of their research are exposed in the article Free Trade Agreements and regional alliances: support from Latin America legislators, published in RBPI (V. 62, n. 1 – 2019).

Stemming from the Latin American Elites Database from the University of Salamanca (PELA-USAL), which congregates interviews with Latin American legislators on topics such as democracy, economy and IR, the authors query what are the legislators’ level of support for certain foreign policy instruments, as well as what is the reasoning underpinning their decisions. Their study comprises all Latin American states on which information has been made available, namely: Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Among other things, their findings demonstrate that, within Latin American countries, there’s no consensus on foreign policy, and that the international positions of a country depend on what party controls the legislative branch. Asbel Bohigues and José Manuel Rivas were interviewed by Victor Thives, member of the editorial team of RBPI, regarding their views on topics related to their research.

Although Brazil was not amongst the countries contemplated by the database employed by your research, how can your article’s theoretical framework and findings shed light on the way Brazil’s 2018 legislative elections – which brought about significant change in Parliament – may influence the country’s foreign policy instruments?

In the article we find ideology is a strong predictor of support for FPIs, such as free trade agreements and regional alliances. Thus, one of the conclusions is that foreign policy does not generate consensus among Latin American political elites, and therefore changes in the ideological correlation of forces will probably mean deep changes in the international relations of the country.

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Asbel Bohigues

In view of the results of the last Brazilian elections, and even statements by president Bolsonaro, we might expect a closer position to the open integration axis, so far represented by the Pacific Alliance and the US; see Mercosur for instance. With the PT in power, first with Lula da Silva and later with Dilma Rousseff, Brazil was closer, although not integrated, to leftist and revisionist projects.

Nevertheless, we both think Brazil is a power whose role in Latin America, and the world too, is worthy of separate analysis in such matters.

When examining the literature, your article finds three different stages of regional integration in Latin America: the first (1950-1980), inspired by Developmentalist and Dependence Theory; the second (1980-2005), called open regionalism, emphasized trade openness, economic liberalization, and negotiation of free trade agreements; and the third (2005-), known as post-neoliberal regionalism, characterized by reaffirmation of the state’s relevance, and by focusing the integration agenda on political and social aims, instead of free trade and foreign investment. With the political shifts the region has recently experienced, has not a new stage of integration been set? If so, would it be the return of something similar to the second stage, i.e., open regionalism?

One would think that the Left turn in the region is linked to the post-neoliberal regionalism, and with the so-called Right turn, and Bolsonaro in Brazil is one of the most prominent examples, we are coming back to the open regionalism. Nonetheless, in politics and especially International Relations, countries do not go back to past models, but reinterpret new ones. Take for example the Socialism of the 21st century. As its own very name makes clear it is directly linked to Socialism (of the 20th century), but updated and adapted.

It is soon to qualify what comes after the post-neoliberal regionalism. Evidence so far suggests a model based on the core ideas of the open regionalism “seasoned” with nationalism with no references to Latin America, and reluctances to multilateralism and South-South relations.

In your article’s framework, Brazil is set in the revisionist axis, i.e., “countries [with] nationalist governments that promote a productive regionalism model and look for integration compatible with a reaffirmation of national sovereignty”. You note, though, that Dilma Rousseff’s administration sought strengthening its relations with the US, and that this turn was accentuated during Michel Temer’s presidency. With the election of President Bolsonaro, has Brazil left the revisionist axis altogether?

As we conclude in the paper, countries may move from one axis to another given the lack of consensus on foreign policy among legislators. This meaning a change in the correlation of forces in one country will probably mean different International Relations and FPIs. In this case, it might be more appropriate to state that governments and not countries belong to axes.

Still, Brazil poses an interesting case because although some countries have been through radical changes in their international projection especially in recent years, this country has remained in the revisionist axis for long. The presidency of Bolsonaro is a test for the consistency of this tradition. However, the new president and the new legislative majority have still four years, meaning if Brazil completely leaves the revisionist axis is something to be tested in the decisions and behavior of the new actors in the international arena in upcoming years.

Contrary to popular belief, your findings show that the better Latin legislators see China, the more inclined they are to trade with the US and with the EU. The same is not true with Russia: the more supportive of the Russian government legislators are, the fewer the chances they might strike a FTA with the US and with the UE. How do you account for that Chinese political “neutrality”, when, in actuality, both China and Russia are geopolitical rivals of the US and, to a lesser extent, of the EU?

No doubt, both China and Russia are geopolitical rivals of the US and the EU, particularly in Latin America. The key point is that from the point of view of elites, the former is a complementary partner, while the latter is not.

Russia, the USSR indeed, has been present in the region for many years, clearly since the end of WWII and throughout the Cold War. It came to the region with an explicit ideological and geopolitical purpose, and had links and good relations with most of the socialist and communist parties; not to mention the USSR-Cuba relations. For some, USSR was the model, for others was the model to avoid. The same can be said for the case of the US.

China’s involvement in the region is rather recent. Besides, this involvement is not explicitly ideological but economic, directly associated to FDI, infrastructure, and a huge market where to export commodities. Still, leftists see China as a communist partner, and are eager to support any rival to the US in the region. Rightists see China just a complementary capitalist partner, a huge market to export/import goods.

Put it simple, Russia is an old friend/adversary, whereas China is a new friend/adversary. The background and history of these two countries explains the different effects on attitudes of elites. Russia/USSR is the traditional rival of the US (and EU to a much lesser extent), and both countries, along with the antagonist models they represent, already have had manifest supporters and detractors after many years of presence. More interestingly, our findings suggest this situation has not changed at all with the modern Russia. That would be the reason behind the negative association we identify in elites’ attitudes.

China is not an established actor in the region with past actions that may condition attitudes toward it; thus elites perceive it as a complementary partner to other countries. China in Latin America, at least so far, evokes investment and trade, without ideological commitments. According to political elites’ opinions, this would not be a stark different option from what the US has been or has pretended to be.

Read the article

Bohigues, Asbel, & Rivas, José Manuel. (2019). Free trade agreements and regional alliances: support from Latin American legislators. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 62(1), e001. Epub March 14, 2019.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201900101

About the authors

Asbel Bohigues – University of Salamanca – Area of Political Science and Administration. Salamanca, Spain (asbogar@usal.es)

José Manuel Rivas – University of Salamanca – Area of Political Science and Administration. Salamanca, Spain (jmrivas@usal.es)

Victor Thives – University of Brasilia – Institute of International Relations. Brasília, Brazil (ts.victor@icloud.com)

How to cite this interview

Mundorama. "Legislators and foreign policy in Latin America – an interview with Asbel Bohigues and José Manuel Rivas, by Victor Thives". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 21/09/2019]. Disponível em: <http://www.mundorama.net/?p=25527>.

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