The Subnational Channels of Latin America’s Integration: An Opportunity to Go Beyond National Linkages

Joaquin Gomez Amato

The last meeting for the 30th anniversary of Mercosur has exemplified the responses of the presidents of Uruguay and Argentina, specifically calling Argentina a ballast for the regional integration bloc, which reflects the abrupt changes within the international political economy and the adjustments in the export profiles of many countries.

There are multiple plausible explanations for why the National Uruguay Government said what it said, but it is also very important to abstract ourselves from the conjectural and move to a much more structural and historical plane that allows us to identify what changes have occurred within South America as well as its relationship with the world. For this reason, this article seeks to explore, in a context of growing internal tensions in each country and therefore of an increasingly rigid and less pragmatic relationship between countries, the possibility of thinking of another form of relationship that goes beyond state-centrism and begins to analyze a new political economy between the provinces of the different National States. 


Source: Chatham House

Since the End of the Cold War, the globalization process has experimented with an extraordinary change in how the global economy is organized today. There have been considerable structural changes in relation to a strong expansion of the agenda and non-state actors, as well as a growing multidimensional interdependence that has strong economic and political consequences. In fact, the current international system and the main international dynamics have gradually increased its complexity and disorder in the face of the existence of multiple agendas, actors and global alliances, processes of (inter)regional and global integration, as well as the economic-political consequences of the present vertiginous process of change.

In this manner, globalization does not “pre-establish[] a hierarchy between the actors of international policy and emphasis great attention to the role of the extended variety of non-state actors “ (Legler 2005, 255). This would be useful to rethink how the private sector, non-governmental organizations, philanthropic organizations, provincial and municipal actors, social organizations, unions, and global movements interact among them. 

Within Latin America, this global process and the resulting opportunities and challenges should be carefully analyzed. Nowadays there are different political systems and dynamics that are critical to understanding its function in light of new forms of interactions between countries, provinces, and non-state actors. For example, Argentina and Brazil both have a federal system whose main character is the decentralization and political capital to take important decisions in health, education, and economic spheres. As a result, the political-economic dynamic is more complicated and different than in unitary countries such as Chile and Uruguay.

This dynamic generates the proliferation of multiple actors (provinces, local political actors, and specific strategical regions with important economic horizons) with concrete political goals. The multiplication of subnational, national, and global actors reflects the multilevel governance where the National-State is not a monolithic and unique actor. In the short term, within each state, there is a complex range of actors that constantly push for their local and foreign public policy interests. The Nation States do not have a univocal national interest, but each foreign policy project is dared by a set of resistances and power relations that are important to analyze and identify at the same time what margins of maneuver can be achieved in order to improve the results of the Latin American integration processes.


Source: Fonplata

The entrance of the 21st century has entailed a deep reconfiguration of the traditional economic alliances and patterns that offer constant political pendulums to different national ways of “doing politics.” If we want to understand the internal tensions within the MERCOSUR bloc, as well as the instances of dialogue that exceed the bloc but that are an important and structuring part of Latin American political-diplomatic relations, it is central to observe that there are important changes in the global economic structure given the change in the profiles exporters of the countries of the region. The rising of China and its presence in critical and strategic sectors (Infrastructure and energy sector), but also its growing demand for our export basket, means that there is a significant shift in the preferences of decision-makers towards China and Southwest Asia. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity,

if we took the most relevant economies in the region – Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – the increase in the relative weight of Chinese exports and imports is unbelievable.

A comparison of Brazil’s imports and exports ( 2000-2020). Source: Economic Complexity Observatory
A comparison of Argentina’s imports and exports (2000 vs 2020 ) Source: Economic Complexity Observatory

A second consequence, in light of the national political will to redefine the international insertion profiles of the regional blocs, for example, MERCOSUR, is the revisionist position of many of the national decision-makers. Change and evolution are two key characteristics that any regional integration process must have if the latter is to last over time. However, political/bureaucratic rigidity, as well as political inaction, consolidate a political climate that promotes regional disintegration.

In fact, during the last twenty years, it has been a proliferation and overlap of formal multilateral blocs (MERCOSUR, CELAC, Pacific Alliance, ONASUR) and informal forums and mechanisms of political discussion (ALBA, PRO SUR, PARLASUR, LIMA GROUP, etc.) that seeks to overcome these problems. The immediate result was even more inflation of instances of dialogue but without dialogue or political will and the difficulty to build state policies that transcend electoral political cycles. In international terms, these tensions rise the asymmetry between great and middle state powers. 

As a result of this doubled process, Latin America faces severe problems with national political coordination. However, South-South cooperation is possible if we go on the basis of subnational and micro-level negotiations and understanding of common interest than grandiloquent and national negotiations in a context of political tension between national authorities.


The purpose of this analysis is exploratory due to it seeks to identify strategic and economic spaces of regional-multilevel public politics to overcome country-country tensions and generate positive synergies.

The current international system is strongly debating the necessary paths that need to be taken to undertake socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable growth paths. Nowadays Latin America has a critical window of opportunity to join the new global green value chains that will begin to emerge. For example, in Argentina, the subnational states (provinces) have strong connections with important multinational corporations and nation-states and there are attempts to design some national-locals alliances with specific goals such as it is the green transition and the potential of renewable energies (INVAP, CENNIA, Consortium for the Development of the Hydrogen Economy in Argentina – H2ar). The South-South Cooperation should be understood as a regional policy that complements the current existing north-south policies, but which makes it possible to create certain enclaves of regional autonomy so that later it will have a greater weight in negotiation.

This local initiative could have an encouraging political and economic roadmap with other countries, like Brazil‘s provinces with satellite, nuclear, and solar common public policies. Sao Pablo, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande Do Sul have common exports and imports profiles to cooperate and create innovations in automobile and infrastructure agenda or the green agri-economic solutions.

This possibility to build a horizon is very probable with Chile and Bolivia, both with important lithium reserves like Argentina. As a result, Jujuy, Catamarca, and Salta should have more connections with Antofagasta and Potosi to build a trilateral lithium alliance and rethink the window of opportunity. In a context with enormous economic, social, and political restrictions, the political and economic elites should identify strategically how globalization impacts the emergency of new actors and strategic regions at the same time to observe what roadmaps can bring positive synergies in the future.

  • How will the current Summit of the Americas affect the challenges of regional (dis)integration?
  • Is it possible that multilevel cooperation mechanisms in Latin America produce synergies that are transferred to national discussion environments?
  • Aren’t regional integration processes increasingly necessary in a context of “structuring and entropic bipolarism“?

Suggested Readings

Actis, Esteban and Malacalza, Bernabé. 2021. “The foreign policies of Latin America in times of liquid autonomy.” New Society, Volume No. 291: 114-126.

Laidi, Zeiki (2018). “Is Multilateralism Finished?” The Patriot, May 24, 2018.

Mihailovic, D. (2018). “The contemporary global dis(order): the geopolitics of the new southernism.” Geopolitics(s): Journal of Space and Power Studies, 9(2), 253-289.

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The Subnational Channels …

by Joaquin Gomez Amato time to read: 6 min