What's the deal with MERCOSUR/SUL?

First there is the issue of whether it should be called MERCOSUL in Portuguese or MERCOSUR in Spanish. More people speak Portuguese, but more member countries speak Spanish. But that is not a real problem. The problem that almost nobody understands is that it is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). While MERCOSUR/SUL is an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in the sense that it excludes larger integration with other regions, and the US in particular, it is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and was part of the neoliberal logic of integration that came to dominate in both Argentina and Brazil in the 1990s when the main agreements were signed. Per se the treaty is not better than the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), and the main advantage is that, given that the initial asymmetries between Argentina and Brazil were smaller than between Mexico and the US, the negative effects were also less significant.

There is little connection with the logic of integration that was defended from the 1950s onwards by the economists at the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) – and the Caribbean, now (ECLAC) – which was based on industrial integration for the creation of economies of scale. In Prebisch's view the aim of integration was to support industrialization. In fact, to some extent the boom in South America – in contrast to Central America and Mexico – in the 2000s has been based on a peripheral integration with Asia, in particular China, that allows for the exports of commodities. In that sense, the Bolivarian project is based on a change in State ownership, wherever it was possible, and an increase in the State’s share of the absolute rents associated with commodity exports, and an increase in transfers programs. Something that has been named natural resource nationalism [on the problems of national resources and development strategies see the paper by Carlos Medeiros here].

The degree of industrial development has been limited in the region during the last decade (meaning import substitution re-industrialization), even if it is far from clear that deindustrialization has really occurred, that is, a Dutch Disease problem (I would argue there is almost no case for it). Also, integration of infrastructure or regional financial development have been limited at best, and most plans (like the Banco del Sur or Sul in Portuguese) remain in its early stages. But the limitations of the process of integration should not lead to the notion that we need more integration at any cost in the region. In fact, one of the great advantages of Brazilian external policy is that is has refrained from getting into FTAs and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs), preserving policy space, as noted by Kevin Gallagher.

It is important to emphasize that more trade does NOT depend necessarily on reducing the ability of the State to manage trade flows (what is often referred to as Free Trade; for critiques of the comparative advantage theories of trade see here, here and here). Trade integration should not be made at the expense of national development policies, and further integration, with Asia or even within the region, should take place, but subordinated to the development of national processes of industrialization. MERCOSUR/SUL too should be envisioned, less as a FTA, and more as an instrument of mutual support for those national strategies.

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