Latin America

El Mercado Institucional: Multilateral Forum Shopping in Latin America


The number of international organizations that are responding to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela is overwhelming. While the usual suspects, such as the European Union and the UN Security Council, have played an important role, a plethora of international organizations based in the Western Hemisphere are also involved. These include the Organization of American States (OAS), the Lima Group, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), among others. The sheer number of Inter-American organizations creates confusion over which organization should respond to the Venezuelan crisis. Yet rather than trying to strengthen any one of these organizations to address the ongoing crisis, leaders from around the region have created the Forum for the Progress and Development of Latin America (Prosur) to replace the now largely defunct Union of South American States (UNASUR). The continued proliferation of Inter-American organizations undermines the ability of regional institutions to consistently address the challenges that face the Hemisphere. Instead of creating new organizations, the region needs to implement the reforms that will allow existing institutions to address these challenges.

Headquarters of Unasur, Quito, Ecuador
Image courtesy of Diego Delso © 2015

So, why are new Inter‑American organizations created with such frequency?

The proliferation of Inter-American organizations is rooted in a unique diplomatic culture within the Americas and can be traced back to Simon Bolivar. In 1826, Bolivar called for a meeting of Latin American delegates with the intention of developing a Pan-American confederation. While this effort would fail, it became the basis for a diplomatic culture within the Americas of attempting to develop multilateral institutions to address common challenges in the Americas. In 1889, the United States invited all of the independent nations of the Americas to Washington in an attempt to create a Pan-American customs union. Although this effort would also fail, the initiative kick‑started a series of Pan-American Conferences that would conclude in 1948 with the creation of the OAS.

Since the formation of the OAS, the nations of the Americas have created additional regional institutions, including a veritable cornucopia of regional alphabet soup, from the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) to UNASUR. These organizations frequently have overlapping objectives and memberships that create challenges for regional governance. On the economic side, various regional trade blocs with different regulatory frameworks make up a tangled “spaghetti bowl” complicating trade and business transactions in the Americas. However, the growing number of political Inter-American organizations highlights the array of overlapping objectives and identities in the Western Hemisphere. Political organizations emphasize different regional identities, ranging from the OAS, which includes all sovereign nations in the Americas, to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which intentionally excludes it from the regional dialogue.

A Euler diagram showing the relationships between various multinational organisations in the Americas.

The multitude of Inter-American organizations with their overlapping agendas and memberships has created a system in which the states are able to seek out the regional forum that best meets their distinct needs for different situations. Having the option to shop for the forum that best fits your political agenda undermines the legitimacy of all of the regional institutions. One recent case of this emerged out of the Venezuelan elections, where President Nicolas Maduro refused to allow OAS electoral observers into the country. Instead, Maduro invited UNASUR to accompany the nation’s elections despite grave concerns over UNASUR’s ability to credibly monitor the elections. Maduro was able to point to the UNASUR missions to claim electoral legitimacy in spite of UNASUR’s lack of credibility. This ability to forum shop for the regional institution that fits the political desire of a particular country limits the effectiveness of any of these institutions to address the crises facing the region. Further exacerbating this challenge is the creation of new organizations when the existing regional institutions are unable to address a particular challenge.

The institutions that underpin the Inter-American system are critical to addressing the challenges that face the Hemisphere. Many of the challenges in the Hemisphere, from defending democracy to organized crime, require multilateral solutions. However, reforming the Inter‑American system rather than expanding it can create viable channels to address the challenges that face the Americas. This will require the political will of the leaders of the Americas to work through the challenges that these organizations face. Rather than creating a new organization when bureaucratic or organizational barriers become evident within the OAS or other existing Inter-American organizations, leaders should work to reform the practices that hinder the effectiveness of these institutions and strengthen their ability to respond to crises. This may require nations to surrender a degree of sovereignty to these institutions or negotiate towards a less-than-perfect solution. However, reforming the different institutions within the Western Hemisphere and merging them can limit the ability to dodge accountability by seeking alternative institutions and create a system that is responsive to the crises that face the Americas. Limiting the ability to forum shop between different regional institutions will force the institutions to make the reforms necessary to be more responsive to member states and tackle the challenges in the Americas. To realize Simon Bolivar’s dream of regional cooperation, strengthening a unified Inter-American institution will be necessary.

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