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María Victoria Alvarez

The management of the Covid-19 pandemic and its potential for the relaunch of Latin American and Caribbean regionalism

(5/2024 - Resilience of global regionalism in times of crises)
Article
Open Access

Résumé

Covid-19 became a global public health problem of enormous dimensions. Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) governments reacted to prevent the spread of the virus unilaterally in most cases, but some responses were proposed at the regional and subregional levels. The region saw the pandemic emerge in a context of ideological polarization between governments, as a bad omen for its numerous and overlapping regional groupings, which already showed weaknesses and limitations. However, the broad impact of a public health crisis could give regional organizations the opportunity to push for the achieving of a collective agreement that might drive the process further. This paper focuses on the response of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and Central American Integration System (SICA) in the face of the pandemic and beyond. Our main argument is that the public health crisis of Covid-19 entailed a potential for the relaunch of regionalism improving cooperation, unity and other advanced forms of regionalism. Case studies indicate that the active regional response to the coronavirus owed much to previously installed institutional and political capacity. In CARICOM and SICA, the political will of the presidents coincided with a semi-autonomous activation of the institutional response, leading to optimal results. Still, political leadership may compensate for institutional weakness. The experience of CELAC revealed that leadership in agenda-setting with a technical focus can help promote dialogue and cooperation in a context of ideological polarization.


Introduction

1Following the successful eradication of several communicable diseases, the world has once again been surprised by new realities resulting from globalization. From 2020 onwards, Covid-19 became a major public health problem, causing more than six million deaths and 500 million people infected worldwide as of May 2022. This global pandemic, which has put unprecedented pressure on health systems, economies, and societies around the world, is the ultimate litmus test for multilateral and regional schemes.

2Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) saw the emergence of the pandemic at a time of worsening structural gaps, e.g. insufficient growth, low productivity, deep inequalities, underinvestment in public health and healthcare, and strong social discontent. LAC governments reacted to prevent the spread of the virus unilaterally in most cases, but some responses were proposed at the regional and subregional levels. The region saw the pandemic emerge in a context of ideological polarization between governments, as a bad omen for its numerous and overlapping regional groupings, which already showed weakness and limitations.

3The health and socioeconomic crisis triggered by the pandemic hit LAC countries hard. The figures are manifestly worrying; the region represents 8.4 % of the world’s population but registered 32.1 % of the total deaths from Covid-19 (as of August 31, 2021) (CEPAL, 2021a). New estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that the total number of deaths directly or indirectly associated with the pandemic, which is called the excess mortality, between January 1, 2020, and December 31, 2021, was approximately 14.9 million around the world. Among the countries which accounted for more than 80 % of the estimated global excess mortality were Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru (WHO, 2022).

4The economic impact has also been enormous. LAC suffered the largest economic contraction in 120 years: -7.7 % in 2020. The region’s trade performance was the worst since the 2008 global financial crisis (CEPAL, 2021a). In fact, LAC had been growing at a slow pace long before the pandemic descended on the region. Due to the arrival of the coronavirus, the region will have the same level of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as in 2010. The region faces, then, a new lost decade (CEPAL, 2021a).

5Beyond these infamous statistics, LAC subregions differed considerably in the management of the health crisis and the contrasts of the rates of deaths and infections were important. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) (2022), the Caribbean and Central America performed better than other subregions, for instance, in mortality rate, number of recovered, cumulative incidence rate, etc.

6The broad impact of a public health crisis could give regional organizations the opportunity to push for an expansion of their powers and resources reinforcing the momentum of integration or to cause deep cracks, make them vulnerable and lead to regional disintegration (Debuysere and Blockmans, 2019).

7This study investigates the responses of three regional organizations to a global crisis from a comparative perspective. We focus on the response of a wide-ranging regional scheme such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Spanish acronym CELAC), and two subregional organizations: the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Central American Integration System (Spanish acronym SICA). The comparative exercise may help evaluate regional schemes which have reflected vitality and effectiveness and their potential to develop regional cooperation further.

8Even if the Covid-19 crisis has ruthlessly exposed the structural deficits of LAC regionalism, a crisis can also be seen as an opportunity (Nolte, 2020). Our main argument is that the public health crisis of Covid-19 entailed a potential for the relaunch on regionalism. The analysis carries the purpose of identifying the ability of crises not only to consolidate existing regional organizations but also to expand its regulatory scope and/or resources. Ultimately, the successful collective management of the crisis could account for a boost to integration.

9The present paper is based on qualitative methods and a comparative framework, making use of primary sources – mainly documents, statements and reports taken from the organisations’ official websites in the period from January 2020 to June 2022 –, and secondary sources.

10But before analysing the response of these organizations to the pandemic, it is necessary to briefly consider the state of LAC regionalism when the pandemic broke out. The malaise of LAC regionalism preceded the emergence of the coronavirus. A decade after the rise of post-liberal regionalism, strong movements emerged to endanger their survival (Alvarez, 2019). Therefore, although the pandemic called for a regional response, the expectations with regard to the performance of regional institutions were rather low. It is not surprising, hence, that many analysts stated that the coronavirus found the region dismantled as such. Several voices affirmed that LAC faced Covid-19 without common spaces for consensus and cooperation, warning about the lack of a solid regional architecture and its negative consequences (Caetano and Pose, 2021; Gardini, 2020; Gomes Saraiva and Granja, 2022; Ríos Sierra, 2020). While this may be true for South America and its regional schemes (Alvarez, 2022), other subregions showed good responsiveness and action.

11The paper is organized as follows. After the present introduction, the next section proceeds to discuss some conceptual and theoretical aspects around crises and their potential for change on regionalism. The subsequent sections briefly describe the responses and actions of CELAC, CARICOM, and SICA to deal with the pandemic and the implication of their responses for these processes in the medium and long run. Lastly, we present some final remarks and suggestions for future research.

Crisis and the potential for the relaunch of regionalism

12In its literal meaning, a crisis has a negative connotation as it is a time of intense difficulty or danger (Oxford English Dictionary). A crisis can take many forms and in its most general sense, it marks a phase of disorder in the seemingly ‘normal’ development of a system (Boin et al., 2005, p. 2, quoted in Saurugger and Terpan, 2016). However, out of disruption, changes may appear. A crisis could be perceived as a time when a difficult or important decision must be made; crises present then an opportunity to reinvent, redefine, and rebuild.

13Academic literature has often overlooked the revival effect of crises on regional organizations or regionalism, except maybe for some neo-functionalist explanations that consider crises as an opportunity for actors involved in regional cooperation to adopt alternative strategies and forced the regional organization out of its zone of indifference (Schmitter, 2012). This would mean that given favourable conditions, a crisis may enhance either the scope of tasks of the organization or the level of its authority or both (‘spill-over’ in the neo-functionalist jargon).

14In this sense, crises have been an integral part of the process of European integration as they have had a progressive effect. The usual reaction by Member States has been to increase the authority and expand the tasks of the institutions of the European Union (EU) in order to resolve (or, at least, to respond) to the crisis (Schmitter, 2012).

15Significantly, three assumptions appear to be working here, requiring clarification to adapt this framework to different contexts. First, Schmitter’s (1970) model of crisis-induced decision-making cycles assumes that actors at the national level would engage in more comprehensive policy coordination across sectors and policy arenas; thus, institutionalizing a central authority at the supranational level (Lefkofridi and Schmitter, 2015). However, regionalisms outside of Europe have not gone so far as to emulate the EU’s supranational institutional structure. While all regional organizations vary regarding the scope of regional tasks, LAC organizations in particular do not transfer competences and effective authority to supranational bodies1.

16Second, the model presumes that crises are endogenous. They are produced by the very functioning of the integration process (Lefkofridi and Schmitter, 2015). However, the sources of crises can stem from either external factors (exogenous) or internal factors (endogenous). Non-traditional transnational crises, such as pandemics, are characterized as stress factors of exogenous origins that can prove to be quite challenging for regional organizations, with the possibility of disintegration, continuity, or strengthening of regionalism (Weiffen, 2020).

17Third, another argument of a neo-functionalist nature is useful: once created, regional institutions and bureaucracies become policy entrepreneurs and drivers of cooperation among their members (Haas, 1964; Sandholtz and Stone Sweet, 2012). This is crucial because basic agreements between states are not sufficient to explain outcomes. Hence, the degree of institutionalisation of regional assemblages, especially if they had experience, for instance, in dealing with health issues and/or disaster relief, may make a difference in the role played by regional organisations during a crisis.

18Until recently, scholars believed that what made the EU unique was precisely this capacity to exploit successive crises positively by repeatedly breaking out of its zone of organizational indifference (Schmitter, 2012). However, we find that certain conceptual tools from Schmitter’s model of crisis-induced decision-making cycles shed light on the analysis of other regionalisms. Yet, this poses a challenge in terms of their applicability to the LAC context, raising questions about their limitations. As Malamud and Schmitter argue (2006, p. 4), “given the substantial differences in cultural norms, historical experiences, social structures, geostrategic location, and political regimes, there is abundant reason to be cautious in such transfer”.

19Thus, taking certain precautions and depriving the model from its Eurocentric elements, it may contribute to a more precise analysis of how exogeneous shocks may impact on regional integration and cooperation. We depart from the assumption that regionalism can be seen as a process that address states’ lack of capacity to deal with global challenges, most often materializing in the form of a crisis that creates new opportunities among regional actors to boost cooperation, unity and other advanced forms of regionalism (Saurugger and Terpan, 2016).

20Crises may thus be perceived as a means of strengthening integration, as they make clear the need to take things one step further (Vollaard, 2018). But how exactly does a crisis become a boost factor for the relaunch of regionalism or a particular regional organization? To explore this question goes beyond the bounds of the present article, but it is important enough from both a theoretical and practical standpoint to merit at least being raised.

21What is certain is that crises are not circumstances which, mechanically, trigger change. Thus, agency is needed to frame the understanding of the crises and to produce different solutions. Paraphrasing Saurugger and Terpan (2016), crises would compel actors to boost cooperation, unity and other advanced forms of regionalism – not necessarily redefining either the tasks or the level of authority (or both) of regional organizations (Lefkofridi and Schmitter, 2015) as the EU context may materialize. One possible result would be the achieving of a collective agreement that might drive the process further.

Community of Latin American and Caribbean States: The resurgence of the forum prioritizing the health agenda

22Since 2011, CELAC has acted as a representative for 33 LAC governments of different orientations and diverse experiences. However, CELAC contains elements of weakness: it is not an international organization in the traditional sense and its institutional framework is feeble (Sanahuja, 2014). It does not have a permanent secretariat or a formal institutional structure. Nevertheless, CELAC was able to represent the common interests of its member countries until a severe crisis in Venezuela introduced deep fissures among its members. Additionally, a “heavyweight” like Brazil decided to suspend its membership in January 2020, as a result of the estrangement of Brazil from the region under President Jair Bolsonaro.

23Although its original objectives included the promotion of regional integration, the forum played an important role in less ambitious though important tasks such as the advancement of political agreement and coordination, and the facilitation of dialogue processes with other states, groups of countries, and regional organizations.

24At the time of CELAC’s creation, the governments of LAC did not anticipate the need to respond to a global pandemic with far-reaching consequences. These circumstances forced the scheme to resort to novel strategies (Alvarez, 2022). In reality, the role of CELAC in promoting cooperation amid the pandemic was intimately linked to the work done by Mexico, which was in charge of the Pro Tempore Presidency (PTP) at the height of the crisis (2020 and 2021).

25Fractured internally and weakened externally, CELAC was considered an “agonizing” institution (Malamud, 2020, p. 1), and it was accused to prove incapable of reacting to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic (Ayuso, 2020). However, Mexico assumed the PTP with the explicit intention of keeping CELAC alive (Saltalamacchia, 2020).

26Under the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), whose administration did not carry out precisely an exemplary management of the pandemic at the domestic level, Mexico was able to implement instances of collaboration among CELAC members. Through active diplomacy, the northern country made a readjustment to the 2020 Work Plan and reoriented it towards the strategy against COVID-19 and the socioeconomic recovery. In fact, the Mexican government assumed a leadership as an agenda-setter promoting a sectorial extension of the regional intervention capacities regarding health matters.

27What Mexico did was to place the emphasis on solving technical problems of common interest, leaving politically charged issues in the background (Ruano and Saltalamacchia, 2021). From the beginning of the outbreak, a regional approach was prioritized and CELAC implemented technical initiatives within its very limited powers.

28As early as January 30, 2020, the Mexican PTP convened the First Meeting of CELAC Specialists for Coronavirus Monitoring, with virologists from the region. In the medium term, the aim was the creation of the CELAC Network of Experts on Infectious Agents and Emerging and Re-emerging Diseases, a mechanism for the identification, surveillance and control of viruses and bacteria, as well as a common front in the face of regional or universal viral emergencies.

29Also, the close collaboration with the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean of the United Nations (Spanish acronym CEPAL) stands out. CELAC asked CEPAL to design a specific mechanism to deal with the pandemic, which resulted in the creation of the COVID-19 Observatory. This virtual platform has generated valuable applied knowledge on the phenomenon (Guadarrama Pérez and González Hernández, 2020). CELAC also mandated CEPAL to prepare a Health Self-Sufficiency Plan for LAC, which was a relevant initiative in regional terms as a result of the technical collaboration between these two institutions, and which aimed at strengthening the region’s response capacity to health emergencies and reducing its external dependence.

30In this regard, it is feasible to adequately assess the performance of the Mexican PTP within the context of CELAC’s institutional minimalism. Throughout the health crisis this minimalist structure was beneficial to achieve certain margins of manoeuvre. However, when it comes to the second objective of Mexico, which aimed to mitigate the economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, it becomes evident that CELAC does not possess the authority or means to intervene actively and tangibly. Economic matters fall within the exclusive sovereign domain of the LAC States, and as such, lie beyond the purview of CELAC’s competencies. Additionally, on a less favourable note, it is worth mentioning that other actions of Mexico during its PPT were primarily confined to issuing communiqués calling the international community and the pharmaceutical sector to join the efforts of governments and multilateral organizations to democratize the production and access of vaccines (Herrera Caballero, 2022) lacking significant tangible impact.

31The transfer of the PTP of CELAC from Mexico to Argentina in early 2022 confirmed the leftist stance of the scheme given the convergence of positions between the two countries. Within the work proposal for its mandate, the Argentine government proposed fifteen issues, including the economic recovery post-COVID-19; a health strategy; cooperation on space; science, technology and innovation for social inclusion, comprehensive disaster risk management, education, institutional strengthening, and an anti-corruption agenda (Telam, 2022).

32During its PTP, Argentina has continued with the line proposed by Mexico and has also showed leadership in the health agenda, which implied continuing to place a rather non-controversial issue at the top of the bloc’s political commitment. The great and heartfelt absence in this whole process is that of Brazil. Nevertheless, under the leadership of President Lula da Silva, who assumed office on January 1, 2023, Brazil reclaimed its position within the regional multilateral framework.

33In November 2022, Argentina presented to the rest of CELAC States the Report on capacities for research, development and production of vaccines in CELAC countries and the Working document for the strengthening of international joint purchasing mechanisms for vaccines and essential medicines, within the framework of the implementation of the Health Self-Sufficiency Plan for LAC (Ministry of Health of Argentina, 2022).

34In particular, the presentation of the proposal for a regional joint purchasing mechanism represents at the same time a main challenge and a remarkable opportunity for interstate cooperation in the framework of CELAC. Especially because of its technical specificities – it involves the register of all the potential bidding companies in CELAC members, and a financial engineering to capture economies of scale (Tobar and Marchiori Buss, 2022)2 –, the implementation of this mechanism would require strong diplomacy capabilities and political willingness.

35Only few regional organizations, like SICA and the EU, have developed and implemented this type of instruments to organize the procurement of vaccines and medications, and secure equitable and cost-effective access to medical supplies for participating Member States. In the context of CELAC, this mechanism may show how solidarity could find concrete expression in joint or pooled initiatives, representing a decisive step towards more integration.

36CELAC States agreed on a joint declaration to bring support and continuity to the work made by Argentina regarding the Health Self-Sufficiency Plan for LAC. However, the rotating nature of CELAC’s PTP prevents progress with the necessary speed and efficiency, and even the change of the PTP from one country to another can generate losses of institutional accumulations (Tobar and Marchiori Buss, 2022). From this perspective, the pressing need for the establishment of a permanent entity dedicated to addressing health-related matters becomes increasingly apparent.

Caribbean Community: Harnessing experience and adopting a multi-sectoral approach to tackle COVID-19

37CARICOM is one of the oldest integration schemes in the LAC region, established in 1973 by the Treaty of Chaguaramas. It is composed of 15 Member States – Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Monserrat, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago – and five Associates, mostly islands of the Lesser Antilles3. The region is one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters and infectious diseases. Partly in response to these threats and vulnerabilities, the Caribbean has a history of regional collaboration. The Community has emerged as an important institutional actor, being the regional coordinating mechanism for health and disaster responses (CARICOM, 2020a).

38Amidst the global impact of COVID-19, CARICOM embarked on its multi-sectoral response, engaging both regional and international agencies in the process. Existing CARICOM mechanisms have been used to combat COVID-19. In particular, two intergovernmental agencies led the regional support structures for disaster preparedness and response, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), and for public health, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA)4 (Hambleton et al., 2020).

39In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, CARICOM demonstrated swift actions and responsiveness: on January 21, 2020, CARPHA activated its Incident Management Team-Emergency Response, which worked closely with the Secretariat and other regional institutions to coordinate the regional response (CARICOM, 2021). CARICOM states were concerned about the fragility of their social fabric and the wide disparities in public health sectors, and the high dependency on the tourism sector. In comparative terms and despite their insularity – which could have naturally shielded these countries from the outbreak – CARICOM states took early action at the national level to address the new coronavirus5. On average, they acted three to four weeks in advance of other States in the world (Parthenay, 2021).

40Unanimously, the Caribbean presidents clearly bet on regional initiatives to protect their countries from the crisis. There was an impetus for creating a multisectoral space for regional consultation to contain the spread of the disease and develop initiatives. As early as 18 February 2020, the heads of government of CARICOM countries entrusted CARPHA for COVID-19 preparedness and answer in the region. Later, on 1 March, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, as Chair of CARICOM, convened an Emergency Meeting of this intergovernmental body to develop a regional response to the unfolding global pandemic (Knight and Reddy, 2020).

41As of 22 May 2020, COVID-19 had affected all Caribbean states and territories. Many countries closed their borders, stopped all the flights (incoming and outgoing) and cruise ships, and announced lockdowns in order to contain the epidemic. However, this has affected the CARICOM to a great extent as the region depends mostly on imports and income from tourism (Chattu and Chami, 2020).

42While the Caribbean as a region has remained comparatively shielded from the health implications of COVID-19, it found itself in a devastating economic crisis. The prolonged effects of the crisis compounded already existing economic difficulties, with countries facing declines in GDP, increasing debt, lower revenues, and budgeting difficulties. The Caribbean was especially impacted due to its largely tourism-dependent economy.

43CARICOM turned out to be one of the few LAC integration schemes effectively prepared to face the pandemic: its response capacity was broad and rapid, despite the vulnerability and size of its economies. Perhaps this is partly why the relative success in managing the health crisis could be explained: individual weakness drives the need for strong collective cohesion and action (Alvarez, 2022).

44As a consequence of the management of the pandemic, CARICOM took advantage of the impulse and strengthened its reach upon different policy areas. Countries across the Caribbean are grappling with the challenge of restimulating their tourism industries while also protecting public health. Tourism has emerged as a defining element of government reopening policies. Building upon the Caribbean’s innovative and successful partnership between tourism and health, CARPHA has launched the first CARICOM approved health safety and environmental sanitation (HSE) hospitality standards6. These regional clean and green standards could provide assurance to travellers about tourism companies commitment to health and safety and towards avoiding or mitigating health threats (CARICOM Today, 2022).

45CARICOM exhibited proactive engagement in public health matters, assuming additional responsibilities in the process. The health crisis boosted its actorness and advanced more inclusive and responsive global governance. As an example, CARICOM implemented a Learning Recovery and Enhancement Programme (Let’s REAP!) to promote learning improvement in light of the challenges to education brought about by COVID-19 and to recover, improve, and transform education in the Caribbean (CARICOM, n.d.). It also developed the COVID-19 Response Agri-Food Plan, also known as “25 in 5” which intends to reduce the CARICOM food import bill by at least 25% over the next five years (CARICOM, 2020b).

46But probably the most important effect of the management of the coronavirus crisis was the adoption by the presidents in March 2022 of a Protocol which sought to create opportunities to further the principles, goals, and objectives of the Community through mechanism of enhanced cooperation7. It provides for groups of at least three Member States to seek to establish enhanced cooperation in areas where they believe that the targeted objectives cannot be attained within a reasonable period by CARICOM as a whole (CARICOM, 2022).

47This mechanism aims to accelerate the building of the integration process for the most ambitious Member States. However, the door is left open to other Member States wishing to join them at a later date. It enables participating countries to organise greater cooperation than that initially provided for by the founding accords.

48Decisions adopted in the specific areas of enhanced cooperation will only be binding on the participating Member States, and the rights and obligations created will be solely for those Member States and their nationals. Established areas of enhanced cooperation will, however, be open to other Member States, subject to compliance with the conditions of participation and the decisions already adopted (CARICOM, 2022).

Central American Integration System (SICA). Efficiency in action through semi-autonomous actions and presidential commitment

49SICA was created in 1991 with the Tegucigalpa Protocol to the Charter of the Organization of Central American States. It is a successor to the Central American Common Market (Spanish acronym MCCA), an association that was formed in December 1960 by five Central American States. SICA comprises the member countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Belize subsequently joined as full member in 2000 and, as of 2013, the Dominican Republic.

50Central American integration acquires strategic relevance as an instrument for development; since the high levels of interdependence among SICA Member States naturally encourage the deepening of cooperation, articulation and integration of joint actions in the face of common challenges.

51Despite the fact that (or precisely because) it consists of small and vulnerable economies – like CARICOM –, Central American integration is among the most advanced in LAC. It has a long trajectory, there is high levels of interdependence among its members, as well as “a greater homogeneity of needs and a better interpretation of what a process of regional integration represents and demands”8 (Ríos Sierra, 2020, p. 216).

52On 1 March 2020, the first case was confirmed in the Dominican Republic, the first SICA country where a case of COVID-19 was registered. From that moment on, measures taken by individual governments were timely. On average, the first national measures in Central America were adopted 19.5 days before the first case appeared (Parthenay, 2021). Also, the Central American region had an early reaction of 2.6 days (on average) prior to the appearance of the first confirmed case concerning mobility control. With these early provisions, the spread of the virus was brought under control in the first months of the outbreak9.

53Domestic policies against the crisis were formulated to work in synergy with regional plans, despite the differentiating impact of the crisis across countries. The Central American presidents swiftly recognized the imperative of containing the pandemic jointly. They reacted rapidly with several presidential summits and virtual meetings (Caldentey del Pozo, 2021). On 12 March 2020, just one day after the WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, the presidents promoted the declaration Central America united against the coronavirus (Ríos Sierra, 2020) which urged SICA Member States to adopt the necessary measures to control the pandemic, and work within the framework of PAHO and the WHO.

54SICA showed a significant mobilisation to coordinate a unified response in the region, using the technical know-how developed in previous crises acting promptly to take measures to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. On 26 March 2020, it articulated efforts for the elaboration of a Regional Contingency Plan, aimed at complementing national efforts, and committing up to 1,900 million dollars – later increased to 2,360 million – to prevent, contain and overcome, from a regional approach, the effects of the pandemic (SICA, 2020a)10.

55In fact, the plan was implemented two weeks later11. The Coordination Centre for Disaster Prevention in Central America and Dominican Republic (Spanish acronym CEPREDENAC) and the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and Dominican Republic (Spanish acronym COMISCA) were instructed to develop the plan. In particular, within the axis of Health and Risk Management of the SICA Regional Contingency Plan, the COMISCA activated the mechanism for the purchase of medicines and medical devices for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. The mechanism of the Joint Negotiation of COMISCA – in force since 2009 – has favoured the reduction of prices of medicines and medical equipment through the acquisition of these supplies at the regional level, and therefore became an essential and strategic tool to address COVID-19, in accordance with the needs of the Member Countries (SICA, 2020a)12. Additional actions included the creation of a Central American humanitarian corridor, a regional humanitarian assistance mechanism, and an integrated system of regional economic indicators (Ríos Sierra, 2020).

56In Central America, the management of the pandemic has led to a semi-autonomous functioning of the regional bodies together with a strong commitment on the part of the presidents. Mechanisms and agencies that already existed before the pandemic – and that had already shown fluid functioning – were effective in the reaction to COVID-19. The regular running of SICA bodies made it possible to take advantage of the tools developed in recent years in trade facilitation and customs coordination; the CEPREDENAC, for the prevention of and response to natural disasters; and COMISCA, on the joint negotiation of medicines or the coordinated control of epidemics and communicable or chronic diseases (Caldentey del Pozo, 2021).

57However, after a period of negative externalities due to a crisis of presidential diplomacy (Parthenay, 2015), the Central American presidents have played a leading role in accompanying the process with strong will. In this regard, summit diplomacy proved successful in generating effective measures to combat the crisis efficiently. Even though the SICA intergovernmental decision-making process is based on consensus and unanimity, collective capacity raised to face the pandemic with unity, permitting regional intervention.

58As an example, in the aftermath of the pandemic and as a mechanism to complement national efforts to reboot the adversely impacted economies, the heads of government and of state approved the Regional Economic Reactivation Plan, which was prepared in intersectoral terms by the Council of Ministers of Economic Integration, the Sectoral Council of Ministers of Transport of Central America and the COMISCA (SICA, 2022a).

59Moreover, as a result of a learning process, the executives instructed the Central American Agricultural Council to prepare a proposal for a mechanism for the joint purchase of food, fertilizers, and agricultural supplies at the regional level, taking as a reference the experience of the implementation of the Joint Negotiation Mechanism of COMISCA during the COVID-19 pandemic (SICA, 2022a).

60Also, they ordered the main executive organs (Lead Secretariats) to formulate and execute intersectoral actions that allow greater access to technical and financial cooperation for the implementation of mechanisms, and initiatives that strengthen the SICA region on issues such as climate change, integrated disaster risk management, and food and nutrition security (SICA, 2022a).

61The strategy of Central American presidents was not only oriented towards the expansion of cooperation in different sectors but also towards a general modernisation and rationalisation of SICA institutional structure. In that sense, the crisis added up to the institutionalisation process of SICA.

62The so-called Process of Review of the Institutional Universe of SICA13 was finalized in December 2022. Based on the findings of this process, heads of government and state instructed the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs to design and implement an Agenda of Institutional Strengthening to fortify and toughen the governance and regional agendas (SICA, 2022b). In the same vein, SICA presidents were urged to follow the necessary procedures to lead to the transformation, cancellation and/or shutting down of regional bodies which do not register operation or operability14.

63The Central American integration process proved effective in managing the health crisis, acting through mechanisms agreed upon in a few days such as the Contingency Plan, and also in the short- and medium-term efforts for the recovery of economies. In addition, several regional structures in different areas of SICA worked on the design of a proposal for the post-COVID recovery: the Recovery, Social Reconstruction and Resilience Plan15. Being complementary to national recovery plans, it is the first regional plan that assumes the social dimension as the central axis of the recovery, together with the economic axis, without neglecting environmental and risk management elements.

64The plan reflects the interest of the Central American countries to take advantage of the potentialities of the regional space to create synergies to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and provide the opportunity to shape societies that are more resilient, more socially fair, and more environmentally sustainable (SICA, 2020). As the report declares (SICA, 2020, p. 7), “Intensifying the integration process will be important to face this and future crises, fostering joint actions in areas where there are regional public assets and where joint action is more beneficial than individual action. […] The crisis represents a turning point for the current development model and an opportunity to build a better future”.

Conclusion

65In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, several voices stated that this health, social, and economic crisis also proved to be a crisis of regional governance, calling into question the ability of LAC countries to articulate efficient joint policies that would help control the coronavirus and its effects on the economy. Moreover, many predicted that the lack of results would perpetuate and/or accentuate pre-existing trends of fragmentation and erosion in the region.

66But the pandemic crisis can be seen as just that, a crisis, or as a key opportunity to give new meaning to LAC regionalism. As we have mentioned earlier, crises would compel actors to boost cooperation, unity and other advanced forms of regionalism. One possible result of crises would be the achieving of a collective agreement to drive the process further.

67The study showed that some regional schemes took concrete measures and acted decisively in favour of containing the virus and its impacts. They responded to the economic emergency and multiplied efforts and resources in a short time. Moreover, they have bothered to learn lessons and prepare in the medium and long term for future challenges. Even with broad differences, CELAC, CARICOM and SICA substantiated the argument that crises have a potential to constitute a significant boost for further integration.

68Case studies indicate that in regional responses, the degree of institutionalization and previous experience in managing health issues and natural disasters were key to achieving concrete cooperative results. The small and most vulnerable economies, precisely because of this, made the most effort to coordinate and act together. The political will of the presidents accompanied, but the institutional response was activated semi-autonomously with optimal results. Therefore, in the cases of CARICOM and SICA the active regional response to the coronavirus owed much to previously installed institutional and political capacity.

69Nonetheless, the evidence also reveals that political leadership may compensate for institutional weakness. Political willingness is not negligible especially in the CELAC case, where the low level of institutional integration allowed national actors – e.g. Mexico or Argentina – to put non-controversial issues at the top of the regional agenda. CELAC showed that regional response capacity, focused on the technical or functional factor, can help promote dialogue and cooperation in a context of politicalideological disagreements between States (Ruano and Saltalamacchia, 2021), a possibility that assumes unparalleled importance in the current phase of LAC regionalism.

70At the subregional level, even without being able to establish a direct relationship between the indicators of best performance by the Caribbean and Central America and the reactions of CARICOM and SICA, both organizations offered concerted, effective and rapid responses. CARICOM member countries have a history of working collaboratively in response to natural disasters and other economic and health threats to the region. Throughout the outbreak, the CARICOM cooperative framework has been used by national governments as an experience-sharing and problem-solving platform. Therefore, CARICOM achieved a suggestive success in managing the health crisis, with relatively low figures compared to the global context.

71In the post-COVID scenario, CARICOM expanded areas of competences and policies, reinforcing the momentum of integration, displayed among other initiatives by the programme Let’s REAP! to promote learning improvement in light of the challenges to education brought about by the pandemic and also by the COVID-19 Response Agri-Food Plan which intends to reduce the CARICOM food import bill. But more importantly, CARICOM regulated an enhanced cooperation regime among its Member States as a corollary of its successful collective management of the health crisis. Forging a historic milestone, the bloc adopted in March 2022 a protocol allowing enhanced cooperation between countries in areas where not all members wish to participate, establishing advanced integration or cooperation. For their part, SICA strengthened regional epidemiological surveillance strategies and mobilised the joint negotiation mechanisms for medicines and equipment that already existed before the pandemic. Taking as a reference the experience of the implementation of the Joint Negotiation Mechanism of COMISCA during the COVID-19 pandemic, SICA is exploring the possibility of implementing a mechanism for the joint purchase of food, fertilizers, and agricultural supplies at the regional level. Furthermore, not only did SICA countries come up with a Regional Contingency Plan against the Coronavirus in the midst of the pandemic, but SICA also conceived later on a comprehensive Recovery, Social Reconstruction and Resilience Plan to deal with the medium and long-term effects of the crisis.

72Taken together, these findings indicate that during a health crisis, the regional level presents a significant opportunity for countries to strengthen their capabilities, avoid duplication of efforts, complement actions, and foster regional cooperation and integration processes. This is an important issue for future research. There is abundant room for further progress in determining an overall mode of crisis-induced change for regional organisations, based on empirical evidence and theoretical results. Further studies on the current topic are therefore recommended.

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Notes

1 Partial exceptions are SICA and the Andean Community, that include supranational institutions (albeit powerless ones) in their institutional mixed structures.

2 It is also necessary to establish binding agreements for the homologation of pharmaceutical health registries and the mutual recognition of medicines to be acquired jointly (Tobar and Marchiori Buss, 2022).

3 Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, and British Virgin Islands.

4 Significant technical and coordinating assistance to CARPHA was provided by CDEMA with practice in responding to national disasters (e.g., hurricanes) and experience in matters of disaster planning, logistics, supply chain management, and security, all of which are common to managing a natural disaster or pandemic.

5 Hambleton et al. (2020) indicate that the slowing down of COVID-19 spreading could be attributed to the early border controls issued under the collaborative framework of CARICOM.

6 The standards include Food Safety and Sanitation; Energy Management; Water Treatment and Management; Sewage Treatment and Management; Solid Waste Management; Integrated Pest Management; and Environmental Management Systems.

7 The Protocol to Amend the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas Establishing the Caribbean Community including the CARICOM Single Market and Economy to allow Enhanced Cooperation among Member States and to address Related Issues was adopted at the Thirty-third intersessional meeting of the conference of heads of government of the CARICOM, on 1-2 March 2022.

8 Author’s translation.

9 Particularly through prevention and containment measures at cross-border points, ports, airports and health surveillance protocols, hospital equipment, establishment of quarantine and movement restrictions, suspension of school activities, among other measures (Central American Integration System, 2020a).

10 The collective strategy defined three central axes – health and risk management, trade and finance, and security, justice and migration – and two transversal ones – strategic communication and international cooperation (SICA, 2020a).

11 By the end of 2020, the Regional Contingency Plan had been executed almost in its entirety, with an 85% advance in the implementation of its 71 actions (SICA, 2020b).

12 The COMISCA Joint Negotiation – to acquire medicines in an integrated manner and at a lower cost – is carried out through a process of prequalification of companies and products that are subsequently included in the price negotiation sessions through reverse auctions or direct negotiations between prequalified companies (CEPAL, 2021b).

13 Back in 2018 the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs had instructed the General Secretariat of SICA to prepare proposals for the creation of SICA bodies and institutions, as well as for the cancellation of those instances that were no longer necessary.

14 There are no explicit mentions of specific organs or bodies except for the Central American Parliament (Spanish acronym PARLACEN). In particular, the executives instructed the General Secretariat of SICA to review the legal and operational framework of PARLACEN in the system in order to present a proposal for its reform (SICA, 2022b).

15 The preparation of the Plan had the support of the European Union Programme for Social Cohesion in Latin America -EUROsociAL+; and advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN-Habitat.

To cite this article

María Victoria Alvarez, «The management of the Covid-19 pandemic and its potential for the relaunch of Latin American and Caribbean regionalism», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 5/2024 - Resilience of global regionalism in times of crises, URL : https://popups.uliege.be/2593-9483/index.php?id=314.

About: María Victoria Alvarez

Ph.D. Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, National University of Rosario (Argentina).