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Explainer: An Alphabet Soup of Regional Integration Organizations

By Rachel Glickhouse

AS/COA Online explains the jumble of acronyms and abbreviations of the region’s multilateral organizations.

Updated March 20, 2015 - When following current events in Latin America, it’s easy to confuse the jumble of acronyms and abbreviations of the region’s multilateral organizations. AS/COA Online has put together a list of integration organizations in Latin America, explaining what they do and the significance of each one.

Given the proliferation of so many organizations, summits, and integration efforts over the past few decades, some have questioned which groups can have a real impact, especially those with conflicting or overlapping goals. With an eye on regional trade and tariffs, some groups hope to eventually expand their reach to achieve common markets in Latin America. Countries bordering the Pacific are moving to pursue closer alliances with Asian trade partners, some organizations seek to deepen Latin American integration, and others hope to coordinate policy and common interests among smaller countries.

APEC Pacific Alliance
CAN Rio Group


ACS: Founded in 1994, the Association of Caribbean States was created in response to the growth of regional trade blocs, intended to liberalize trade and promote regionalism among countries that had been historically isolated from one another. The ACS consists of 25 member states: Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. The associate members are Aruba, France (representing French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique), and Turks and Caicos. There are 18 observer states from the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The headquarters are located in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The body holds ministerial meetings annually and ACS committees meet throughout the year to discuss trade, transport, tourism, and disaster-risk reduction in the region. However, unlike CARICOM, the ACS does not negotiate trade agreements as a bloc, instead functioning as a zone of cooperation.

ALADI: La Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración, or the Latin American Integration Association, seeks regional economic integration with the goal of a common market. ALADI establishes trade regulations, regional tariffs, and trade agreements between member countries. The group emerged from the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA), founded in 1960 by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. LAFTA sought to create a free-trade zone in Latin America, but in reality was limited in scope—it included goods, but not services, and did not coordinate policy. In 1970, LAFTA incorporated Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. A decade later, LAFTA was replaced by ALADI, which now has 14 members, including all 11 members from LAFTA as well as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama. The newer, more flexible organization functions as an umbrella for other regional bodies such as MERCOSUR and the Andean Group.

ALADI has a regional tariff preference agreement, allowing members to grant lower tariffs to one another, beginning at 20 percent. Member countries can participate in regional-scope agreements, which include all members, as well as partial-scope agreements between two or more members. One regional agreement allows central banks to grant credit lines to one another, which simplifies commercial transactions between member countries. ALADI consists of four governing bodies: the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the Conference of Evaluation and Convergence, the Committee of Representatives, and the General Secretariat.

ALBA: Known as La Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, ALBA was founded in 2004 by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Originally named the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas with the mission of serving as an “antidote of the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas,” the name was changed in 2009. Members consist of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela.

Since its creation, ALBA created a number of regional companies. In 2005, it set up a regional television station called Telesur, branded as a counterweight to CNN and broadcast from Venezuela in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. That same year, ALBA created Petrocaribe, an agreement in which Venezuela supplies oil to 17 Caribbean and Central American countries at low prices and interest rates. In 2008, Venezuela created the ALBA Bank with $1 billion in capital, intended to serve as an alternative to the World Bank and IMF but without loan conditions. It supports social projects, energy cooperation, and industrial and agricultural production. The ALBA Bank is sometimes confused with the Bank of the South, a development bank pitched by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and inaugurated by UNASUR countries in 2009 that is also headquartered in Caracas. Members created an electronic currency called the sucre in 2009 to use for trade among member countries and to reduce the exchange of the U.S. dollar, still currently in use. ALBA members meet each year to discuss social programs such as education and health initiatives, as well as trade agreements.

APEC: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation pact consists of 21 member countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. In the Western Hemisphere, APEC members include Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama have observer status and await pending petitions for membership. Ecuador also requested membership in 2007. Founded in 1989, the organization holds annual meetings with heads of state in member countries to discuss trade and investment liberalization, business facilitation, and economic and technical cooperation between members. The group’s business advisory council works with the private sector to facilitate business practices in member countries. A long-term goal of APEC is to create a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) including all APEC members, an idea first proposed in 2006 in the wake of flagging support for the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization. One project currently being pursued by APEC members is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement involving Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. Canada, Mexico, and Japan also expressed interest in joining negotiations at the 2011 APEC summit. The APEC Secretariat is located in Singapore and APEC summits are known for their “family photo,” in which heads of state dress in attire typical of the host country.

CAN: The Andean Community, called the Comunidad Andina in Spanish, is an organization comprised of four countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Created in 1997, it seeks regional integration through economic and social cooperation and covers five focus areas: social and political integration, environmental issues, foreign relations, economy and trade, and institution building. CAN evolved from the Andean Pact, signed in 1969 by the current member countries and Chile. Venezuela joined in 1973, and Chile withdrew in 1976. Venezuela later withdrew from CAN in 2006, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pushed for his country to join MERCOSUR. At the time he criticized CAN’s trade agreements with the United States. Ecuador petitioned for MERCOSUR membership in 2011 and could leave CAN if it gains membership. 

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela created a free trade area for goods in 1993 and established a common external tariff two years later. Peru later adhered to the free trade area in 2006. Citizens of member countries do not need visas to enter other member countries and CAN created an Andean passport in 2001. CAN’s 14 associated institutions include an Andean Parliament and Court of Justice. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay serve as associate members. CAN has three observer countries: Mexico, Panama, and Spain. The headquarters are located in Lima.

CARICOM: Formed in 1973, the Caribbean Community is a group of 15 countries that seek economic integration with the goal of a free trade area. Headquartered in Georgetown, Guyana, its full members are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos are associate members. CARICOM temporarily suspended Haiti’s membership from 2004 to 2006 after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. There are eight observers: Aruba, Colombia, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Sint Maarten, and Venezuela.

CARICOM replaced the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA), created in 1965, which in turn replaced the West Indies Federation, established in 1958. Both intended to expand trade ties in the English-speaking Caribbean. CARICOM focuses on bilateral trade agreements, and currently has accords with Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. It also seeks new agreements with Canada and the United States.

Within CARICOM, there are 20 associated institutions; two of the most important being the CARICOM Single Market and Economy and the Caribbean Court of Justice. The Single Market, created in 2006, includes 12 member countries and allows for a common external tariff and the free movement of goods, services, and labor. The Court of Justice deals with disputes within the Single Market and is located in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Twelve member countries also use a CARICOM passport. The Bahamas, Haiti, and Montserrat are not part of the single market, nor do they use CARICOM passports.

CELAC: The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States was founded in December 2011 in Caracas, Venezuela. The group’s membership includes every country in the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Canada. CELAC is a successor to the Rio Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Summit and some ALBA members hope to see it eclipse the Organization of American States, which they say is dominated by the United States. The group aims to serve as a forum for regional dialogue, promote regional integration, and advance social issues. While concrete details of the project still need to be hammered out, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela will constitute a “troika” to coordinate moving the project forward. Those three countries also represent the 2011, 2012, and 2013 pro-tempore presidencies, respectively.

MERCOSUR: The Southern Common Market (El Mercado Común del Sur) is a regional integration organization and customs union with four full members: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members and Mexico is an observer. Venezuela was accepted as a fifth member in 2006, but awaits Paraguay’s ratification. The body’s goal is to make member economies more competitive and work toward a common market. The 1991 Treaty of Asunción established Mercosur and the 1994 Treaty of Ouro Preto established the customs union. The presidency rotates between members every six months. There are a number of Mercosur institutions, including the Common Market Council for creating economic policy, the Common Market Group for implementing and regulating policy, and a parliament. The organization has a common tariff and guarantees the free movement of goods, people, and services. Mercosur also signs trade agreements as a bloc, such as a free trade agreement with the Andean Community and an economic complementation agreement with Mexico. Mercosur members have a common passport and citizens of member countries can freely work and travel in other member countries. The secretariat is located in Montevideo, Uruguay.

OAS: The Organization of American States was founded in 1948 in Bogota, Colombia, with the signing of the Charter of the Organization of American States. The headquarters are located in Washington, DC. The body was created to promote regional integration, peace, and democracy, and to provide a forum for conflict resolution. The OAS consists of 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere (Cuba is a non-particiapting member). There are 68 observer countries. Cuba was originally a participating member, though it was excluded in 1962 following the 1959 revolution. In 2009, the General Assembly voted in favor of restoring Cuba’s member status, but the United States will only support Cuba’s membership when it restores democratic practices. Plus, the Cuban government must initiate a dialogue to become a participating member. The OAS also suspended Honduras for a period following the 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. 

The General Assembly is the main body of the OAS and consists of representatives from all member states, who meet once a year—typically in June. The Permanent Council works for the General Assembly and regulates relations between members. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a regional court that rules on human rights issues, and the Inter-American Juridical Committee rules on international disputes. The Inter-American Council for Integral Development promotes regional cooperation on social development and poverty elimination. The OAS organizes one of the region’s most important meetings: the Summit of the Americas, which brings together heads of state from OAS member countries to discuss regional issues every two to three years.

One of the main challenges of the OAS is the perceived struggle to maintain its legitimacy. The Washington-based organization has also lost clout amid a growing sense of autonomy in Latin America and a focus on regional integration efforts that exclude the United States, such as CELAC and UNASUR. After the Honduran crisis in 2009, some viewed the organization as unable to uphold the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Resistance comes from within the United States as well: in July 2011, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to cut the U.S. government’s entire annual contribution for the OAS, budgeted at $48.5 million. However, the bill never passed. In early 2012, the Obama administration proposed to increase OAS funding by $1.5 million in 2013 to a total of $51.1 million. 

OEI: The Organization of Ibero-American States includes all Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America, as well as Equatorial Guinea, Portugal, and Spain. Composed of three councils, the OEI was founded in 1949 to encourage cooperation in culture, education, and science. One of the main objectives is to improve education; a 2010 report set goals to expand educational opportunities by 2021. The OEI headquarters are located in Madrid, and the King of Spain is the honorary head. Leaders of OEI member countries meet each year at the Ibero-American Summit, though in the last few years participation of Latin American presidents has waned, possibly due to what some observers call “summit fatigue.”

OECS: Based in Castries, Saint Lucia, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States was founded in 1981 to promote regional and economic integration. There are seven full members: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands are associate members. In 2008, Venezuela requested membership, but it has not been granted. 

Since 2008, the OECS has pursued an economic union to create a single market with Trinidad and Tobago, though negotiations are pending. The OECS includes a Secretariat, a Supreme Court, a Central Bank, a civil aviation authority, a telecommunications agency, and a regional security system. The Economic Union Treaty is one of the central agreements of the OECS and allows for the free movement of goods, people, and capital between member countries.

Pacific Alliance: Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru signed the Pacific Accord on April 28, 2011 to form the Alianza del Pacífico, which hopes to ease the flow of capital, goods, people, and services between the four countries and to create a trade bloc to negotiate agreements with Asia and regional allies. Panama is an observer. The organization also seeks to serve as a counterweight to MERCOSUR and to work together on other regional integration and trade measures, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The first presidential meeting was held in December 2011 in Mérida, Mexico, to discuss initial details of the alliance. Chile will host another leaders meeting in June 2012 to formalize integration measures. 

The group’s goal is to eventually encompass all Latin American countries along the Pacific. Moreover, the alliance established the creation of a joint stock exchange called the Integrated Latin American Market (MILA). Launched in May 2010 by Chile, Colombia, and Peru, Mexico agreed to join last December. When Mexico assumes membership, MILA will become the largest joint stock exchange in Latin America.

Rio Group: Created in December 1986 with the signing of the Declaration of Rio de Janeiro, this organization sought to serve as an alternative body to the Organization of American States during the Cold War. There are 23 members: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Each year, heads of state meet to discuss political cooperation, international policy coordination, and development issues. There is no secretariat, and annual meetings are held in a different city every year. During the 2010 summit, the group proposed a new regional body, which developed into CELAC.

SELA: Founded in 1975 and headquartered in Caracas, the Latin American and the Caribbean Economic System is an organization of 27 countries joined together to promote regional integration and economic policy coordination. Its members consist of Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The Latin American Council is the main body of the organization, which meets annually with government and business representatives to discuss economic policy. 

SICA: The Central American Integration System is made up of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, and was founded in December 1991. SICA seeks to promote economic development and political cooperation within member countries. The Dominican Republic is an associate member, and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Spain serve as observers. The headquarters are located in El Salvador. SICA institutions include a bank for economic integration, a parliament, a court of justice, and a biannual presidential summit. During a 2006 SICA summit, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua signed the CA-4 border agreement, allowing the free movement of people across their borders. In April 2011, SICA opened the Operative Center for Regional Security in Panama to coordinate information between Central America and the United States to combat organized crime. SICA also hopes to create a customs union in the future.

UNASUR: The umbrella organization for MERCOSUR and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is modeled after the European Union. Headquartered in Quito, Ecuador, UNASUR formed with the signing of the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty in May 2008 in Brasilia. Presidents preside for one year before rotating, with the current president being Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. As members of Mercosur and CAN, the following countries are UNASUR members: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. There are three additional members: Chile, an associate member of both organizations; and Guyana and Suriname, signatories to the Brasilia treaty. Mexico has expressed interest in joining UNASUR, a move supported by many member countries.

UNASUR also includes a South American Parliament based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and the Bank of the South, based in Caracas, Venezuela. Created in 2009 with $7 billion in capital, the Bank aims to fund development projects and foster regional trade. However, the bank has yet to begin operations, since a minimum of 5 member countries had to approve the Bank’s Constitution; Uruguay became the fifth in December 2011. While Brazil’s Congress did not yet approve the Constitution, it expressed interest in approving the Bank—but also in assuming control of it. Like the EU, UNASUR’s goal is to move to a single currency and market, a shared passport, and a parliament. The South American Defense Council, founded in 2008, coordinates regional security policy. 

Mark Keller contributed to this report.