UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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MERCOSUR: A Space for Interaction,
a Space for Integration

A Research and Network Project

One of the most significant current transformations in the Southern Cone of Latin America is the launching of MERCOSUR (Mercado Comun del Sur), a regional integration initiative that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as current members, with negotiations towards including also Chile and Bolivia 1. A treaty was signed by the four countries in March 1991, although Brazil and Argentina had already been engaged in a bilateral program of integration and co-operation since 1985. In the words of a leading analyst of the process, after reviewing the performance in several economic dimensions: « Mercosur is much more than a commercial or investment phenomenon. It is a historical, cultural and political phenomenon, with vast ramifications in the Latin American and international scene » 2.

The majority of the regional integration projects are first and foremost economic processes. They are based on the political will of elites and on political decisions on the part of governments and powerful economic agents. The European Community stands out as the single initiator of a new stage of integration, with the increasing importance of the European Parliament and the new European passport 3. As for other integration projects (NAFTA, ASEAN), economic aspects are disproportionately highlighted in discussions dominated by issues such as commerce, productive integration, and finance. Beyond the initial global accords, sectorial negotiatons (be they the automobile industry or agreements about educational credentials) are taking place, including the relevant actors in each case. Styles of leadership, entrepreneurial cultures, stereotypes of each other, rivalries and mistrust, may hinder negotiations 4, but at the end, economic rationality will tend to prevail.

Political discussions of the integration process follow the logic of political calculations and decision-making. Inter-governmental agreements about economic and commercial norms have advanced the furthest, at times facing opposition from particular interest groups. Other issues may be more difficult. The discussions about educational credentials, by contrast, have been very hard and protracted, especially when the issue is the validity of professional degrees. And issues of residency, migration and work permits have not yet been negotiated. In this political and governmental arena, the economic and commercial levels of integration overshadow cultural factors and traditions.

The sectorial approach has undoubtedly helped catalyse the initial stages of economic and political negotiations. Sectorial negotiations can be handled with relative ease, since the issues are clear and explicit. Furthermore, the logic involved is straightforward and there are shared codes and norms on which to ground the discussions, although underneath the explicit matters of negotiation, another layer of meanings involving subjective and cultural dimensions of the process of integration is present, and may influence the outcome of negotiations.

Overall objectives

This programme is geared to understand the process of dialogue and integration at the level of societies and cultures. Each nation, and the different social groups within it, approach the other nations with a set of traditions, cultural values, and views about each other, and these influence the way integration is going to proceed. There are fears of the small vis-à-vis the big; fear of competition in the labour market; historically constructed senses of reliance and distrust of each other; forms of discrimination and xenophobia. Unveiling them, and looking at the patterns in which social dialogue and interaction are evolving, is the aim of this programme.

This cultural focus requires two comments. First, as in other cases of regional integration, the negotiations and accords within MERCOSUR are done « at the top », i.e. among governmental and/or powerful economic actors. At that level, there is no room for societal participation. Societies may feel the impact and consequences of decisions taken, they may adjust to circumstances and conditions, but no other social actors are included in the process. Yet they exist and are important. Thus the need to call attention and to study them, to look at social structures, institutional networks, and patterns of social relations. In fact, many other actors and societal forces are becoming active at the regional level, such as scientific and university communities, social movements (feminism, environmentalism, indigenous peoples, human rights movements), non-governmental organisations of various sorts (such as those engaged in the promotion of active citizenship of federations of grassroots organisations). There are also cultural and media phenomena that should be looked at.

Second, in a sectorial approach, « culture » can be incorporated and negotiated as a product; there may be agreements about mass media, about commerce of cultural and symbolic goods, even about preservation of cultural heritage (as the MERCOSUR initiative regarding Jesuit missions). But there is another meaning of the word « culture », namely the collective constructions of codes and systems of social representations that permeate economic, social and political activities; a meaning that is present, though invisible, in the processes of integration and dialogue. Therefore, this project proposal is interested in the identities of the producers, the web of social relations that give meaning to interaction and dialogue, the creative potential (including of cultural products not yet existing) that can emerge in the process of integration.

The road to regional integration in MERCOSUR is just opening up. While this fact should be recognised (and the project has to incorporate its study), the links between societies and states involved have strong historical roots: economically and culturally, the boundaries between countries have been quite porous, not only in terms of purely economic transactions. Migratory flows in various directions, both for economic reasons and due to political exile, cultural exchanges of various sorts, and tourism, have been quite intense (though a-symmetrical among countries). Cultural activities, especially music, have been crossing borders continuously. And even military and security ties between the countries have been quite strong, as the horrifying experience of joint state terror during the military dictatorships of the seventies have shown. Such antecedents are highly significant in setting the stage for the new process of regional integration.

It is expected that this programme will shed light on societal mechanisms that underlie the processes of dialogue among societies and cultures, the basis of mutual respect and concern, and the structures and institutions that may foster inter-cultural creativity. Given the history and current manifestations of discrimination, cultural warfare and xenophobia, the project is ultimately aimed at searching for and putting into practice the means to foster solidarity and understanding.

Researchers and institutions involved

Elizabeth Jelin (project leader), Un. de Buenos Aires
Alejandro Grimson, Universidad de Buenos Aires
Alicia Frohman, FLACSO, Santiago
Aníbal Ford, Universidad de Buenos Aires
Carmen Felicitas Lent, IDAC, Rio de Janeiro
Fernando Calderón, PNUD, La Paz
Gerardo Caetano, Universidad de La República
Héctor Jacquet, Un. Nacional de Misiones, Posadas
Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda, UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro
Hugo Achugar, Un. de La República, Montevideo
Javier Sanjines, Duke University
Line Bareiro, CDE, Asunción
Roberto Abinzano, Un. Nac. de Misiones, Posadas
Ruben Oliven, UFRGS, Porto Alegre
Silvia Rabich de Galperín, Un. de Buenos Aires
Teresa Valdés, FLACSO, Santiago
Ticio Escobar, Dirección de Cultura, Asunción

1. Chile signed the treatry with the four countries in June 1996 (San Luis, Argentina). Negotiations are under way with Bolivia, but also Venezuela also seems to be interested.

2. Aldo Ferrer, Mercosur: Trayectoria, situación actual y perspectivas. Desarrollo Económico, No. 140, Vol. 35, Jan-March 1996, describes and evaluates the process of integration.

3. Issues of diversity of language, culture and identity still loom quite large and are considered to be important in the EC. Language differences are of less relevance in MERCOSUR (Spanish and Portuguese being sufficiently close that mutual understanding is not difficult). Issues of indigenous peoples and languages, however, may become significant.

4. A (confidential) report of a participant in a MERCOSUR negotiation about quality standards in the food industry can be used as a good example of this type of phenomenon. He reports that the meeting was very difficult, at times almost violent, yet there was nothing in the content of what was being discussed that could justify such aggressive behaviour. Seemingly, the « sub-text » was the racism of some of the participants, who could not discuss the issues on an equal standing with two of the Brazilian negotiators, who were blacks.

Co-ordination UNESCO/MOST :
Carlos S. Milani

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