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.

Project purpose

The programme is designed to examine the processes of dialogue and integration at the level of societies and cultures within the framework of MERCOSUR regional economic integration. Programme research findings will contribute to improve social and cultural regional integration of the MERCOSUR member countries and thus bring sustainable benefits to target groups.

Results and activities

The activities proposed to be carried out during the first year (creation of network, workshops, theme identification) should lead to the results expected (programme issues and methodology elaborated).

The strategy to develop the project is based on some initial decisions:

  • The project will involve Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay (that means a broad definition of MERCOSUR).
  • The project is inter-disciplinary, with specialists that can contribute to the study of the collective representations and of subjective webs, as well as to the specific spheres of dialogue that will be dealt with.
  • The study involves the creation and activation of local and regional networks. In that sense, the project is in itself an experiment in interaction and integration within MERCOSUR. By developing a network of reflection and dialogue about the process of integration, it becomes itself part of the scientific and academic process of integration.
  • The network incorporates persons and teams of the various countries, affiliated with different types of institutions: universities, NGOs, research centres as well as government and international agencies.
  • Since the project is seen as a process of collective dialogue and interaction, it would be contradictory with its outlook to present a full and complete project in this initial stage. The project itself has to evolve from dialogue and interaction.

There are four central tasks during the first year (initial stage):

  1. The creation and activation of a regional network of researchers, within and across disciplines. The core of this network is already established. The first workshop of experts and researchers took place in Buenos Aires in November 1996, under the auspices of UNESCO/MOST. Its goal was to enlist interest and commitment, and to initiate the collection of existing sources and documents on the subject. In this meeting, the outline of a broader and more encompassing multi-country research programme was discussed, and the possible means to implement were explored. With the support of MOST and CLACSO, electronic discussions were planned to begin soon after the workshop.
  2. The refinement of a conceptual framework for the understanding of inter-cultural dialogue and integration, including the revision and analysis of comparative studies of other processes of integration in the world. A bibliographical search on information about past and present contacts among the countries of the region, as well as a bibliographical search on the same matters for other regions, will be a necessary part of this task and will constitute a product in itself.
  3. The organisation of a Databank and a bibliographical search on the themes of the programme, to be shared among participants and other interested professionals. The organisation of a map measuring the intensity of regional integration, rooted in flows of people, flows of trade, communication and frontier interaction.
  4. The preparation of working documents (of conceptual character) which will analyse relevant research on the integration process. Some of the themes to be worked in these documents are: national identity, ethnicity and nacionalism; citizenship and local, national and regional policies; frontiers as spaces of daily interaction/integration; social perceptions of the other, of the integration process and identity question; integration, inequalities and differences in new technologies and mass media.

The selection of specific themes and areas for in-depth research and the design of the research projects for the next stage: initially, four spheres of interaction and dialogue have been selected for further analysis and follow-up: scientific and university projects; social movements networks (women's movements, environmental, human rights, indigenous peoples), non-governmental organisations networks (especially those concerning citizenship participation and philanthropy), and cultural exchanges and activities (organised on a non-profit basis).

An exploratory study of the way the issue of integration into the MERCOSUR is perceived and dealt with in each country. As a first step, the proposal includes a preliminary review of existing public opinion surveys that cover attitudes and opinions (stereotypes) regarding the other nations, and a study of the way the societal and cultural dimensions of MERCOSUR are presented in the national media in each country.

The project team is aware that strong interactive links will have to be established with researchers that are involved in studying two special aspects of the integration process: on the one hand, the study of the interaction/integration in frontier areas (e.g., the Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil knot, the isolation of Central Chile due to high mountains, the historical links between Bolivia and Northern Argentina). On the other hand, the studies that concern the formal negotiations as they unfold, both economical and political, and the outcomes and results of these negotiations.

In order to accomplish these tasks, the following methodology is proposed:

  • Research tasks to be performed in each country:
    1. a systematic review of literature in each country;
    2. the collection and exploratory analysis of secondary data about images and perceptions of the MERCOSUR process. Existing public opinion polls and press and media coverage will be reviewed for that purpose.
  • Exploratory country reports on images and perceptions on the MERCOSUR process, and the initial documentation and bibliographical references will constitute the basic input for a workshop-seminar. Besides these papers, short discussion papers of specific thematic areas will be commissioned. The specific themes of these presentations will be decided in consultation with project participants. All of these papers will have a regional focus and will deal with inter-country dialogue and interaction, rather than with specific countries.

  • Initially (and subject to revision and refinement) the themes will cover:
    1. scientific exchanges and inter-university projects;
    2. social movements networks (women's movements, environmental, human rights, indigenous peoples);
    3. non-governmental organisations networks (especially those concerning citizenship participation and philanthropy;
    4. cultural exchanges and activities (organised on a non-profit basis);
    5. integration and interaction in frontier areas;
    6. the process of official negotiations (political and economic).

Assumptions and risks

Project co-financing risks are reduced to the extent that the preparatory assistance project has been well prepared and clearly identifies the practical, social policy output to be derived from the scientific contribution. Participating institutional co-operation risks should also be reduced given the substantial experience and traditional good co-operation of the institutions implementing the project.

Means and costs

The means and costs necessary to carry out the preparatory work are specified in the table below. The preparatory work is estimated to cost $60,000 over a twelve-month period. Participating institutions are supporting the project through in-kind contributions (researcher's salaries, communications, publication costs and meeting facilities). In addition, UNESCO's MOST Programme will provide $15,000 in the form of « seed money » and will organise a meeting to launch the project (end of 1996). To bridge the financing gap and implement this preparatory assistance additional co-financing totalling $60,000 is actively being sought.

Budget US $

6 research assistants (part-time, 300 US$/month)
communications (150 US$/month)
supplies, reproduction
Honorarium of co-ordinator (500 US$/month)
organisation of network and database (500 US$/month)

Final Workshop, twenty participants
Honorarium for paper preparation (5 papers)

Elements ensuring sustainability

The project benefits from two critical elements of sustainability: Policy environment support and managerial and scientific capacity of the institutions participating in the network and their ability to carry out the proposed research. Researchers and institutions involved in the project are clearly identified. MERCOSUR and its member countries actively support the project which further contributes to its viability.


The innovative approach of the project and the envisaged scientific work should contribute with concrete research findings to strengthen the cultural and social integration of the countries participating in the project. Major preliminary work includes the setting up of a network composed of MERCOSUR policy-makers, private sector leaders, researchers, NGOs and associations to define priorities within MERCOSUR, identification of main areas of study, preparation of appropriate methodology, and the organisation of two workshops. Particular attention will be given to involving all actors concerned by the project during the formulation stages of the project. The issues involved are of considerable interest to researchers, policy-makers and hopefully to development partners potentially interested in bridging the financial gap of the preparatory assistance in the immediate future and in co-financing the envisaged project.

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
    Suely Rolnik, PUC-SP, São Paulo
    Teresa Valdés, FLACSO, Santiago
    Ticio Escobar, Dirección de Cultura, Asunción

Initially, the network and research planning will be co­ordinated by Elizabeth Jelin (Buenos Aires), but it is expected that co-ordination will be rotating among lead participants (one per country).


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

2. Beginning on January 1, 1995, the four countries follow a schedule of converging external tarifs that is leading to a common pattern within about four years (depending of types of products). Total free trade within the region is to be achieved within two years. The negotiation process is progressing rapidly, and results are quite extraordinary: Intraregional trade increased at a rate of 22% per year between 1985 (when the bilateral agreement between Argentina and Brazil was signed) and 1994. Major investment programs, joint economic ventures, administrative negotiations among governments leading to convergent norms and practices, and so on, have progressed despite the political and economic turbulences experienced by the current member countries. 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 at UNESCO/MOST

Carlos S. Milani
Division of social sciences, research and policy
Social and Human Sciences Sector

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