San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CA Integration: Revolution in Slow Motion

Part one in a two-part series on Central American integration
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Centuries before the first tentative steps were made to create what would eventually become today’s European Union (EU), the isthmus of Central America was already in its heyday of regional integration.
In the 16th century, the Spanish-led Captaincy General of Guatemala unified the isthmus in a colonial model that later paved the way for an independent and short-lived Federal Republic of Central America, a representative democracy that unified the modern-day nations of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. That Federal Republic, and its ultimate demise in 1838, represented both the greatest achievement and the biggest historical setback to a greater Central American unity, which has since regressed to an infancy stage compared to 150 years ago.
Today, while the EU has reshaped the political, social, economic and financial reality of Europe – uniting 27 countries, 495 million people and nearly two dozen languages – in Central America, integration remains a frustrated process among seven countries separated by similar histories, a common language and close geographical proximity. The difference in the level of integration advances in Europe and Central America is even more noteworthy considering that both modern-day processes started around the same time in the 1950s.
The institutional framework of Central American integration started out in the 1950s as the Charter of Organization of Central American States (ODECA) before later evolving into the Central American Integration System (known as SICA by its initials in Spanish) in 1991, with a mandate to unify the region to promote peace, development and human rights following the Central American wars of the 1970s and 1980s.
SICA, whose members today include Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and “associate state” membership by the Dominican Republic, has since developed a weak political arm – the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), whose only function is consultative – and a judicial arm in the Central American Court. Headquartered in El Salvador, SICA also has a treaty of economic integration – a process that has been solidified in recent years by the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States and the Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA).
Yet despite some advances over the years, there are many who are skeptical of Central American integration, claiming the process is stuck on a treadmill and will never advance so long as Costa Rica is not on board. SICA, too, can appear at times like an institution without clear mandate and one that is bogged down in its own alphabet soup of 58 bureaucratic commissions, programs and protocols.
But for those who are dedicated to the daily work of integrating the isthmus, the panorama looks different.
Oscar Alfredo Santamaría, former secretary general of SICA, says that even though advances aren’t happening quickly, when they do occur they tend to be permanent, moving the process irreversibly forward.
“There is an accumulated effect” of Central American integration, Santamaría says, adding that he chooses to “see the glass half full” because SICA has already achieved the important groundwork of creating the institutions for integration, without which all other future efforts would prove wobbly.
William Pleitez, of the United Nations Development Program in El Salvador, says that Central American integration is “gradualism based on pragmatism, with a series of small steps forward that make the process practically impossible to turn back.”
“Part of the problem with Central American integration,” Pleitez says, “is that many confuse the means with an end.”
For example, Pleitez says, CAFTA was viewed as a “panacea” to Central America’s under-development problems, when in reality it is just one element in a working process that continues.
CAFTA, ironically, has also proved to be both the greatest integration advance in recent years as well as an Achilles heel, whereby each country negotiated individually and on its own terms with the United States, rather than as a strategic bloc with a common agenda.
Unequal Integration
Central American integration, for the most part, remains an asymmetrical process, with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua – countries known together as the CA-4 bloc – more committed to the process than Costa Rica and relative newcomers Belize and Panama, which still doesn’t consider itself as part of Central America.
All the CA-4 countries have ratified both the Central American Court of Justice and the PARLACEN, while Costa Rica has not ratified either and was the last to join CAFTA. The CA-4 countries have also opened their borders to cross-country tourism, allowing citizens of member states to travel from Guatemala to Nicaragua without a passport and without having to pay a tourist visa card. And steps are being made toward adopting a single CA-4 passport, which El Salvador has already started to issue its citizens, as well as a common CA-4 visa for tourists from other parts of the world to move freely among the four countries.
Costa Rica, which has more institutional stability and greater relative prosperity than its neighbors, has taken the attitude that it has the most to lose from integration with its neighbors.
The experts, however, again point to the example of the EU and the benefits that integration has had on Ireland and Spain without sinking Germany, France and England as proof that integration lifts all boats and improves the whole neighborhood, rather than dropping everyone to the lowest point. “Costa Rica needs to rethink its role,” Pleitez says.
Hector Dada, an economist with SICA’s Support Program for Central American Integration (PAIRCA), agrees. “Costa Rica will do more by integrating than by walking alone,” he says. “Joining the club is a way to maximize its own interests.”
Outside of the formal institutional structure of SICA, Central American integration is happening at an even faster rate among sectors that have already discovered the benefits of unifying. Non-governmental organizations commonly do cross-border work and cooperation; tourists and tour operators increasingly cross borders to discover Central America as a region; Nicaraguan immigrants travel to Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras to help bring in the harvests; Costa Rican electronic distributors have expanded all the way to Guatemala; Miskito Indians cross between Honduras and Nicaragua as if there were no border; Central American fisherman cooperate on the high seas, and have even formed regional fishery associations and a common Central American fishing policy; militaries cooperate to respond to natural disasters; and energy from Panama and Guatemala is bought by Nicaragua on the Central American grid like any other online purchase.
Some think that the pragmatism of grassroots integration should serve as an example to those who have made Central American integration an ideological issue (see separate story, page 2).
In the end, boosters insist, Central American integration is about surviving in a globalized world and making Central America a regional and international player.
“The EU is a good example to us of where we can go,” Santamaría said. “The only way for us is to integrate…but time waiting is time wasted because there is a world current in that direction.”
Next: Future Challenges – The Central American Customs Union and Negotiations with the EU.

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