ARGENTINA & BRAZIL: From Warring Neighbors to Strategic Partners

A 2017 report by the World Bank suggests that if Latin America is to achieve stable economic growth through trade, it should do so through regional economic integration, institutionalizing and incentivizing trade and cooperation between its neighboring nations. Intraregional exports persistently remain at a relatively low 20 percent of total exports, yet if the Latin countries wish to become competitive in the global market, they should first strengthen their economies by further engaging with one another, the report advises.

There is nothing new to the notion of Latin American integration, it having arguably started as early as the 19th century by Venezuelan independence leader Simón Bolívar, who freed Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama from Spanish rule. Having briefly united northern South America into Gran Colombia, Bolívar held the 1826 Congress of Panama in order to promote cooperation and consultation between the newly independent nations of the Americas, the first congress of its kind.

Although his ideals were not attained, Bolivar's dream of integration lived on in Latin America: Argentina and Brazil, two historical rivals, would go on to found the continent’s most successful trade bloc. Relations went from open hostility to aloofness and antagonism, finally culminating in unlikely cooperation. In a narrative of competition, these two nations have become forbearers of Latin American integration.

Argentina and Brazil's rivalry predates their existence as sovereign nation-states. With Argentina as a part of the Spanish colony of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and Brazil as a colony and later kingdom of the Portuguese Empire, the two European metropoles engaged in skirmishes over territorial disputes throughout southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and especially Uruguay, geographically located in between. These disputes would continue even after Argentina and Brazil declared their independences–the former in 1816 and the latter in 1822.

As soon as 1825 the two young nations were already fighting for control of Uruguay–at the time a province of the Empire of Brazil–in what came to be known as the Cisplatine War. The conflict would end in 1828 with the mediated independence of Uruguay from its two more powerful neighbors, who were also to become the guarantors of its self-determination. However, it set an early and unpleasant precedent for Argentinean-Brazilian relations and for Uruguay’s unfortunate role as a proxy of the two.

Following the Cisplatine War, the three countries saw a time of high political instability. Brazil, whose monarch had not yet come of age to rule, was governed by regents of provisional mandate and faced various rebellions throughout its territory, including a separatist movement in its southernmost province that was backed by its Argentinean and Uruguayan neighbors. Meanwhile, the newly formed Oriental State of Uruguay entered a civil war of its own in 1839 between its Blanco and Colorado parties, both of which were supported by different Argentinean and Brazilian political factions. Only Argentina managed to maintain order under the rule of the hardline caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, who asserted control by persecuting his opposition, fending off foreign powers and meddling in the affairs of his neighboring countries.

Soon, Uruguay would once again become the battleground for Argentina and Brazil’s imperialistic ambitions during the Platine War, when Rosas entered the Uruguayan conflict in order to depose Colorado President José Fructuoso Rivera and place his Blanco ally, Manuel Oribe, in power. Rosas, who aimed to reestablish the Vice-Royalty of the Río de la Plata–encompassing Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia–, then allowed military incursions into Brazilian territory. Brazil–which by now had quelled its southern rebellion–responded by joining with Argentinean and Uruguayan dissidents and retaliating.

After defeating Oribe in 1851 and Rosas in 1852, Brazil had removed its enemy governments and placed friendlier ones in their places, stabilizing the La Plata Basin and cementing its hegemony over it. However, this fragile stability did not last long, as rogue Colorado Venancio Flores overthrew Uruguay’s new coalition government 1863.

Although Flores could count on Argentinean and Brazilian support, the ousted Uruguayan Blancos now had the backing of Paraguay, whose President Francisco Solano López hoped to challenge Argentinean and Brazilian dominance over the region. When Brazil intervened in Uruguay in support of Flores, Paraguay responded by invading Brazil. The Paraguayan request for military passage in order to get to Uruguay, however, was denied by Argentina, which Paraguay, consequently, also invaded.

Argentina, Brazil and the Uruguayan Colorado government signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance in 1865 and fought back, all but destroying Paraguay in what came to be the longest and bloodiest conflict in South American history–the Paraguay War, or the War of the Triple Alliance. But, although Argentina and Brazil had managed to work together to defeat a common enemy, as soon as the war was over disagreements arose over territorial claims and the partitioning of Paraguay. Relations remained tense.

The war strengthened the Brazilian military, which in 1889 dethroned Emperor Pedro II, establishing a military-led, conservative republic. Argentina meanwhile saw unprecedented growth and development at the hands of its own military-backed conservative elite. Yet despite being at peace and relative prosperity, there remained a latent distrust between the two.

At the turn of the century, this mutual suspicion led both countries to engage in an arms race for naval supremacy. As Cristian Garay notes in his "Las Carreras Armamentistas Navales Entre Argentina, Chile y Brasil (1891-1923)," neither party discarded the possibility of going to war with the other and both hoped to use their military might as means of achieving international projection and prestige, importing ever more powerful warships from Europe in the South American Dreadnought Race.

This climate of competition was only briefly interrupted in 1915, when the ABC Pact was drafted between Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Officially the Non-Aggression, Consultation and Arbitration Pact, it was meant not only to prevent conflict between the most powerful nations in Latin America, but also to counter American influence in the region, especially when it translated into Brazilian favoritism in international affairs.

However, rather than banding together, each nation eventually followed distinct foreign policies. In the end, the pact was only ratified in Brazil, where it had little impact, given how much the country had to gain from cooperating with the United States. Argentina, on the other hand, remained aligned to Great Britain, with which it had strong economies ties.

In the years between the First and Second World Wars, just as most of the world, Argentina and Brazil both experienced high political unrest, resulting in a period of military rule. 1930 saw coup’ d’états in both countries. In Argentina, conservative army officer José Félix Uriburu overthrew radicalist President Hipólito Yrigoyen and was succeeded by Agustín Justo in 1932. In Brazil, meanwhile, Getúlio Vargas, of the Liberal Alliance, prevented conservative President-elect Júlio Prestes from taking office. Ultimately, the two regimes gravitated towards corporatism, populism and nationalism, with turmoil and insurgency ensuing. These were met with increased authoritarianism and oppression.

At time when both governments shared political and ideological similarities, relations improved, as evidenced by Justo being the first Argentinean head of state to visit Brazil and Vargas later reciprocating the state visit. Even in the international realm, both nations courted the European Axis powers. Where they diverged, however, was in Brazil shifting its affinity towards the US at the outbreak of World War II, joining the Allies in 1942, while Argentina remained skeptical of North American collaboration and stayed neutral until the last year of the conflict.

As both countries transitioned into democracies at the end of the war, the issue of whether to embrace North American assistance or seek national development independently became a source of tension and instability. Argentina elected nationalist Colonel Juan Perón and Brazil elected pro-American Marshall Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Yet, here, the people would soon return to a nationalist administration in 1950, when Vargas achieved office once again–this time through popular vote.

As mentioned by G.L. Gardini, Perón, in 1952, tried to revive the ABC Pact as a customs union with Brazil and Chile. Despite all parties seeming to approve of the idea, Vargas never formally acted on it in order not to jeopardize economic cooperation with the United States at a time when approval was low. He even came to suffer backlash from the country’s americanophile elites, as the opposition used his association to the very notion of advancing regional integration as political propaganda against him.

Facing fierce antagonism and the threat of mutiny, Vargas committed suicide in 1954. Perón, meanwhile, was exiled the following year. For the rest of the fifties and first half of the sixties, nationalist and anti-nationalist presidents alternated power, with plenty of military interference throughout.

A great stride was made towards approximation in 1961, when, after meeting in the town of Uruguaiana, Argentina’s President Arturo Frondizi and Brazil’s President Jânio Quadros signed the Declaration of Uruguaiana and the Convention of Friendship and Consultation. As Gardini notes, the former document “urged common action to advance democracy and freedom and to solve international problems,” while the latter “proposed a permanent system of consultation and information; greater economic, legal, financial and cultural integration; as well the drafting of legislation to allow the free movement of people between the two countries”.

Ultimately, the agreements would never be effected, as Frondizi was forcibly replaced and the Argentinean Senate never ratified the agreements. Three years later, Brazil’s own democratic nationalist government would be overthrown and military rule would be instated. Argentina’s democracy would also fall shortly thereafter, in 1966.

The nationalist efforts to emancipate Argentina and Brazil from foreign influence through regional cooperation may have been the first significant step towards integration, but the populist governments that initiated these efforts did not have the political capital to follow through with them. The dictatorships that took over would be strong abiders of political realism, strictly prioritizing national interests and power over mutual effort and bargaining.

The next attempt towards integration came in 1967, when Brazil invited Argentina to form a sectorial customs union covering the metallurgical, petrochemical and agricultural sectors. According to Gardini, trade barriers were to be reduced within five years and later removed altogether. However, this initiative was seen as detrimental to Argentina’s own efforts of industrialization and, in the end, protective interests in both countries prevailed.

The 1970s saw conflict over shared water resources of the Alto Paraná watershed, which had potential for being explored as an energy source. With the two governments at odds, relations soured. Both countries engaged in geopolitical one-upmanship in an attempt to contain each other's growing regional influence. When Argentina signed an economic agreement with Uruguay in 1974, Brazil followed suit and signed one in 1975. After Brazil signed an agreement with Paraguay for dam construction in shared waterways, Argentina did the same a few months later. In 1977, tensions finally peaked when Argentina and Brazil limited the passage of one another’s trucks through their borders.

This enmity prompted both nations to be cautious of one another’s military capabilities. Argentina’s 1974 bilateral agreement with Uruguay posed enough of a threat to Brazilian hegemony that President Ernesto Geisel considered the possibility of declaring war. As both administrations developed parallel nuclear programs, the other’s capacity to launch a nuclear attack was always taken into consideration. The spread of asymmetric information led both countries to believe the other had a military advantage, increasing the likelihood of  escalation.

The situation turned significantly when United States President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1979 and American foreign policy took a less tolerant stance on Latin American dictatorships, ceasing to back them. According to Gardini, the American government also intensified its support of nuclear nonproliferation, which hindered the Southern Cone powers’ nuclear aspirations. Argentina and Brazil’s shared worries meant they could no longer count on foreign support in their competition for power, leading to a move towards rapprochement between the two.

That same year the two countries reached a compromise on issue of the disputed waterways through the Tripartite Agreement and in 1980 Brazilian President João Figueiredo went on a state visit to Buenos Aires. Agreements were reached on the development of nuclear energy; the joint construction of airplanes and rockets; the interconnectivity of both countries’ electrical systems and on establishing a mechanism of permanent consultation between foreign ministers.

Yet, domestically, Argentina’s military junta faced heavy civil opposition. As a gamble for resurrection, Argentinean armed forces invaded the British-controlled Falkland, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in 1982, kicking off the Falklands War. In the wake of a regional crisis, Brazil followed its realist strategy, favoring its own national interests by distancing itself from the conflict, but making sure not to alienate its potential associate. Publically, it backed Argentina’s claims over the islands and helped mediate a resolution within the international community. Covertly, however, it supplied weapons to the struggling sanctioned Argentineans while at the same time granting passage to British aircraft.

Argentina’s defeat in the war spelled the abrupt end of military rule in 1983. Brazil, meanwhile, went through a gradual process of democratization that installed an indirectly elected president in 1985 and oversaw direct presidential elections in 1989. The neighbors’ newfound cooperation was speedily institutionalized by a series of legal measures, explored by Laura Gómez-Mera in Power and Regionalism in Latin America: The Politics of Mercosur, throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, including the guarantee of Latin American integration as one of the fundamental principles of Brazil’s new democratic constitution.

As Gómez-Mera writes, 1986 saw the signing of the Program for Integration and Economic Cooperation, followed by the Treaty of Integration and Cooperation in 1988, the Treaty of Integration, Development and Cooperation in 1989 and the Buenos Aires Act in 1990, all of which were to culminate in the establishment of a common market between the two. Paraguay and Uruguay were included in the agreements through the 1991 Treaty of Asunción and in 1994 the Ouro Preto Protocol gave the Southern Common Market, or Mercosul/Mercosur, its own legal status and international negotiating power as a negotiating bloc and the following year the countries agreed to common external tariffs, turning it into a customs union.

Since its inception, Mercosul has seen highs and lows. Trade between its members did increase, but there were issues on maintaining negotiating unity, agreeing on tariffs and fully liberalizing trade, not to mention disagreements on currency values. Nevertheless, despite the bloc’s present stagnation, it is the most fully realized integration project in South America. Not only is it an important tool for stability and cooperation, but it is also a meaningful step for broader Latin American integration, especially in its potential as a means for stabilizing economic growth and strengthening intraregional trade. Just as importantly, however, it is evidence of the capacity for two regional powers to overcome their differences and coexist harmoniously.

The future of Latin American integration may seem uncertain. Today, both Argentina and Brazil continue to face internal restlessness. But while the historic rivalry between the two remains rooted within their nations' public consciousness, the modern political reality could not be more different. Both countries have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to set aside their differences and take on the roles of leaders, choosing to face the future together rather than apart. At a time when different peoples and economies are increasingly coming into contact with one another, the story of this unconventional relationship stands out as a model for the rest of the world to learn from.