Year XLIV, 2002, Number 1, Page 8
The Role of Regional Parliaments
In the Process of Regional Integration:
The Case of the Central American Parliament.
IOANNIS F. PAPAGEORGIOU
1. Introduction: The History of Regional Integration in Central America
The success of European integration and the stability and prosperity it offers has produced followers elsewhere in the world. However, the majority of these regional integration schemes are limited to economic objectives that avoid ambitious political goals. This is particularly true in the American continent where, despite linguistic and cultural affinities, the various regional integration schemes have remained within the framework of intergovernmental, mainly economic, cooperation. A notable exception to this pattern is Central America. This area has produced the most politically advanced integration process seen in the Americas, and it also has several unique characteristics that deserve particular attention, especially on the part of European federalists.
The five countries of the Central American isthmus (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) share a long and common past. They formed part of the Mayan cultural area and, following the Spanish Conquest, became a separate administrative unit (the General Captaincy of Guatemala) within the Vice-Royalty of New Spain (Mexico). During the struggle for independence from Spain in the 1820s, Central America, after a brief annexation to the Mexican Empire, declared its independence as a federal state, the United Provinces of Central America. However, fights between political factions and among provinces led to the dissolution of the Federation in 1838. Notwithstanding this initial failure, the dream of Central American union, the “patria grande”, inspired a number of attempts to reconstruct the Federation. Each of these failed for reasons similar to those that had earlier led to its demise: local antagonism, lack of communication, absence of democratic traditions, insufficient economic and political development, foreign intervention.
It was only after the Second World War that a successful integration scheme appeared: the Central American Common Market (C.A.C.M.). Founded in 1960, it aimed to create a customs union and, later, a common market, and, at the same time, to coordinate the region’s industrialisation and economic development. Though one of the most successful examples of economic integration in the 1960s — it was presented as a successful case of the application of functionalist theories — it failed to transform economic performance into genuine prosperity; the unwillingness of member-states to deepen the process and to make provision for more democracy in the region led to the eventual break-up of the Common Market in the early 1970s, while the region foundered in an series of civil conflicts.
Throughout that decade and into the 1980s, Central America came to international attention, as civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and external intervention made it a central region in the East-West conflict. Amid concerns that the military escalation might lead to a generalised regional war, the question of regional integration returned to the fore. Following the failure of all external efforts to reduce tension (mainly those of the Contadora group) and faced with a military stalemate, Presidents Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica and Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala proposed a peace plan based on confidence-building, internal democratisation and the holding of free elections; the Esquipulas-I plan, adopted in the city of Esquipulas in July 1986 during the first meeting of all Central American presidents for a generation, included the creation of a directly-elected regional parliament, the Central American Parliament (also known by the acronym Parlacen, taken from the Spanish Parlamento Centroamericano), which became a central point in the reconciliation and pacification process in the region.
2. The Central American Parliament
It is important to underline the significance of this event in the history of the region: for the first time, Central American leaders recognised the link between pacification and internal and regional democratic consolidation. Breaking with the tradition prevailing elsewhere in Latin America, they looked to a regional tool to facilitate and measure democratic progress nationally and admitted that national and international democracy could not be separated. Thus, the renewed Central American integration process immediately followed a political path and sought popular legitimacy, to be achieved through the direct election of members of the Parlacen.
Furthermore, this step marked a turning point as regards the model of regional integration in the Americas. Until then, the parliamentary aspect of regional integration had been neglected, ignored even: since the goals of most regional integration schemes had been purely economic, parliamentary institutions had played practically no role in them. At the same time, popular participation in integration processes had not only been regarded as undesirable, but also discouraged. In the context of the authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes that constituted the norm in Latin America, popular involvement had not, until then, been requested. Even the few regional parliamentary assemblies that did exist were either isolated from any integration scheme (like the Latin American Parliament) or constituted mere consultative instruments created in the wake of the European experiment (for instance, the Parliament of the Andean Pact).
On the contrary, the Parlacen not only drew citizens into the integration process, through the direct election of its members, but also (by linking regional integration to democratisation and peace) expanded the objectives of integration so that they reached into the political sphere. One should bear in mind the similarities with the foundation and subsequent enlargement of the European Communities: it was to avoid another war and to consolidate democracy in Germany that Europe built its first supranational structures; and it was in order to avoid a return of dictatorial regimes that the southern European states (Greece, Spain, Portugal) joined the European Community later. The same objective can, today, be seen in the enlargement of the E.U. towards central and eastern European countries: economic arguments are accompanied by the conviction that joining a larger European family will strengthen democratic institutions.
The year 1986 was a particularly appropriate time for this initiative in Central America. For the first time since 1954, a civilian, Vinicio Cerezo, was elected President of Guatemala. Furthermore, Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, belonged to the moderate reformist tradition of Central Americans who wanted to promote democratic and social changes through peaceful means and within a larger, regional and supranational, context. At the same time, given the impossibility of resolving the regional conflicts militarily, the European Community, for the first time, intervened in Central America, but with different political goals from those of the U.S. and with projects based less on confrontation than on the desire to build confidence. Finally, Costa Rican fears of being dragged into a regional war led its president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, to abandon traditional Costa Rican neutrality and detachment from events in its region and to propose a plan for democratisation that also included elements of regional integration.
Responsibility for preparing the text for the treaty on the creation of the Parliament was assigned to a committee composed of the vice-presidents of the five states, chaired by the Guatemalan vice-president, Roberto Carpio Nicolle. The European model certainly featured prominently in the discussions of the drafting committee. At a certain point during the debates, the likelihood of a regional parliament with decision-making powers was seriously envisaged, promoted by Guatemala and, in particular, by Carpio Nicolle in person. Costa Rican opposition and a lack of enthusiasm from the other states led to the abandonment of this project and to the diminishment of the Assembly’s competencies. In August 1987 (during the Esquipulas-II meeting of the Central American presidents) the question was debated again, and, between the 8th and the 16th October 1987, the “Constitutive Treaty of the Central American Parliament and other political instances” was signed by the five states.
An analysis of the text of the Treaty demonstrates that it created a symbolic rather than a decision-making institution. Its preamble declares that the Parliament is part of “a pluralistic… democratic process… allowing member-states to debate and decide on economic, social and cultural issues of interest to them… in order to reach a higher degree of cooperation” (Treaty preamble para.s 4 and 5). The Parliament is presented as an instrument “of examination, analysis and recommendation of issues of common interest… and is based on democratic representation and pluralism” (Article 1). It is composed of an equal number (20) of members per country, as well as the president and first vice-president of each member-state after the end of their term (Article 2). Its members should be elected through elections “respecting a wide political and ideological representativeness” and “in a democratic and pluralistic system that guarantees free… elections on terms of equality” for all parties (Article 6). The rejection of the supranational option becomes apparent when scrutinising the Parliament’s competencies (Article 5). These consist of a number of consultative tasks, such as, to act as a forum of discussion on issues of regional interest, to offer impetus to the integration process and allow for further co-operation among Central American countries, to propose draft treaties and agreements among member states, and to contribute to strengthening the democratic system and respect for international law.
Still, the Parlacen was attributed, nevertheless, a few decision-making competencies: it “elects, nominates and removes the highest executive director of integration organisms, existing or to be created” (Article 5 para. c.). Also, it “examines a yearly report of activities” submitted by the regional integration institutions and reviews the “means and actions taken in view of the implementation of the decisions adopted during the period under consideration” (Article 29).
This brief illustration deserves some comment and a deeper analysis. By opting for a symbolic rather than a genuine regional assembly, the Central American states reneged on their previous determination to build a regional institution based on popular legitimacy. In addition, the absence of any coherent institutional framework for regional integration and the parallel existence of various regional integration schemes — the institutions of the C.A.C.M. still existed, as did various sectorial and technical regional instruments — weakened the institutional basis of the Parliament and limited its potential.
To make matters worse, the ratification process was thwarted by national resistance, stemming essentially from Costa Rica. As the only democratic state in the region, Costa Rica rejected attempts to grant supranational powers to an institution whose majority came from less-than-democratic countries. As a result of internal disputes over the country’s participation in the Parliament, ratification was blocked for more than two years. Finally, in order to escape from this impasse, the member-states adopted a Protocol to the Treaty that “froze” all remaining decision-making powers of the Parlacen in exchange for the possibility of allowing it to operate without ratification by all countries. Subsequently, and after elections had been held in Guatemala, Salvador and Honduras, this rump parliament was installed on October 28, 1991.
2.3 The Evolution of the Parlacen.
Compared to initial expectations, the final result, in institutional terms, of the creation of the Parlacen can be considered a disappointment. That said, interesting conclusions, as well as lessons on the possible role of regional assemblies in contexts of intergovernmental regional integration, can be drawn from the road it followed and the activities it undertook subsequently.
Primarily, it must be recognised that the regional and national contexts in 1991, when the Parlacen was born, were substantially different from those of 1986, the year in which it was first conceived. In 1991, pacification had almost been completed, the Sandinistas had been removed from power through elections and, solely at national level, democratisation was progressing. The presidents who had contemplated and promoted the Parliament had left office, while regional integration had advanced through the usual intergovernmental co-operation mechanisms and through a reactivation of the institutions of the C.A.C.M. Popular support for a regional parliament, always lukewarm, had declined further because of the process used for the election of its members and because of Costa Rican opposition, both factors that prevented it — and here parallels can be drawn with the Council of Europe — from becoming a moral authority for democracy and integration in Central America.
Furthermore, the Parlacen had no decision-making capacity and, because of its operating costs, its continued existence was constantly in doubt. The fact that the Parlacen survived this initial period can be attributed, to a large extent, to the financial and political support provided by Europe, especially by the European Parliament, which saw the Parlacen as a model to be promoted elsewhere.
However, its subsequent development demonstrates the inherent tendency of legislative bodies to fight for more prerogatives. After an initial period of relative inactivity and institutional and political isolation, the Parlacen launched an aggressive campaign with precisely this objective, trying to reach out to all sectors of political and civil society.
This struggle became easier after the renewal of the framework of integration. The Tegucigalpa Protocol, which created the System of Integration of Central America (S.I.C.A.), despite keeping the Parlacen on the fringe of the regional integration process, nevertheless gave it extra institutional space in which to move.
The Protocol brought under a single umbrella the various integration schemes and bodies existing in Central America and created a system that drew a lot from the European Union model (for instance its organs included a Meeting of Presidents, a Council of Ministers, an Executive Committee and a General Secretariat, as well as a Court of Justice and a Parliament). This new framework reconnected the Parlacen with the political developments in Central America. Also, the S.I.C.A. itself no longer set itself purely economic objectives; rather, it represented the bridge between traditional intergovernmental co-operation and supranational democracy. The Protocol recognised, for instance, that the aims of development, peace, democracy and integration are indivisible and stressed the need to use regional means in order to achieve them. Its founding principles include, in fact, recognition of the Central American identity and the gradual completion of the process of regional economic integration. This new institutional framework thus offered more opportunities for legislative intervention in the field of integration. Furthermore, the creation of other integrated instruments (in particular the General Secretariat and, later, the Central American Court of Justice) gave the Parlacen some objective allies in the fight to establish a democratic supranational system of integration in the region.
In this new context, the Parlacen started a new life. During the second half of the 1990s the political experience it acquired turned it into a focal point of regional integration. Several other factors also contributed to this development. Nicaragua, in October 1996, and Panama, in 1997, ratified the Treaty on the Parlacen and nominated their first parliamentarians. Thus, not only did the number of MPs increase substantially (from 60 to 100), but their representativeness rose too. Until then, the MPs, often second-rate national politicians in search of a sinecure on the way to retirement, had essentially represented parties from the right wing and centre of the political spectrum. The normalisation of the political situation in El Salvador and the Nicaraguan membership of the Parlacen increased the number of left-wing MPs (and also of women due to the gender policy of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) and made the debates livelier and more interesting, as well as passionate and public. The press started to report on debates in the Parlacen, the integration institutions to hold regular meetings with its thematic committees, and governments to meet the members of the Parlacen that represented them.
At the same time, the supranational way of running political activity within the Parlacen had important consequences for political parties. Members of the Parlacen (and this is also true of the European Parliament) are divided into political groups on the basis not of their nationality but of their ideological affinities. Parties from the different member-states that had previously had no contact with one another were thus, as never before, obliged to meet and co-operate on various issues of regional interest and, at the same time, the Parlacen became a forum that encouraged the development of relations among political parties from the same country. The consensual way the Parlacen tended to treat issues at stake and the fact that most parties, be they left- or right-wing, held broadly similar opinions on the process of regional integration eased tensions between them and permitted them to reach out to each other more readily than at national level.
Contacts between national parties were fostered in other ways too. Since 1992, the Parlacen has organised annual thematic conferences open to all Central American parties, bringing them together on matters that include issues of regional interest, mainly dealing with the deepening of political union, but that also cover more practical issues as well, for instance Central American citizenship and the role of indigenous populations. These meetings, far from being simple social events, constitute for the Parlacen an important channel of action, and for the political parties, often represented by their leaders in person, a key opportunity to develop international relations.
Civil society was the other target of the Parlacen’s campaign to expand its role and enlarge the spectrum of integration. Even more than political society, civil society organisations were, previously, completely excluded from the regional integration process. Certainly, the general political situation in the countries of Central America made it difficult for civil society even to exist, let alone intervene in a process considered primarily the province of the executive. The creation of the Consultative Committee of the S.I.C.A., which brought together a number of non governmental organisations and platforms, allowed, for the first time, these non-state actors to have a say, albeit in a purely consultative capacity, over the development of regional integration. The Parlacen seized this opportunity and increased its contact with various local, national and regional organisations and movements, its aim being twofold: to remind them of the existence of the Parliament and to take into account their needs and demands. These contacts were useful: in the past, civil society, especially those movements that challenged the governments in place, had tended to reject all expressions of organised political life and to see the Parlacen as nothing more than a group of highly-remunerated establishment politicians, completely detached from the real needs of the people. The permanent relations thus created broke down, little by little, this diffidence and permitted both sides not only to find common ground for discussion, but also to identify their adversaries and act together on various questions.
Finally, one should not underestimate the efforts made by the Parlacen to reach out to the national parliaments. Aware of the potential dangers of disputes with the national legislative bodies over their respective roles and competencies, the Parlacen began co-operating closely with the national parliaments in a fresh endeavour first to demonstrate that a struggle between the legislative organs on the legislative control of integration is useless as long as governments rule over the integration process, and second to co-ordinate activities so as to facilitate the exchange of opinions and information between the Parlacen and national parliaments on integration issues. Thus, the two levels held regular meetings and the specialised committees on regional integration that have been created in all the national Parliaments worked in close coordination with the Parlacen committees.
2.4 Parlacen: The Focal Point in the Debate on Regional Integration.
These activities allowed the Parlacen to be at the centre of the renewed debate on regional integration when, after 1995, the forms and means of regional integration came under scrutiny, in order to reform or remodel the entire context of the S.I.C.A. These proposals for reforms were assembled in a document prepared by a group of experts under the joint auspices of the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) and the United Nations Economic Committee for Latin America (CEPAL). The proposals had a strong functionalist character and aimed at creating effective intergovernmental structures for regional cooperation, while eliminating those instruments that had no practical impact or that were, according to the authors, premature or obsolete. One of the suggestions put forward was to abolish the direct elections of the Parlacen and to replace it with national MPs, as in the case of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. These proposals were initially approved by the Presidential Summit in Panama, in July 1997.
However, the Parlacen not only resisted these attacks on its very existence, launched by the authors of the Diagnostic, but also mounted a general counter-attack (supported, among others, by the Court of Justice of Central America and several political parties from different member states). This opposition culminated in the presentation, by the Parlacen, of its own vision of regional integration. In a draft protocol, which it adopted in 1998, the Parlacen requested a substantial increase of its powers. These should include, in particular, the right to vote on the S.I.C.A. budget, to control its implementation and to be consulted on all treaties and agreements relating to regional integration that are signed by member-states. In addition, the Parlacen submitted to the Meeting of the Presidents and to Central American public opinion a draft text of a Treaty of Union that radically modified the regional integration framework. This second text, drafted in the wake of the BID-CEPAL reform proposals, contained a complete description of the structure and tasks of a future Central American Union and had a clear constitutional character. It was accepted by the seventh conference of Central American political parties in San Salvador, in September 1998.
Currently, the process of integration in Central America is at a crossroads. Ten years after its creation, the S.I.C.A. can boast a number of significant successes. These include a common external tariff, an almost complete customs union and substantial advances as regards the free movement of persons, capital and services. Furthermore, its integrated institutions have acquired considerable weight. The Court of Justice has shaped a nascent Community legal order and the General Secretariat has gradually become the system’s administrative and political core, with the Secretary General obtaining an internationally recognised political status and role. At the same time, intergovernmentalism still holds. The six monthly Meetings of the Presidents continue to be the motor of the S.I.C.A. and unanimity to be the rule in the decision-making process.
All the same, a “community” attitude is slowly developing, as are a level of popular participation and the concept of Central American identity. The “Managua declaration” of September 1997, made by the presidents of the six member-states, established the Central American Union, which constitutes a step towards the political integration of the isthmus. At the same time this declaration halted the “de-politicising” of Central American integration and thus constituted a reversal of the previous decisions taken in Panama in the July of the same year. Although the declaration has yet to become a political reality, in part due to national resistance and in part due to the backlash following a series of natural disasters in the area, in particular hurricane Mitch, it still remains the beacon of political integration in the region.
Of course, the region continues to face formidable problems, not least the problem of consolidating democracy. Despite the significant progress made, democracy is still fragile and only partly accompanied by social equality: the continued existence of mass poverty practically cancels any democratic achievement. Nationalist resistance continues to be a barrier to full integration, as does the “presidential” character of these countries. More significantly, the prevailing trend towards larger, regional or continental, free-trade areas in the Americas constitutes a major stumbling block to the separate Central American process of political and economic integration: the Central American states are drawn by centrifugal forces towards direct membership of these larger units rather than towards the creation of a separate Central American union.
In this context, the role and presence of the Parlacen can make the difference. Within a relatively coherent framework of integration, like that of the S.I.C.A., it can serve as the catalyst needed to deepen regional integration in a certain Central American nucleus. Sustained by popular legitimacy and — for the time being — lacking real powers, it can reflect on the future of integration and present solutions and projects that go beyond national boundaries. During its brief lifespan, it has managed to build a supranational, integrated political tradition, previously lacking, and succeeded in making integration issues a part of political debate. The proposal for a Central American union confirms that the regional integration process in Central America has now gone beyond mere economic integration and now encompasses more general issues, once belonging to the sphere of national competencies. The Parlacen has been instrumental in this enlargement. It has changed attitudes and brought the issue of integration out of bureaucrats’ offices. As such, it is a case model for the role that popular representative institutions could play in similar circumstances elsewhere in the Americas.
I. The Parlacen was created, for the first time in Latin American history, to be a representative body that would promote, at regional level, objectives that are usually attained at national level: democratisation, peace and development. These objectives were not achieved in the early period of the life of the Parlacen, because nationalist resistance and the intergovernmental traditions of Central America prevented it from obtaining the decision-making powers needed to play a role in regional developments. The end result of the treaty establishing the Parlacen was a consultative regional assembly that was directly elected by citizens, but that lacked institutional support in the context of integration and had little popular legitimacy.
II. The subsequent evolution of the Parlacen is a paradigm for the almost automatic trend of elected institutions to fight for a stronger role, even in difficult circumstances. Enjoying hardly any institutional support within the region and only little from the European institutions, the Parlacen struggled to make its own way in the renewed context of Central American regional integration. It immediately identified its adversary: the tradition of intergovernmental cooperation that governs regional integration in Central America and that tends to exclude any parliamentary intervention. It determined, therefore, to break the exclusive hold of governments on the regional integration process. It also started looking for allies. These were found in the civil and political society of Central America. As a result, it built strong links with political parties throughout the region and was instrumental in bringing about closer cooperation among the latter on issues relating to integration. This cooperation extended above and beyond regional integration, tackling issues right at the core of political developments in the region. Furthermore, it presented itself as the institution that naturally supports civil society, encouraging cooperation among organisations within civil society and opening up channels of communication with social movements that, until then, had been neither interested nor involved in regional integration issues. Finally, it multiplied its institutional contacts with other regional assemblies, notably the European Parliament, thus acquiring an international dimension as well.
III. Having thus established a measure of popular legitimacy and acquired a relatively broader institutional basis, the Parliament proceeded with the next step: the strengthening of its powers in a new institutional framework. By proposing a series of modifications to the legal framework of regional integration, the Parlacen followed, in this field as well, the path taken by the European Parliament. This latter, by voting in 1984, the Draft Treaty on European Union, claimed the right to a series of competencies that traditionally belonged to the legislative bodies and were taken away from national parliaments in favour not of a regional parliament but of regional bureaucracies. Although lacking an authoritative Spinelli-type figure at regional level, the Parlacen followed nevertheless the precedent set by the European Parliament and claimed, among others, the right to vote on the budget of the regional integration system, as well as the right to elect the leadership of the regional authorities.
IV. The presence and activities of the Parlacen reinforced not only the integration process but also interest in the regional developments on the part of various actors not previously involved with these issues. Thus the integration process gained a broader base than it had had in previous times (in particular, during the Common Market period), and covered more issues: not only economic integration but also, among others, political integration, democracy, social justice and foreign relations. The activities of the Parlacen in these fields were certainly made easier by the normalisation of the political situation in the region and the general trends seen in the integration processes that allowed a stronger presence of elected institutions there.
V. The introduction of the parliamentary element into the regional integration process, if combined with a genuine presence on the part of the citizens, increases the number and the intensity of the factors that intervene in the integration process and strengthens relations between them. Thus, the integration debate permeates all sectors of society. It loses its technical character and allows real interests to be built and to converge on a level that is no longer national; it is also through this convergence that the integration process can be consolidated and spread, through an overspill effect, to other fields as well.
 Edelberto Torres-Rivas (ed.), Historia General de Centroamerica, Madrid, Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, 1993, Vol. III, pp. 104-106.
 Rafael Rodrigues Loucel “Integración centroamericana: evolución y perspectivas”, in Integración latinoamericana, NE 201, June 1994, p. 54.
 Andrés Opazo Bernales - Rodrigo Fernandez Vasquez, Esquipulas II. Una tarea pendiente, San José, Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1990, pp. 134-143.
 Olga Marta Sanchez - Jaime Delgado Rojas, Una contribución al debate. Integración regional, San José, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, 1993, p. 451.
 Andrea de Guury, El proceso de integración regional de Centroamerica. Recopilación de Documentos Basicos con estudio introductorio. Guatemala, Universidad Rafael Landivar, 1992, pp. 35-50.
 Olga Marta Sanchez - Jaime Delgado Rojas, op. cit., p. 449.
 Luis A. Varela Quiros, “El proyecto de Parlamento Centroamericano: un análisis desde la perspectiva historica, constitucional y electoral costaricense”, in Revista de Relaciones Internacionales, School of International Relations, University of Heredia, Costa Rica, 1990, pp. 45-56.
 IRELA Dossier n.24: El Parlamento Centroamericano: alternativas de constitución y elecciones, Madrid, April 1990, p. 40.
 European Parliament, El Parlamento europeo y el proceso de integración centroamericano, Luxembourg, June 1997, p. 87.
 Comisión económica para America latina y Caribe (CEPAL) - Banco interamericano de desarrollo (BID), La integración Centroamericana y la institucionalidad regional, San Salvador, S.I.C.A. Publications, February 1998, passim.