Economic Integration in 19th- and 20th-Century Central America
Summary and Keywords
Throughout their history, the countries of Central America have attempted several forms of political and economic integration. After declaring independence in the 19th century, the region lacked its earlier cohesion vis-à-vis Spanish colonial governance. The former provinces aligned themselves in favor of either centralizing regional power in a federal republic or establishing complete political autonomy through the formation of new nation-states. Forces in favor of the latter eventually prevailed.
An attempt at economic integration began in the mid-20th century. It was actively backed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and eventually led to the creation of the Central American Common Market (CACM). Despite favorable economic conditions in the Post-World War II period, a number of complications undermined integration efforts: war, political crises, and interests that ran contrary to those of the United States. Integration was postponed until the end of the 1980s, after the Esquipulas II Accord reestablished peace in the region.
After the countries of Central America signed the Guatemala Protocol in 1993, economic integration was promoted under the banner of free trade. This was done by regional economic groups with the goal of reconnecting the region to global commerce under the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Central American Union
The 19th-Century Dilemma: National States or Federation
The provinces of the Kingdom of Guatemala declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Independence took root in an environment that shared in the region’s colonial past, drawing comparisons between new and old, but also forcing profound divergences between the two.
The provinces resented the authority of the same institutions that had previously controlled the colonies. Centered in Guatemala, this system ceded total control of economic activity and its fruits to big Guatemalan merchants. The provinces had different perspectives and expectations about independence. While the Guatemalan oligarchy concerned itself with maintaining its continued hegemony, the rest of the provinces saw an opportunity to be free of it.
After a brief annexation by the Mexican Empire, the provinces banded together under the name Provincias Unidas de Centro América (United Provinces of Central America). In 1824, it became the República Federal de Centroamérica (Federal Republic of Central America), inspired by the constitutions of Cádiz and the United States. The federation was a result of the political will of liberals to unite the provinces under a single, central power.
Maintaining unity created significant tensions and challenges. The region’s pre-Columbian inhabitants did not share a common identity, language, or social organization. Each province had an independent economy with limited commercial exchange between itself and the others.1
During the colonial regime, the provinces essentially maintained their economic self-sufficiency. According to the historian Elizabeth Fonseca, the territories of Central America did not become integrated as an economic space until the second half of the 18th century, spurred by the indigo boom. The boom connected the provinces to the world market, contributing to intra-regional commercial exchange.2
Other forces rose in opposition to centralized Guatemalan power and its proponents. The opposition favored independent nation-states. The arguments of these two opposing paths were the region’s most significant debate, lasting throughout the 19th century.
Liberal and conservative groups vied intensely for political power in each province. They hoped to define the scope and nature of the states and societies that were emerging from colonial rule. Conservatives favored the formation of nation-states. Liberals sought a federation. The conflict between federalists and anti-federalists was marked by the confluence of forces and contradictions particular to each province.
Regional alliances were stitched together despite political conflict. For the historian Julio Pinto Soria, the unviability of the Federation, which dissolved in 1838, was determined by the total absence of “an economy that could transcend internal state borders and serve as the foundation for federal power.”3
During the 1880s, the liberal regime of Justo Rufino Barrios attempted a new union with ambitions to reestablish Guatemalan hegemony. The new Unión Centroamericana was decreed in February of 1885, but the project failed due to political instability in Honduras and El Salvador, as well as military conflict with the conservative regimes in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
In the final years of the 18th century, the liberal leadership of José Santos Zelaya, governor of Nicaragua, promoted the creation of the República Mayor de Centroamérica (The Greater Central American Republic), together with the governments of Honduras and El Salvador. The constitution of the United States of Central America was approved in Managua in 1898. A coup in Honduras and the ascension of conservative Manuel Estrada Cabrera to power in Guatemala effectively brought unification efforts to an end.
Nevertheless, liberals continued working toward regional unification. In 1889, the Pacto de Unión Provisional (Provisional Union Accord) was signed as step toward a central regional government. Its end was brought about by opposition from Nicaraguan and Costa Rica and by the death of the Salvadorean governor Francisco Menéndez, the accord’s chief proponent.
The 19th century ended with defeat for liberal unification. With the hopes of a unified state quashed, the creation of nation states appeared to be a definitive reality.
The United States vs. Unionism
In its quest to build an inter-oceanic canal somewhere in the region, the United States of America showed a growing interest in Central America. Hoping to negotiate with a single political entity, the United States threw its political weight behind unification.
The region came under U.S. protection during the construction of the Panama Canal. Political stability and expansion of U.S. economic interests were of the upmost importance. The United States also focused its attention on a competing canal project in Nicaragua. In order to better control regional conflicts, the United States promoted the signing of a General Treaty of Peace and Friendship, in 1907, followed by the invasion of Nicaragua in 1909.
The idea of creating a new federation took shape soon after World War II. Unification was promoted by Guatemala’s Unionist Party and by the governments of El Salvador and Honduras. This time the United States was determined to prevent unification. It escalated military aggression from Panama to Costa Rica. Nicaragua was still occupied by U.S. troops. Finally, a coup in Guatemala settled the matter, ending unification efforts.
To secure its interests, the United States promoted an update to the Treaties of Washington in 1923. The changes would make the United States a regional referee, giving it the final word on unification.
The Central American Common Market
Between Conflicting Models
By the middle of the 20th century, the Central American nations had gained many of their essential attributes. Each had a modest state apparatus and exercised increasingly significant territorial and social control. With the exception of Costa Rica, every country in the region was ruled, or controlled, by a military regime. The Somoza family consolidated political power in Nicaragua in the mid-1930s. During the same decade, the Salvadorean military took control of the country after the overthrow of Arturo Araujo. Short democratic interludes in Guatemala and Honduras during the 1950s were ended by military intervention supported by the United States.
The regional economy, based in agricultural exports, took advantage of new opportunities in the Post-World War II era. The primary products were coffee and bananas, but cotton soon became profitable. Coffee was dominated by the same land-owning families that had controlled production since the 19th century. Banana farms were owned by powerful U.S. companies that had a strong and decisive influence in local politics, and the demand for cotton production introduced elements of capitalist modernization to the rural sector.
Central America was just beginning to establish an industrial sector. During the war, supply problems had provided an opportunity to expand industrial capacity by substituting imports, but no country in the region had been able to do so. The strategic and military needs of the United States around the Panama Canal had motivated the construction of the Pan American highway, connecting the countries of Central America like never before.
For a new generation of economists, recently starting in public administration positions in different countries, this was the ideal environment in which to promote the modernization of their economies. The newly formed United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL in Spanish) stressed industrialization as the only way to close the growing gap between developed economies and exporters of raw materials. Under the leadership of Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, ECLAC endorsed the integration processes in Central America.
Central American governments took a first step toward economic integration at the Fourth Session of the Commission. Through Resolution 9 (IV) of June 16, 1951, the Committee on Economic Cooperation of Central America (CCE) was created, comprised of the economic ministers of each country.
Although there were border disputes on the frontiers between Nicaragua and Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and Honduras and El Salvador, governments were prepared to make an effort to integrate.
To find a suitable model for regional integration would require resolving contradictions between the approaches of the ECLAC, Central American governments, hegemonic economic interests, and the United States.
ECLAC promoted balanced development through industrialization. The goal was to meet the demands of the domestic market with a strategy of import substitution, intra-regional trade, and a customs union. Major commercial and industrial groups throughout the region found it essential to promote free trade as an element of integration. Agricultural exporters hoped integration would not change the favorable conditions they enjoyed. From the perspective of the United States, regional integration with import substitution and a protectionist domestic market represented an obstacle to the expansion of U.S. economic interests.
During the 1950s, bilateral and multilateral agreements outlined a basic model for integration. Treaties between El Salvador and Guatemala and between El Salvador and Nicaragua were signed in 1951. In 1953, a free trade and economic integration treaty between Costa Rica and El Salvador was signed. A similar treaty was signed between Guatemala and Costa Rica in 1955; another between Guatemala and Honduras in 1956. In 1957, El Salvador and Honduras renewed an old agreement dating from 1918.
Finally, the first regional agreement, the Tratado Multilateral de Libre Comercio e Integración Económica (Multilateral Treaty on Free Trade and Economic Integration) was signed in June of 1958. The following year, the Convention on the Equalization of Import Tariffs was approved to create an area of free trade and a customs union, a process expected to be completed within ten years.
With encouragement from the United States, the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador decided to move faster and more liberally. They signed the Tratado de Asociación Económica (Economic Partnership Agreement) in February 1960, which reduced the deadline for a free trade area by five years. This agreement also stipulated the free movement of goods, capital, and people. Furthermore, it would create a customs union with an administration common to all three countries. The acuerdo tripartito (tripartite agreement), as it was known, dismantled the original approach of the ECLAC. It left Nicaragua and Costa Rica off the hook to promote unfettered free trade, satisfying the interests of the United States. In reaction, the ECLAC prepared the adoption of the Tratado General de Integración Económica Centroamericana (TGIE) [General Treaty on Central American Economic Integration]. It was signed in 1960 and became law on June 4, 1961, after being ratified by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Honduras ratified the treaty in the following year; Costa Rica did so in 1963. Yet despite the signing of the Central American Integration Industries Convention, regional focus had changed; Central American governments were acquiescing in the interests of hegemonic economic forces and the United States.
The Integration Treaty
The TGIE was filled with integrationist terminology, but it was only a regional trade agreement. The treaty ordered the creation of a free trade area and the setting of a common Central American tariff. The latter was in an effort to build a customs union. There were no provisions concerning the free movement of capital and people, nor any stipulations on economic policy.
The backbone of the ECLAC approach was the régimen de industrias de integración [integration industries regime], with regional free trade for their products. Development would be overseen by considerable government intervention and planning.
In the TGIE, however, the countries of Central America would move away from free trade without completely rejecting it. In fact, free trade for all products, industrial or otherwise, would undermine the stimulus to industries essential to integration. Shortly after the treaty was signed, tariff protection for the entire industry expanded with a goal to meet at least 50 percent of regional demand.
The Convenio de Industrias de Integración (Integration Industries Accord), which was supposed to be the main regulatory framework, was used by only three companies. It was not attractive enough to overcome the concessions already made to the sector.
The foundation of the ECLAC’s plan for balanced development was completely weakened. Commercial and industrial economic groups had prevailed. Despite failing to prevent the adoption of protectionist measures, the United States benefited from the possibility of U.S. capital investment in the region. By the end of the 1960s, 30 percent of industrial production came from companies backed fully or partially by foreign capital.4
Industrialization and the Substitution of Imports
Central America was barely industrialized when it joined the Common Market. Development was limited due to the small size of rural markets and poor infrastructure for transportation, communication, and electricity. Central American countries also lacked a qualified workforce and sufficient investment.
Tax incentives and an expanding infrastructure in the 1960s increased investment. Free trade for products manufactured in a protected market generated large profits for investors while advancing the process of industrialization. Regional institutions such as the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (BCIE) [Central American Bank for Economic Integration, also known as CABEI in English] and the Cámara de Compensación (Clearing House), also contributed to industrialization. By the close of the 1970s, Central America had one industrial plant whose products accounted for most of intra-regional trade.
The industrial sector focused primarily on the production of consumables and intermediate goods. The consumables were destined for Central America’s middle and upper classes, severely limiting growth due to the small size of the market.
The growth rate of industrial output, measured at 1970 prices, was particularly high during the 1960s, reaching an annual average of 8.5 percent. Between 1970 and 1978, it grew at a lower annual average of 6.4 percent. Real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (1970 prices) also shows growth: in 1960, it was just $100, but rose to $156 in 1970, and to $207 in 1979.5
Intra-regional commerce in manufactured goods saw dynamic growth between 1960 and 1978. By 1978 it had grown from 5 percent to 21 percent of total regional imports. First among them were consumer nondurable goods, representing 38 percent.6 In second place, intermediate goods began to impact the regional substitution of imports.
There were, however, notable differences between each country. The real growth rate (1970 prices) of Guatemala’s industrial output rose by an annual average of 7.7 percent between 1960 and 1970, but fell to 6.4 percent between 1970 and 1978. El Salvador, for its part, posted rates of 7.8 percent and 5.5 percent during the same periods. Costa Rica reached a rate of 9.2 percent during the 1960s, and 8.9 percent between 1970 and 1978. Nicaragua and Honduras lagged behind. Nicaragua managed to attract enough investment so that its industrial output rose to 10.9 percent annual average between 1960 and 1970, only to fall to 5 percent between 1970 and 1978. Honduras grew at an average annual rate of 7 percent in the 1960s, and 5.8 percent from 1970 to 1978.
Industry used excess capacity to expand, but was not competitive. The sector coordinated poorly with agriculture, was capital-intensive, had low job creation, and was highly dependent on imports. That was, in part, due to tax breaks on importing intermediate goods and consumables.
In the words of Alfredo Guerra Borges, “. . . it was the high profitability of businesses that conspired against better industrial development. With capital concentrated in high-return investments and a protectionist market favorable to oligopoly, there was no incentive to invest in projects that would strengthen industrial development horizontally and vertically.”7
Intra-Regional Free Trade
The trade agreement was not limited to industrial products. By the end of the 1960s, free trade covered 96 percent of other products.8 Agricultural exports and some industrial goods were left out, however, representing the foundation of regional economies and significant sources of tax revenue. The Arancel Externo Común (Common External Tariff), created for trade with countries outside the region, ensured the protection of the regional market.
Intra-regional imports performed well, rising from 5 percent of total regional imports in 1960 to 21 percent in 1978.9 Guatemala and El Salvador were in the lead. Their share of intra-regional exports over their total exports rose, respectively, from 4.3 percent and 11 percent in 1960 to 35.3 percent and 32.3 percent in 1970. During the same period, Nicaragua’s intra-regional exports went from 4.5 percent to 25.8 percent, and Costa Rica’s rose from 2.9 percent to 19.8 percent. Honduras’ proportion of intra-regional exports over total exports fell from 12.9 percent to 10.6 percent over the same period.10
As much as intra-regional free trade was appealing to industrial and commercial groups, it was less so to governments that had failed to collect tax revenues from exports and imports. They responded by raising the Arancel Externo Común (Common External Tariff) and by adopting the Protocolo of San Jose in 1968.
Crisis in the Common Market
According to Víctor Bulmer-Thomas, the Mercado Común Centroamericano (Central American Common Market) underperformed due to a combination of factors: the asymmetrical relationship between countries in the region (affecting Honduras, especially), the loss of tax revenue, the bias against foreign exporters that came as a result of raising the Arancel Externo Común, and the quick saturation of the regional market, which combined to diminish overall industrial capacity.11
The disadvantageous position of Honduras was further complicated by the country’s relationship to El Salvador. Growing agricultural exports in the 1960s led to the mass settlement of Salvadorean laborers along the Honduran border. Escalating demand for land led the Honduran government to expel around 150,000 Salvadorean settlers in the name of agrarian reform. The conflict led to a military confrontation in 1969. The hostilities, though short-lived, resulted in 2,000 dead and the withdrawal of Honduras from the Central American Common Market. Subsequent negotiations for reincorporation failed.
Honduras cut ties with El Salvador and stopped its goods from reaching countries further to the south. Honduras later signed bilateral commerce treaties with Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, but remained outside the common market.
The governments of the region instructed the Secretaría Permanente del Tratado General de Integración Económica (SIECA) [Secretariat for Economic Integration] to prepare a proposal for an Economic Community in 1972. The aim was to reactivate the Mercado Común, strengthen integration, harmonize policies, and create new decision-making mechanisms. This would require a real transfer of state sovereignty in favor of integrationist political bodies. An executive committee presented its findings in 1976. Discussions continued until 1978. Once again, governments and hegemonic economic interests were not willing to adopt the proposed model of economic integration. For the committee, the solution was more integration. For groups with local power, integration had never been the solution.
Intra-regional trade continued to prove difficult. While foreign trade increased in all countries by the late 1970s, intra-regional trade’s share of total regional exports fell from 26.1 percent in 1970 to 20.3 percent in 1979.12
Commercial ties between the countries were strengthened under TGIE observation. Production was also diversified and modernized. The economic relationship between the countries, however, remained unchanged. By the end of the 1970s, they depended on the just a few agricultural exports: coffee, bananas, cotton, meat, and sugar. Despite having grown, the industrial sector was not a major actor on the economic stage. Hegemonic economic interests consolidated their holdings in agribusiness exports, in the financial sector, and in foreign investments. There had been strong economic growth, but unequal and imbalanced progress. Most of the countries experienced worsening social and economic exclusion.
In the three decades between 1950 and 1980, regional GDP grew in real terms by an average of 5 percent, meaning average per capita GDP increased by only 1.8 percent.13
During this same period, the population of Central America had grown from some eight million people, in 1950, to more than 20 million in 1980. The middle class and urban centers grew. While only 16 percent of the population lived in urban centers in 1950, by 1980 that number grew to 43 percent.14
Production activities associated with the Central American Common Market had created a contingent of urban wage earners. Meanwhile, the growth of crops destined for export had displaced large groups of rural workers. No one had a satisfactory response to the demand for land and better wages.
In 1980, 8.6 million people in Central America lived in extreme poverty, 41.8 percent of the total population. In rural areas that figure reached 52.6 percent. Costa Rica maintained the lowest levels of extreme poverty, with only 13.3 percent. El Salvador and Honduras saw poverty levels of 50.6 percent and 56.7 percent, respectively. Guatemala and Nicaragua posted somewhat lower percentages, 39.6 percent and 34.7 percent.15
Moreover, modernization had not reached the political sphere. Only Costa Rica had managed to maintain a functioning democracy and progressive social reform during these decades. Other countries experienced a combination of exclusionary and authoritarian political models, resistance to social reform, and the use of repression to control political and social instability. The conditions that would define the crisis of the 1980s were already present.
Central America in Crisis
Serious economic inequalities and falling GDPs across Latin America earned the 1980s the title of “la década perdida” (the lost decade). For Central America, they were years of extreme difficulty, marked not only by profound economic troubles but also by the severity of the political crisis, including armed conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
In 1979, Sandinista revolutionaries toppled the Somoza dictatorship that had ruled Nicaragua for 43 years. Old guerrilla groups started to engage El Salvador and Guatemala politically and militarily. With the backing of the Reagan administration in the United States, the militaries and local oligarchies in both countries responded with total and indiscriminate war. The Reagan administration confronted the revolutionary Nicaraguan government through its doctrine of Low Intensity Conflict, providing decisive financial support to the counterrevolutionary army while simultaneously enforcing an economic and commercial blockade. The United States military converted Honduras into its base of operations. Together with Costa Rica, they formed a rearguard to the contra forces. The regional conflict would last throughout the 1980s.
Agricultural Exports in Crisis
By the end of the 1970s, the economic crisis and worldwide recession reached Central America. Its open economies left it dependent on the evolution of the world market.
The intensity and breadth of the economic crisis was already visible by the early 1980s. The price of imports grew throughout the region, while the price of exports fell. The political instability that started in the late 1970s triggered the widespread flight of capital from virtually every Central American country. Combined with the deterioration of foreign trade, these factors led to the devaluation of regional currencies.
The continuing financial crisis led to breaches of commitments to the Cámara de Compensación Centroamericana (Central American Clearing House), especially by countries like Nicaragua and Honduras. This negatively affected the countries with a positive trade balance, such as Costa Rica. Intra-regional trade was deprioritized. Currency became the primary focus as governments struggled to meet the demand for foreign imports and make payments on the large and costly foreign debts, which had been liberally accumulated in the preceding decades. Fiscal deficits were growing across the region. Income had fallen thanks to incentives from the common market, declining exports, and increased public spending. The magnitude of military spending worsened the situation in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Unemployment, underemployment, and rising inflation came as a result of imbalances in the regional economy, and 1982 was its worst year in decades. GDPs in all of the region’s countries fell sharply.
Between 1980 and 1985, real GDP growth (1995 prices) was negative in Guatemala and El Salvador, showing rates of −1.1 percent and −2.6 percent, respectively. Nicaragua and Costa Rica posted rates of 0.6 percent and 0.2 percent. Honduras grew by 1.6 percent, but its impact on deteriorating population conditions was far greater. Average annual GDP per capita fell in every country during the same period. Guatemala and El Salvador saw rates of −3.3 percent; Costa Rica, −2.4 percent; Nicaragua, −2.1 percent; and Honduras, −1.6 percent.16
Per capita GDP behavior was much more modest in the second half of the 1980s. Costa Rica saw an average 1.7 percent annual growth over five years. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras grew at marginal rates of 0.7 percent, 0.6 percent, and 0.1 percent, respectively. Nicaragua continued to see negative growth at an annual rate of −5.1 percent.17
The End of the TGIE
The TGIE was proposed in a context of stable authoritarian regimes in Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica. It was a period of booming economies in the region and the world. Growth and agricultural exports had sustained intra-regional commerce and the TGIE model of industrialization. If agricultural exports were in crisis, so was the rest of the economy. Regional political crisis would lead the collapse of the TGIE.
The countries of Central America confronted the crisis in a disorganized way, worsening its effects. Foreign investment led to economic stabilization programs and structural adjustments supervised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Nicaragua adopted similar measures without formal agreements with international institutions.
Intra-regional commerce diminished considerably as a result of these factors. By the end of the decade it was clear that this regional economic integration model was obsolete. Each country managed to sustain its economy with decisions at the national level, without much consideration for the Central American Common Market (CACM).
The decade-long proliferation of war had a very high human and economic cost. Millions of Central Americans emigrated, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Living conditions were the worst on the continent. Real GDP per capita (1970 prices) fell over the entire decade, from US $412 in 1980, to $340 in 1989.18
A search for a new regional accord started in 1983. The Panamanian government pioneered an initiative called the Grupo de Contadora with the participation of Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Although no agreements were reached, it served as a starting point for subsequent efforts. The Procedimiento para Establecer una Paz Firme y Duradera en Centroamérica (Procedure for Establishing a Strong and Lasting Peace in Central America) was signed during the August 1987 summit of Central American Presidents. The “Esquipulas II Accord,” as it came to be known, offered a solution to some of Central America’s unique problems. It managed to overcome extra-regional interests and proposals for a military solution to the social and political problems of the region.
After the accord, regional and national tensions began to subside. In subsequent presidential summits the possibility of reestablishing regional economic integration would be raised.
Regional Economic Integration in the Age of Globalization
In Search of a New Model for Economic Integration
The June 1990 presidential summit in Antigua, Guatemala, officially restarted the economic integration process. Conditions had changed. War was ending in Nicaragua. The governments of El Salvador and Guatemala were starting talks with guerrilla groups. The decade-long crisis had shifted economic decision-making to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the International Development Bank.
The countries were soon fully implementing their respective programs for economic stabilization and structural adjustment. These consisted primarily of economic liberalization and deregulation. Adjustment made the state the facilitator of all private enterprise. The state took on a new role in regard to economic policy. Funds for reconstruction, for demobilization, and for the disarmament of insurgents were urgently needed. Funds were also necessary to help insurgents reenter civilian life and to implement changes laid out in the peace accords.
Expectations were high for the Antigua summit. The ECLAC, CABEI, and SIECA were charged with creating an Inter-Constitutional Commission that would conceptualize and stimulate intra-regional commerce while preserving the recently achieved institutional restructuring in each country. The commission also had to define common policies in areas ranging from the integration of the agricultural and industrial sectors to the breadth of educational, environmental, and social cooperation. In the eyes of the commission, it was an attempt to reestablish integration, while also focusing on equality and complementarity. The commission sought to forge agreements between the private sector and governments that could guide economic and social policy alike in order to overcome economic stagnation.
With a new model of open regionalism, the ECLAC agreed on the need for structural reform and the gradual opening of the regional economy to the world market, with some limitations. Intra-regional commerce and investment would have to be prioritized. Governments would have a significant role in stimulating, directing, and regulating the economy. The long-term goal was to create a Mesoamerican free trade zone, joining Mexico and Central America.
The demand for an efficient, productive model for economic integration on the part of the Central American intelligentsia eased the industrialization process. A plan for industrialization was articulated with agricultural exports and internal development in mind, both at the national and regional level. It served as a foundation for common interests to present to the international community as Central America rejoined the world market. It also proposed a complete reform of previous attempts at economic integration, taking steps toward democracy while addressing income distribution.19
Central American trade groups and entrepreneurs, however, favored dismantling any barriers to free trade. They hoped the free movement of capital and labor would create the regional cooperation necessary to interweave local markets with world economic interests. The business sector emphasized tariff reduction and the coordination of trade, fiscal, monetary, and exchange rate policies. Industrialists, for their part, were in favor of promoting the competitiveness of nontraditional exports. They also sough industrial restructuring and modernization.
The United States and international financial institutions suspected that new economic integration in Central America might be a continuation of previous protectionism and restrictions. The European Economic Community was committed to Central American integration. It had supported the Esquipulas peace agreements and financed the revival of intra-regional trade.
When the Guatemala Protocol to TGIE was adopted in 1993, economic integration took on neoliberal characteristics. It favored an effective, collective entrance into the world economy. Since each of the region’s countries had already established ties to international financial institutions, a path was cleared for regional economic integration within the schema of economic globalization.
Between National and Regional
Before the Guatemala Protocol, negotiations were mired in concerns about the relationship of regional forces to national sovereignty.
Regional institutions and the ECLAC celebrated progress beyond the mere coordination of a few collective actions, measurements, and norms. They were pushing for real integration, harmonizing various political economies and the development of a stronger intra-regional institution. Meanwhile, the governments in the region were preoccupied with preventing any supranational mechanisms that might infringe on national sovereignty, economic or otherwise.
No supranational apparatus was created within the TGIE. The institution was limited to coordinating commercial agreements and facilitating development projects. The presidential summits had nevertheless broached the previously forbidden subject of intergovernmental relations. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala took unprecedented steps to jointly review their political and economic situations. Conditions were ripe for further integration, but fears about supranational power prevented it.
The region’s presidents ended debate by deciding that the summits would be the highest body of the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (Central American Integration System), which was created by the Tegucigalpa Protocol in 1991 to replace the Organization of Central American States. This act fully reincorporated Honduras within regional politics. Only two new regional political institutions had been created: the Central American Parliament in 1986 and the Central American Court in 1992.
Even though the earlier Tegucigalpa Protocol failed to establish the necessity of a regional economic union, it resolved the limits the tensions between regional and national powers in ways similar to the older TGIE. As far as economic integration was concerned, SIECA was the only one true supranational institution.
The agreements reached during the 1990 presidential summit in Antigua, Guatemala were of two minds. On the one hand, they reified unionist discourse, planting seeds for the formation and consolidation of the Comunidad Económica del Istmo Centroamericano (Central American Economic Community). On the other, they favored strengthening national economies when it came to international commerce.
The countries of Central America reiterated their desire for economic union in the 1991 Tegucigalpa Protocol. They defined the direction of economic integration as gradual, progressive, and reciprocal, with special attention to the relatively less developed countries.
The 1993 Guatemala Protocol was more radical. It solidified commitments for a Unión Económica Centroamericana (Central American Economic Union). Its key elements were voluntary participation, gradual implementation, complementarity, and flexibility.
The Guatemala Protocol was seen as a turning point for Central America. Costa Rica, however, did not show as much enthusiasm. As the most developed country in the region, it had opportunities for economic agreements with other foreign countries and worried that a regional accord could be limiting. For Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Guatemala Protocol was an opportunity to achieve what they had sought in the 1960s: greater and faster development through the establishment of a free trade zone. The Guatemala Protocol left the door open for countries to develop at their own paces. In 1993, the so-called Triángulo del Norte de Centroamérica (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) created the CA-4 with Nicaragua. Costa Rica negotiated a free trade agreement with Mexico that went into effect in 1995. In 2006, the CA-4 countries allowed the free passage of citizens and residents within their territories. This form of economic integration was aspirational, with no strict timelines and no real road map.
Free Trade and Customs Union
The Guatemala Protocol sought to build a single, common market. This was seen as essential for a free trade zone to operate smoothly. Starting in the mid-1990s, the region adopted a shared protectionist tariff structure. It was smaller than the structure in place before negotiations for reintegration began. The Guatemala Protocol repealed long-standing industry incentives, including the 1958 Régimen de Industrias Centroamericanas de Integración (System of Central American Integration Industries) and the 1962 Convenio Centroamericano de Incentivos Fiscales al Desarrollo Industrial (Central American Agreement on Fiscal Incentives to Industrial Development).
Intra-regional commerce fared positively as a result, growing from 17 percent of total exports in 1990, to 20.9 percent in 1995. As for each country’s share of total intra-regional exports, the figures in 1995 looked much like those of the 1970s. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica dominated, making up 38 percent, 28.7 percent, and 23.4 percent of total intra-regional trade, respectively. Nicaragua represented only 6 percent; Honduras, 4 percent.20
In 2002, the countries signed an investment and trade treaty. It was a framework for promoting and expanding regional investment. Although it has been amended twice, in 2016, it is still awaiting ratification.
A regional customs union was outlined in the Guatemala Protocol and was reiterated in later agreements, including the European Union-Central America Association Agreement. It has proved difficult to implement, however. The Guatemala Protocol was flexible enough that Guatemala and El Salvador signed their own framework agreement for a customs union in 2000. Spurred on by that success, was signed the Marco General para la Negociación de la Unión Aduanera Centroamericana (Negotiation for the Central American Customs Union) in 2004. In 2007, a framework agreement was signed for the Establecimiento de la Unión Aduanera Centroamericana (Establishment of the Central American Customs Union).
The countries of Central America have made advancements in technical processes. They have agreed on the standardization of rules, procedures, customs codes, and tax systems. They have not, however, established common customs tariff with shared administration and revenue distribution.
There is still some resistance to a customs union from sectors that stand to lose certain protections. Moreover, governments have been unwilling to give up the revenue from customs. They also remain resistant to the possibility of granting special treatment to bilateral trade with third-party countries. These have been the major obstacles to the customs union, which remains on the agenda of future presidential summits and ministerial meetings.
Central America vs. Economic Blocs
The countries of Central America maintain their individual sovereignty for negotiating trade with countries outside the region. Even so, some of the most important negotiations have been made collectively.
During the 1990s, a primary concern revolved around the formation of large economic blocs throughout the world, particularly in the traditional markets of Central American exports.
In 1993, the European Community emerged as a single market. The Eurozone adopted the euro as its sole currency in 1999. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, creating a free trade zone across Canada, the United States, and Mexico. That same year the United States proposed creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), designed to preserve its economic dominance.
To the south, was created with the Treaty of Asunción in 1991, allowing for the free circulation of goods, services, capital and people. In 1993, a free trade zone was established between Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Peru joined in 1997.
Central America saw NAFTA as a threat to its exports to the United States. They reacted with direct negotiation with the United States and Mexico. At the Tuxtla Gutierrez summit, in 1991, the presidents of Central America and Mexico started free trade discussions, with a deadline of December of 1996. Individually, the countries of Central America began to sign agreements with Mexico; first Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, then the rest. It was only in 2011 that a single treaty between the region and Mexico was signed, which remains in effect.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States represented Central America’s most important trading partner, representing 41.8 percent of the region’s world trade.21 Negotiations with the United States had been of special importance since its inclusion in the Caribbean Basin Initiative, in 1984. The scope of the Caribbean Basin Initiative was broadened by the Ley de Expansión de la Recuperación Económica del Caribe (Expansion of Economic Recovery in the Caribbean Law), in 1990. A similar expansion came with the Ley sobre Asociación Comercial de la Cuenca del Caribe (Caribbean Basin Commercial Association Law), which was in effect from 2000 to 2008.
Following preliminary investigations, negotiations for a free trade treaty between the United States, Dominican Republic, and Central America (CAFTA-DR) started in 2003. The treaty was signed two years later, taking effect in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in 2006, in the Dominican Republic in 2007, and in Costa Rica in 2009. Despite group negotiations and common clauses, the treaty contained provisions specific to each country. As for free trade, the essential stipulations put forward in the Caribbean Basin Initiative remained in effect. These goals were to remove trade barriers and to create conditions conducive to foreign investment in all sectors of the economy, including public services.
The European Union also required a regional partner as a condition for any agreement. Central America finished its negotiations with the European Union by 2010. In 2012, both regions signed the Acuerdo de Asociación Económica, Diálogo y Cooperación Políta (AdA) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Differing from the region’s commercial agreement with the United States, the treaty with the European Union stipulated the political conditions for cooperation. With these two agreements signed, Central America had forged a new relationship with its most important trading partners.
The Alianza Bolivariana para las Américas (ALBA) [Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas] was formed in Havana in 2004. Nicaragua joined in 2007. Honduras did so in 2008 and 2010. ALBA is less a free trade agreement and more a political space. Its largest economic interest is Petrocaribe, which supplies oil to El Salvador and Nicargua without interfering in other agreements signed by these countries.
Final Notes on Integration
Undertaking regional integration has been a lively process since the late 1950s. Throughout its ups and downs, an integrated regional economy has been the best platform for cooperating with the world market and attracting foreign investment. During the 1960s, integration represented the only efforts of this kind in the region.
During the summit of the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA) 2010, which took place in San Salvador, it was agreed to restart the regional integration process. Reintegration would be built on five pillars: the security of democracy, mitigating the effects of natural disasters and climate change, social integration, economic integration, and the strengthening of regional institutions. Economic integration continues to be the most important focus. Panama fully joined the economic group in 2013.
Trade groups representing exporters, importers, entrepreneurs, and financiers exert the greatest pressure on regional economic decision-making. Agricultural sectors have considerably less influence than trade groups and unions, despite having formal representation on the SICA Advisory Committee.
Intra-regional trade continues to be of upmost importance to Central American countries, growing by an average of 11 percent every year between 1960 and 2013. By comparison, exports to the rest of the world grew by an average annual rate of 7.8 percent. The Central American Common Market ranks second in overall regional trade. In 2013, it represented 26 percent of exports and 12.9 percent of imports.
The United States continues to be the region’s largest trading partner, despite losing ground to others since the beginning of the century. According to the SIECA, in 2013, the United States represented 32.1 percent of all exports and 40.5 percent of all imports. The European Union was responsible for 13.1 percent of exports and 6.4 percent of imports in the same year. Mexico is third, sending 7.9 percent of all imports, followed closely by China at 7.6 percent.
Central America’s institutional framework has overcome significant obstacles. It continues to grow despite the challenges of negotiating multiple economic, political, and social problems. Nothing appears to have slowed the implementation of the Guatemala Protocol, not even coups, authoritarian regimes, boundaries conflicts, or human rights conditions.
Economic integration has evolved independently from the Central American political and social stage. It has made consistent advances in technical aspects, but there have been significant delays in stepping from policy coordination to true harmonization within common regional institutions.
Central America went from union to integration and from an internally oriented policy of integration to an externally oriented one. It went from the immediate bonds of Federal Republic to the gradual convergence of the Sistema de Integración Centroamericana (Central American Integration System). Laying a foundation for inclusive development remains the region’s greatest challenge. Doing so will be indispensable to Central America’s future prosperity and stability.
Discussion of the Literature
There is substantial literature on Central American economic integration. These texts range from critical and qualitative analyses to reports on development and the private sector. Official institutional documents are readily available, including analyses, proposals, evaluations, technical forms, management reports, and statistics.
Understanding the evolution of Central American economic and political integration requires a general knowledge of the region’s history. While there are many books on the subject, Historia General de Centroamérica (FLASCO, 1993) is the most noteworthy. It stands out not only for the rigor of its investigations, but also for its focus on regional history, rather than a conglomeration of national histories. Its multiple interdisciplinary perspectives on the region make it necessary reading.
The Costa Rican historian Elizabeth Fonseca Corrales provides an analysis of colonial business cycles, production and trade exchange in her book Economía y sociedad en Centroamérica (1540–1680). For an analysis of the region’s economic evolution from 1520 to 1720, especially in terms of labor and land, turn to the historian Murdo MacLeod. The Guatemalan historian Gustavo Palma Murga examines the relevant features of property, the behavior of products in demand in foreign markets, and the internal dynamics of the regional economy from the seventeenth through the eighteenth century. In Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840, historian Miles Wortman provides a valuable study of power structures in the colonial Kingdom of Guatemala as well as the links between distinct social forces through the period immediately following independence.
On the topic of economic progress in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one can depend on one comprehensive analysis and two papers on coffee and bananas, Central America’s major cultivars. In Economía y Sociedad (1810–1870), the Salvadorean historian Hector Lindo Fuentes analyzes the evolution of traditional agriculture to export agriculture. He also analyzes the evolution of animal husbandry, mining, infrastructure, communications, and internal and foreign trade. In Café, trabajo y sociedad en Centroamérica (1870–1930), Mario Samper K comparatively reviews the introduction, establishment and expansion of coffee cultivation across the countries of Central America. In La plantación bananera en Centroamérica (1870–1929), Mario Posas studies the social and economic effects of banana plantations, especially the control exerted by large international companies and its effect on regional politics.
The British historian Victor Thomas provides the most complete vision of Central American economic history and is one of the most important scholars on the subject. He has published a number of studies on the region’s stages of development, their successes, failures and social consequences. For him, the economic integration models of the 1960s and 70s and the current focus on globalization have a significant defect: they are not proposals for the construction and development of an inclusive economy. As such, they were and are fundamentally incapable of remedying the serious conditions of poverty experienced by the majority of Central America’s population.
In La Economía Política de Centroamérica desde 1920 (Bulmer-Thomas, 1989) Thomas examines the regional economy from the end of World War I until the crisis of the 1980s. In Integración Regional en Centroamérica (1998), he analyzes the conditions that gave rise to integration in the context of globalization, reflecting on the differences between the open regionalism of this period and the closed regionalism of the 1960s. In Centroamérica 2020: hacia un nuevo modelo de desarrollo regional, Thomas and political scientist Douglas Kincaid study the problems and challenges of economic integration during an era of globalization, deteriorating public safety, declining democratic participation, and of political systems with questionable legitimacy.
In El desarrollo económico, part of the Historia General de Centroamérica, the Guatemalan economist Alfredo Guerra Borges reviews the Central American economy from the end of World War II through 1979. In La integración centroamericana: Reestructuración y nuevos esquemas, Guerra Borges lays out his thesis on the dilemmas of economic integration in the 1990s. In another work, Mercado Común y desarrollo industrial en Centroamérica (1990), he analyzes the progress of industrialization until the 1980s, when debates about its design and impact were most intense. In Integración económica centroamericana: situación actual y conjeturas sobre sus perspectivas, Guerra Borges provides a critique of the current state of economic integration and various viewpoints on the subject. Throughout his writings, Guerra Borges praises the progress of integration since the 1990s, especially in its relationship to other free trade zones and regional economic blocs.22
The Spanish economist Pedro Caldentey del Pozo provides an historic overview of economic integration, from its beginnings in the 1950s to present-day, in his book El Desarrollo Económico de Centroamérica en el Marco de la Integración Regional (Caldentey del Pozo 2010). He analyzes Central American economic development from the perspective of integration, comparing European and Central American models of cooperation. Caldentey closely reviews the scope of treaties, accords, and norms, taking into account the divergence between how integration is declared and how a complex network of institutions puts it into practice. Caldentey’s work provides systematization of economic integration’s landmark acts and processes, offering proposals for future development.23
Caldentey del Pozo also published Los desafíos estratégicos de la integración centroamericana (Caldentey del Pozo 2014), which details the importance of fully realizing the Esquipulas Accords. Caldetey del Pozo sees such a realization as a necessary foundation for adapting regional development to recent changes across the globe and across Latin America. He proposes four contemporary challenges to regional integration: defining a priority agenda, strengthening and deepening free trade as step toward a customs union, judicial reform, and the coordination of foreign policy between all countries in the region.24
To fully study economic integration, it is necessary to review the full range of documents published by the CEPAL, the SICA, the SIECA, and CABEI. Since 1976, the CABEI has published Revista de la Integración y el Desarrollo de Centroamérica, which contains numerous, valuable articles from authors across the globe, all analyzing the distinct aspects of Central American economic integration.
The primary sources for the study of economic integration in Central America are found in various national institutions, regional entities, and international agencies.
These institutions have archives and documentation centers, within which are found the legal frameworks for foreign trade, national economies, and bi/multi-lateral agreements. They also house the registries for economic statistics, including historical information from the 20th century.
1. Foreign Trade and Economic Entities
2. Central Banks
1. Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (CABEI/BCIE).
The CABEI homepage provides information and official documents on the environmental and social impact of economic integration. Information on institutional products and services is also available.
This homepage provides access to the registry and full texts of all treaties, protocols, accords, and agreements about economic integration in Central America, be they in effect or under consideration. It provides access to the Sistema de Estadísticas de Comercio de Centroamérica, with statistical information dating back to 1994, information about customs union, and information about regional regulations. It also provides access to the virtual Centro de Documentación, with information, analysis, and evaluation reports on the progress of economic integration. The SIECA homepage also links to the sites of special commission on integration, providing access to their agendas and technical standards.
This site maintains a digital document center with access to the accords reached in ministry meetings. They also provide access to official documents for the Estrategia Centroamericana de Desarrollo Rural Territorial (ECADERT) and other documents relevant to this sector of the economy.
The homepage of the Executive Office of the Central American Monetary Council provides access to the Sistema de Información Macroeconómica y Financiera Regional (SIMAFIR), which maintains a database of statistics on the main macroeconomic indicators for Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. It provides information from the foreign, fiscal, monetary, financial, and stock market sectors of the economy.
The homepage of the Executive Office of the Council for Central American Tourism provides access to legislation related to regional tourism, to tourism statistics from 2002, and to the accords entered into by the Council.
International Agencies and Institutions
1. Banco Mundial (BM). The homepage of the Banco Mundial provides access to digital information on Central American countries, including studies and analyses on the economy and society.
2. Comisión Económica para América Latina (CEPAL), Sede subregional de la CEPAL en México. The Mexico office of CEPAL is the commission’s presence Central America. Their homepage provides access to current archived publications.
3. Comisión Económica para América Latina (CEPAL), Chile Office. The Chile office of CEPAL has a virtual document center with current and past publications. It also provides access to current statistical information on Central America.
4. International Monetary Fund (IMF). The homepage of the IMF provides access to digital information on Central American countries, their programs, plans, projects, and statistical information. This is of particular interest for reviewing and comparing programs for economic stabilization.
5. Inter-American Development Bank [Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo] (BID). The homepage of the BID provides access to Central American studies, analyses, programs and projects.
MetaBase Online Bibliography provides access to Central American and Mexican bibliographic databases. It facilitates searches for resources from archives and libraries in the area.
Links to Digital Materials
International Agencies and Institutions
• Sede subregional de la CEPAL en México (CEPAL Subsede México)
• International Monetary Fund (IMF), IMF Regional Office in Central America, Panama, and the Dominican Republic
• The World Bank, Latin America and Caribbean [Banco Mundial]
• Inter-American Development Bank [Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo] (BID)
Enconomic Integration Institutions
• SIECA II
• PARLACEN, Parlamento Centroamericano
• Consejo Agropecuario Centroamericano, CanalCAC
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Bulmer-Thomas, Víctor. “Avances y desafíos de la integración centroamericana: Una revisión a 50 años de historia.” Presented at the meeting of the Centroamericano de Integración Económica (CABEI), September 23–24, 2010, Tegucigalpa, Honduras CABEI, 2010.Find this resource:
Caldentey del Pozo, Pedro. El Desarrollo Económico de Centroamérica en el Marco de la Integración Regional. Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (BCIE), 2000.Find this resource:
Caldentey del Pozo, Pedro. Los desafíos estratégicos de la integración centroamericana. Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL) Serie Estudios y Perspectivas. No. 156, México City: CEPAL, 2014.Find this resource:
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(1.) Robert M. Carmack, “Perspectivas sobre la historia antigua de Centroamérica,” in Historia General de Centroamérica, Vol. 1, Historia Antigua, ed. Robert M. Carmack and Edelberto Torres-Rivas (Madrid: Siruela, 1993), 290–291, 305–306, 310.
(2.) Elizabeth Fonseca Corrales, “Economía y sociedad en Centroamérica (1540–1680),” in Historia General de Centroamérica, Vol. 2, El regimen colonial, 1524–1750, ed. Edelberto Torres-Rivas, Julio César Pinto Soria, Héctor Pérez Brignoli, and Víctor H Acuña Ortega (Madrid: Siruela, 1993), 130.
(3.) Julio Pinto Soria, “La independencia y la Federación (1810–1840),” in Historia General de Centroamérica, Vol. 3, De la ilustración al liberalismo, ed. Edelberto Torres-Rivas and Héctor Pérez Brignoli (Madrid: Siruela, 1993), 125.
(4.) Victor Bulmer-Thomas, La Economía Política de Centroamérica desde 1920 (San José, Costa Rica: BCIE, 1989), 251.
(5.) Alfredo Guerra Borges, “Mercado Común y desarrollo industrial en Centroamérica,” in Centroamérica. El futuro de la integración económica, ed. John Weeks, George Irvin, and Stuart Holland (San José. Costa Rica: CRIES, 1990), 75.
(6.) Leonardo Garnier, “La Economía Centroamericana en los Ochenta: ¿Nuevos rumbos o callejón sin salida?” in Historia General de Centroamérica, Vol. 6, Historia Inmediata, ed. Edelberto Torres Rivas (Madrid: Siruela, 1993), 90.
(7.) Guerra Borges, “Mercado Común y desarrollo industrial,” 85.
(8.) Guerra Borges, “Mercado Común y desarrollo industrial,” 82.
(9.) Garnier, “La Economía Centroamericana en los Ochenta,” 89.
(10.) Victor Bulmer-Thomas, “El Mercado Común Centroamericano: Del regionalismo cerrado al regionalismo abierto,” in Integración regional en Centroamérica, ed. Victor Bulmer-Thomas (San José: FLACSO, 1998), 22.
(11.) Bulmer-Thomas, “El Mercado Común Centroamericano,” 27–28.
(12.) Bulmer-Thomas, La Economía Política de Centroamérica, 276.
(13.) Garnier, “La Economía Centroamericana en los Ochenta,” 89–90.
(14.) CEPAL, La Crisis en Centroamérica: orígenes, alcances y consecuencias (México: CEPAL, 1983), 51.
(15.) CEPAL, La Crisis en Centroamérica, 61.
(16.) FLACSO, Centroamérica en Cifras. 1980–2005 (San José: FLACSO, Universidad de Costa Rica, 2006), 126–127.
(17.) FLACSO, Centroamérica en Cifras, 126, 127.
(18.) Pedro Caldentey del Pozo, El Desarrollo Económico de Centroamérica en el Marco de la Integración Regional (Tegucigalpa: Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica, BCIE, 2000), 204.
(19.) Gorostiaga, Xabier, Introducción en Centroamérica. El futuro de la integración económica, by John Weeks et al. (San José: DEI, 1990), 15.
(20.) Pedro Caldentey del Pozo, El Desarrollo Económico, 498.
(21.) SIECA. Evolución del comercio Centroamérica-Estados Unidos en el marco del CAFTA-DR, (Guatemala: SIECA, 2009), 6.
(22.) Alfredo Guerra Borges, “El desarrollo económico,” in Historia General de Centroamérica, Vol. 5, ed. Edelberto Torres-Rivas and Héctor Pérez Brignoli (Madrid: Siruela, 1993), 13–84; see also Alfredo Guerra Borges, La integración centroamericana: Reestructuración y nuevos esquemas (San Jose, Costa Rica: Fundación Friedrich Ebert, 1993); and Guerra Borges, Alfredo, “Mercado Común y desarrollo industrial en Centroamérica,” in Centroamérica: El futuro de la integración económica, 1990.
(23.) Caldentey del Pozo, El Desarrollo Económico de Centroamérica, 2000.
(24.) Caldentey del Pozo, Los desafíos estratégicos de la integración centroamericana (México City, CEPAL 2014).