CELAC: Speaking for Latin America and the Caribbean

December 06, 2011

On Saturday, Dec. 3 – while most of the U.S. media was focused on the political demise of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and the growing financial meltdown in Europe – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was officially launched at a summit in Caracas, Venezuela.  The new regional organization includes every nation in the Western Hemisphere with the exception of the United States and Canada and is seen by many as a potential rival to the region’s foremost multilateral organization, the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS).  Though it generated a great deal of media attention within Latin America and was attended by the majority of the hemisphere’s heads of state, the U.S. press largely overlooked the Caracas summit with, for instance, the New York Times limiting its coverage to a brief 100 word blurb from the Associated Press. 

The minimal coverage that the summit garnered in the U.S. media was mostly limited to reports that downplayed the significance of the new regional bloc.  It was depicted in some articles as “Chávez’s baby” and – according to one U.S. pundit – “will probably last as long as Chávez is willing to underwrite it.”  Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer insisted in a headline that the “Group will have no Teeth.” Based on conversations with a White House official and a representative of a right-wing Latin American government, Oppenheimer was able to determine with certainty that CELAC “will hardly make it into the history books.”

As is typically the case with U.S. media coverage of Latin American politics, reporters and commentators appeared incapable of recognizing yet another watershed development in a region that has undergone major political transformations over the last dozen years.  In this, they closely resemble the U.S. administration which – under Barack Obama as much as under George W. Bush – has failed to acknowledge these transformations and maintained the same stale policies that have been in place for decades.  On Dec. 2, while the Caracas summit was in full swing, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner confidently stated that the OAS remains “the pre-eminent multilateral organization speaking for the hemisphere.”  Many Latin Americans would take exception at the notion that the OAS “speaks for the hemisphere” and with CELAC now steaming ahead again, following a brief hiatus, it appears increasingly likely that the aging organization will fade into irrelevance.

Much preparation went into the founding summit of CELAC and during the two days that the leaders of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean member states were convened, long and intense discussions took place.  Originally scheduled to take place in July, the summit was postponed until December to allow time for the host country’s president, Hugo Chávez, to recover from cancer treatment.  By the end of the day on Dec. 3, 22 documents had been approved by all of the governments including a “Caracas Declaration” establishing various principles and orientations for the new organization; a “Caracas Action Plan” setting a concrete work agenda on multiple issues; a “Statute of Procedures” defining the organization’s basic structure and decision-making process; and 19 statements on issues varying from coca chewing to democracy. 

Although U.S. commentators have described the bloc, in its current form, to be merely a mechanism for periodic dialogue and consultation between member countries, CELAC’s founding documents provide the framework for a much bolder agenda.  The Caracas Declaration states that the member countries will promote a “concerted voice for Latin America and the Caribbean” on major issues.  The Statute of Procedures, drafted jointly by the right-wing government of Chile and the left-wing government of Venezuela[i], calls for the “coordination of common positions between member countries in multilateral forums, political spaces and spaces of international negotiation to promote the Latin American and Caribbean agenda.”  If the members of CELAC follow through on these commitments, the group could well become a significant multilateral actor presenting common positions within global institutions such as the United Nations and negotiating with other important regional blocs, for instance in Europe and Asia. 

The Caracas Declaration also commits member countries to advancing the “political, economic, social and cultural integration” of the region.  With this objective, CELAC members are called on to develop “programs, projects and initiatives on integration, cooperation, complementarity and development” within the region, and develop mechanisms for coordination with “sub-regional integration mechanisms”, which include the Southern Cone trade bloc Mercosur and the South American intergovernmental union UNASUR.  Rodrigo Baena, a spokesperson for the Brazilian presidency characterized CELAC as a “third ring” of Latin American integration with Mercosur and UNASUR being the first and second rings.

The Caracas Action Plan outlines a dense work agenda touching on various areas of collaboration that have been developed between Latin American and Caribbean governments in ministerial meetings over the last two years.  These include energy cooperation, addressing hunger and illiteracy, boosting intra-regional trade, and cooperation around humanitarian and environmental challenges.   At the top of the agenda are plans for addressing the impact of the international financial crisis and designing a “new international financial architecture.”  Most of Latin America – in particular South America – has managed to maintain fairly strong economic growth in the midst of the global financial and economic crisis, but there are clearly concerns about the possible fallout from a full-blown financial collapse in the Eurozone.  The way forward, as outlined in the Action Plan, is for CELAC to develop mechanisms to “strengthen and deepen the integration of our economies.”

The Action Plan also commits the group to developing a “strategy to design a new regional financial architecture … based in the principles of justice, solidarity and transparency” and to working to “redesign international financial institutions” such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.  The Plan states that decision-making within these institutions should be democratized and conditionalities attached to loans should be “eliminated and/or rendered more flexible.” 

The current framework for CELAC involves no permanent institutions; only a rotating pro tempore presidency, national representatives, working groups and regular meetings of foreign ministers and heads of state. This has led some U.S. commentators to triumphantly predict that the bloc will be ineffective and toothless.   It is, however, much too early to say whether the bloc will remain without an institutional framework.  The group’s statutes are likely to evolve over time and one need look no further than the recent South American group UNASUR to find an example of a regional organization that had no permanent organs and then progressively acquired institutions like a secretariat and a parliament. 

Like CELAC, UNASUR – made up of every independent South American government – was either ignored or dismissed by the U.S. administration and most of the U.S. media when it was created.  Like the groups that preceded CELAC (the Latin American and Caribbean Summits (CALC) and the Rio Group) the forum that gave birth to UNASUR – the biennual “Meeting of South American Presidents” – was nothing more than a multilateral consulting mechanism. 

At the third President’s Meeting, in 2004, the Cuzco Declaration announced the foundation of the South American Community of Nations, but it wasn’t until May 2008 that UNASUR was officially established through a constitutive treaty signed in Brasilia.  Since then, UNASUR has developed the position of Secretary General – first occupied by the late Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner – and established various institutions and regional cooperation mechanisms such as a Secretariat (based in Quito, Ecuador), a soon-to-be inaugurated South American Parliament, a Center for Strategic Defense Studies and a series of ministerial councils that consult regularly on issues such as Social Development, Economy and Finance, Energy, Defense and Infrastructure.  UNASUR is now a major regional player.  Over the last few years, it has been particularly effective at defusing potentially explosive regional crises such as the September 2008 political crisis in Bolivia and the 2010 diplomatic showdown between Columbia and Venezuela 

CELAC appears to be progressing along a track very similar to UNASUR.  But, aside from the obvious parallels that can be drawn between the two groups, why is there any reason to believe that CELAC will fulfill the ambitious set of objectives set forth in the Caracas Declaration? 

One transparent reason — though apparently not transparent enough for some inside-the-Beltway Latin America “experts” — is the fact that there is a new geopolitical reality south of the Rio Grande that has created a fertile terrain for deep and effective Latin American and Caribbean integration. 

Only a decade ago, nearly all of the governments of the region embraced the Washington Consensus dogma of free markets, deregulation, privatization and the downsizing of the state and its role in the economy.  By the early 2000s, however, the tide turned as the peoples of the region went to the ballot boxes and overwhelmingly rejected policies that had led to stagnant economic growth, increased inequalities, and decreased access to education, health care and other public services. 

Following the election of left-of-center governments throughout most of the region by the late 2000s, Latin American countries have shunned the International Monetary Fund – purveyor of neoliberal structural adjustments – and rejected the U.S.–sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas.  They have focused increasing attention on addressing the symptoms and root causes of poverty and social disparities.  Contrary to the gloomy predictions of U.S. Latin America “experts”, the region’s left-leaning governments have in many cases succeeded in spurring rates of economic growth not seen since the 1970s and have brought down poverty levels significantly as data from the IMF and World Bank has confirmed.  This paradigm shift has transformed policy-making in nearly every country of the region, with even right-leaning governments adopting “social agendas” that address the needs of the poor.

The region, now dominated by left-of-center political leadership, has grown increasingly independent from the U.S. With this independence, the collective will to create a common front so as to gain leverage internationally vis-à-vis the U.S., Europe, and other global powers has grown.  At the same time, the countries of the region increasingly see the OAS as an historical anachronism, harkening back to a time when the U.S. exercised much more direct influence in the region’s affairs. 

The idea of CELAC, it should be remembered, was first hatched in the wake of the U.S.’ unilateral decision to support elections held under a de facto government in Honduras despite the opposition of nearly every other country in the hemisphere.  Prior to these elections, attempts were made to pass resolutions within the OAS rejecting elections under the coup regime, but the U.S. thwarted these attempts at every turn.  For many Latin American governments, the Honduras experience confirmed that the OAS was not a space in which sensitive political crises could be resolved.  An OAS electoral “expert” mission’s decision to arbitrarily change the results of the first round of Haiti’s presidential elections has provided additional evidence of the organization’s bias. 

Reading the various documents approved at the Caracas summit it is impossible not to note the numerous statements that either directly target U.S. policy, or would be opposed by the U.S. government.  One document is dedicated to rejecting the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the Helms-Burton Law, while another calls for the “international community”, i.e., the U.S. to “respect” the custom of coca-chewing in Bolivia and Peru (the U.S. has been a major opponent of plans to amend the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to allow for this traditional indigenous practice).  Throughout the CELAC documents, one encounters phrases that reflect shared Latin American values but that would encounter systematic opposition from the U.S. should any attempt be made to include them in an OAS document: calls for a “pluripolar world”, “South-South cooperation”, “political integration” and “stripping the world of military occupation.”   

These documents and the many high-level discussions that preceded the creation of CELAC reflect an inescapable reality that neither the U.S. nor the Beltway “experts” want to acknowledge:  Latin America has undergone profound and lasting political transformations and is progressively breaking out of the U.S. sphere of influence.   CELAC is the logical consequence of these transformations and appears to be destined to become the pre-eminent multilateral organization speaking for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

This post also appeared on Truthout.

[i] At the time of the Caracas summit, Chile and Venezuela held the Pro Tempore presidencies of the Rio Group and CALC (the Latin America and Caribbean Summit group) respectively.  As these two groups merged and were subsequently dissolved following the creation of CELAC, both Chile and Venezuela were tasked with drafting the statutes of CELAC together.

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