As if there weren’t already enough hemispheric organizations, Latin Americans have invented a new one. The failure of the Obama administration’s policies concerning Latin America stems from not taking regionalism into account.
Lost in a forest of acronyms — OAE (Organization of American States), Mercosur, Unasur, Alba, Caricom — and regional organizations like Rio Group or the Ibero-American Summit, this weekend in Caracas, Venezuela, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was created. Different from the OAE, the CELAC excludes the United States and Canada; and different from the Ibero-American Summit, it excludes Spain and Portugal. It is composed of 33 nations with governments leaning to the left: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua; with leftist governments: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador; and right- to center-oriented governments: Colombia, Panama, Chile and Mexico.
The new organization’s declared purpose, which is evidently consensual, is mainly economic. What it’s about, says an official, is constructing “our own new financial architecture” that allows the region to defend itself from the economic crisis that is shaking the United States and Europe. However, it’s clear that its constitution is based also on geopolitical considerations and has powerful political motivation.
“Honestly,” Peter Hakim of Dialogo Interamericano tells me, “the idea to create this new regional organization that includes the members of Unasur and Rio Group was formulated by Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva at the Bahia Summit three years ago to show Brazil’s reach, influence and leadership on the continent.
“After the meeting in Bahia and responding to Brazil’s challenge, Mexico offered to host the preliminary meeting in 2010, thusly taking advantage of the opportunity to show its undisputed relevance in the Latin American block. Colombia, first with Alvaro Uribe and then with Juan Manuel Santos, was in part incorporated,” says Hakim, “to repair relations with the countries of Unasur and show their independence from the U.S., while they continued to actively participate in the OAE.”
And not only that, reiterates Abraham Lowenthal, founder of the Pacific Council on International Policy, “Calderon in Mexico, Santos in Colombia and Sebastian Pinera of Chile are uniting the group to affirm their influence in the region and to maintain a majority over the countries of ALBA. But they also share the intention of not dividing the region any further with useless confrontations while waiting for the moment of redefinition that will come in Venezuela and Cuba.”
For Hugo Chavez, however, one of objectives of the CELAC is to replace the Organization of American States. “The OAE,” said Chavez upon receiving Dilma Rousseff in Caracas this weekend, “is old, it’s an area that was manipulated, dominated by the United States… chipped apart by old men, while CELAC is born with a new spirit, like a weapon of political, economic and social integration.”
The Ecuadorian Rafael Correa, who wants to dismantle the OAE because he doesn’t agree with the organization’s approach in terms of defense of human rights and freedom of expression, expressed the same sentiment.
Another vision is that of Lowenthal, who thinks that “the CELAC and the OAE serve distinct functions with different purposes and different members, so one wouldn’t be expected to substitute the other.” For Hakim, however, it’s evident that “the OAE is passing through a moment of crisis. And that despite its rhetoric over its supposed compromise with multilaterals, the Obama administration has ignored, almost abandoned the OAE, thereby decreasing the organization’s importance.”
Beyond the Ideology
For the Chilean Jorge Heine, investigator for the Center of Innovation and Global Governing, “the CELAC reflects the peak of Latin American political cooperation and collective diplomacy. It goes beyond different swings in ideology and inclinations to different political parties.
“It expresses the understanding among the great majority of the countries in the region that in order to confront the challenges of today’s world, some level of regional coordination is indispensable. The great failure of the Obama administration’s policies with regard to Latin America lies in the fact that they have not taken into account the magnitude of this new regionalism and its implications.”
Given the proliferation of entities and regional organizations in Latin America, I don’t see anything clear in the future of CELAC and I agree with Lowenthal when he signals that “we haven’t seen what resources they’ll function with, who will be responsible for managing the new institution or how much force it will have in important decisions in the hemisphere.”
Nor do I believe that its creation presents any serious problem for the U.S. The true problem is its isolation from the region at a time when important political changes are approaching in Cuba and in Venezuela.
For now, what there is reason to celebrate, as my colleagues at Tal Cual point out, is that for one weekend the residents of Caracas felt an immense relief in seeing clean streets, light traffic and a feeling of personal security that they hadn’t felt in years in that metropolis, today considered the second most dangerous city in the world.