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The Rise of CELAC

A New Force in Latin America

by MARK WEISBROT

Although most Americans have not heard about it, a historic step toward changing this hemisphere was taken three weeks ago.  A new organization for the region was formed, and everyone was invited except the U.S. and Canada. The new organization is called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

There was a reason for the exclusion of the two richest countries, including the world’s largest economy. In fact there were many reasons, but they went mostly unnoticed in the major media.  The existing regional grouping, the Organization of American States (OAS), is too often controlled by the U.S. State Department, with Canada as junior partner.

In 2009, there was a big eye-opener for the rest of the hemisphere, especially those governments that thought President Obama would break with tradition and support democracy in the hemisphere.  The democratic government of Honduras was overthrown in a military coup in June of that year. Although the U.S. role in the coup itself is still unclear, there is no doubt that Washington did quite a bit to help the coup government succeed and establish itself. And one of the things that the Obama administration did was to block the OAS from taking more effective action against the coup government.

The OAS was also used by Washington to overturn election results in the first round of Haiti’s presidential election of last year.  An OAS “expert verification mission” changed the results without even so much as a recount or any statistical basis for its actions, and the U.S. and its allies threatened Haiti’s government until it accepted the result. This was a sequel to the OAS role in the de-legitimizing of Haiti’s elections in 2000, which played a vital role in the U.S.-organized coup against the democratic government there in 2004.

Clearly the OAS cannot be trusted with regard to issues of democracy or election monitoring in the hemisphere. But there are many more reasons for forming a new organization for the region.  Over the past 15 years there has been a “Latin American spring,” with left-of-center, democratic governments being elected in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, and others. It is no coincidence that this tectonic shift at the ballot box has brought with it a burst of economic growth, historic reductions in poverty, increased access to health care and education, and a reduction in income inequality.

And it is no coincidence that Latin America’s worst long-term growth failure in more than a century – from 1980-2000 – took place during the era of the “Washington Consensus,” when economic policy in the region was heavily influenced by Washington-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  In fact, the Latin American spring was mainly driven by this economic failure and a desire for alternatives.

The new CELAC reflects this new reality – Latin America has become politically independent of the United States, there have been many changes in economic policy as a result, and these changes have brought higher living standards.  CELAC will continue to advance these positive changes, including regional economic integration, co-ordination around foreign policy, and conflict resolution.  Although it will take time, CELAC will eventually displace the OAS, which will become increasingly irrelevant to Latin America – just as the mostly Washington-controlled IMF, which 15 years ago had enormous influence in Latin America, is now irrelevant to most of the region.

Americans should welcome these changes and ignore the pundits’ whining about so-called “anti-Americanism” in this independence movement.  We, the 99 percent of Americans who did not benefit from decades of harmful intervention from Washington in the region, have everything to gain from a more independent and prosperous Latin America, and nothing to lose.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.