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Last Monday, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC) met for its second summit in Santiago, Chile, one year after its founding meeting in Caracas, Venezuela in 2011. The Summit is the culmination of roughly a decade of efforts to create a viable mechanism for greater integration in the Americas, and particularly a year of planning by a “troika” of representatives from, believe it or not, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba. They were able to pull it off successfully, despite their obvious differences, and all 33 presidents or heads of state from the region attended, with the exception of Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, who sent a letter with his Vice-President Nicolás Maduro.
CELAC explicitly excludes the US and Canada, a historic first for a hemispheric organization with huge symbolic importance, because it answers a long-standing dream for unity of the subcontinent that harks back to Simón Bolívar and the struggles for independence from the European colonial powers. Beyond the symbolism, however, it is strategically crucial: It means that there is now a subcontinent bloc of developing nations that can speak with one voice,, and also serve as a counterweight to US political and economic hegemony.
In the days preceding the Summit, the group also held another summit, its first one with the European Union. Germany’s Angela Merkel, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and more than two dozen other heads of state or foreign ministers from the Continent were present, along with top leaders of the European Commission. The meeting focused on collaboration in trade and mutual investment, which is no surprise. The EU is the biggest foreign investor in the area, and it is very interested in attracting investors from the region. This meeting with the EU is no fluke. According to the EU’s webpage: From now on, CELAC will be “the EU’s counterpart for the bi-regional partnership process, including at summit level.” This is no trivial bureaucratic change.
The independent character of CELAC is best illustrated through some of the otherwise routine details of the event. The rotating one-year presidency of the organization was passed from the conservative President of Chile Sebastián Piñera to the President of Cuba, Raúl Castro, who will hold the reins on behalf of the organization until the next summit in Havana next year, supported by a new “troika” that will include Chile, Costa Rica–the next president–as well as Haiti as a representative of Caricom, the regional organization of the Caribbean island nations! No wonder that, according to the AP, Argentine President Cristina Fernández remarked that “Cuba’s assumption of the presidency of the CELAC marks a change of times.” And if anyone doubts that CELAC confirms the successful reintegration of Cuba into hemispheric organizations, note that one of the few unanimous declarations from both summits was a call for an end to the US embargo against Cuba.
The organization also is born and gains strength, while, “most governments are not taking the OAS seriously,” and in a letter to the State Department last November, Senators Kerry, Menendez, Lugar and Rubio write that the OAS “is sliding into and administrative and financial paralysis,” that threatens to condemn it to “irrelevance.”
The summit concluded with a joint declaration and plan of action, already begun in 2011. These emphasize numerous areas of integration and coordination through work groups and events in areas as diverse as addressing the impact of the world financial crisis and creating regional financial structures, sustainable development and environmental issues, a regional energy strategy, new mechanisms for regional collaboration, as well as education, poverty, food security, and social justice. In his brief acceptance speech upon assuming the presidency, Raúl Castro emphasized the goal of a unified voice to speak on behalf of the subcontinent, while respecting the diversity of its membership. His comments echoed many in the opening speech by President Piñera and the addresses of many other heads of state.
Make no mistake. CELAC is no panacea; there will be plenty of obstacles to its eventual success. There is no lack of skeptics who have already tried to characterize it as little more than an occasional forum for presidential speeches. The clash of interests between the EU and the subcontinent will make it difficult to reach agreement on key issues such as protectionism and immigration. The reasons for joining and supporting CELAC range as widely as the many disparate political, economic and social systems of the subcontinent nations, so unity will not come easily. There are also plenty of bilateral and regional historical obstacles—such as Bolivia’s dispute with Chile over access to the sea–that have torpedoed earlier integration attempts. Not to mention that the US will likely try to sabotage it actively, even if the only official US comment about CELAC came when a State Department press spokesman in 2011blandly commented that the US considered the OAS the “pre-eminent” hemispheric organization.
Yet here we are seeing something like the Monroe Doctrine turned on its head, excluding the US while seeking to deepen ties with many of the old colonial powers, led by CELAC, a new regional bloc of nations, designated as the “the EU’s counterpart for the bi-regional partnership process” and led for its coming year by Cuba and its President, Raúl Castro, who assumes the presidency from the hands of the conservative Chilean President Piñera! And the new organization is born as the OAS is faltering, and it also adopts and reiterates a unanimous repudiation of the US embargo against Cuba, as well as supporting Argentina on its claims on the Malvinas. No wonder Argentine President Fernández is reported to have said, “For Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to transfer the presidency pro-tempore to Castro shows the times we are living.”
And these are indeed different times, yet the mainstream US media barely mentioned this historic event—much less examine its significance, just as it largely failed to report on its founding meeting in late 2011 (CounterPunch, December 21, 2011). Never mind the multiple potential and actual impacts of these regional developments, only a few of which are sketched here, or that the Chilean press reported more than 1300 journalists from 35 countries were present to cover the event, with the “largest press room ever installed in Chile” for such a gathering.
There is something very wrong with this picture and with our media; it would do the US public and leaders well to pay attention to CELAC, and all the currents that have created it.
Manuel R. Gómez is a scientist in Washington, DC who emigrated from Cuba when he was 13 in 1961. He serves on the Board of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington-based educational non-profit organization that advocates engagement with Cuba.