Latin America and Caribbean: CELAC Steams Ahead

A high-level meeting in Venezuela earlier this month, in which senior Latin American and Caribbean diplomats from 32 countries discussed the creation of a new forum for regional concertation, slipped under the radar of the entire U.S. media.

A high-level meeting in Venezuela earlier this month, in which senior Latin American and Caribbean diplomats from 32 countries discussed the creation of a new forum for regional concertation, slipped under the radar of the entire U.S. media.  Indeed, the only English-language report on the event that appeared in the mainstream media was filed by the French press agency AFP which informed its meager US readership that the meeting participants had decided that Venezuela and Chile would be heading “a new regional bloc that will include all countries in the Americas except Canada and the United States.”  This and other concrete steps agreed to at the Venezuelan meeting — including the Caracas Plan of Action — provided a clear demonstration that the 32 governments were determined to push ahead with the project for a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Spanish acronym CELAC).

Let’s go back for a moment to February 23rd when the CELAC project was first hatched at a summit in Cancun to which every Latin American and Caribbean government was invited with the exception of the de facto government of Honduras.  Mexican President Felipe Calderon convened the summit in a context of mounting frustration with US policy and with the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), particularly around the issue of the Honduras coup.  For instance, while regional groupings like UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) and the Rio Group announced late last year that they wouldn’t recognize elections held under the Honduran coup regime, the US blocked any resolution of this sort in the OAS and unilaterally announced its decision to recognize the November elections several weeks before they occurred.

The Cancun summit — called the “Summit of Unity for Latin America and the Caribbean” — saw the merging of two regional groupings: the Rio Group, which at the time was being chaired by Mexico, and the recently launched Latin American and Caribbean Summit, known by its Spanish acronym CALC.  The 23-member Rio Group (GRIO) is a forum for regional consultation that has its roots in the Contadora group, which worked to resolve Central America’s armed conflicts in the 1980s.  The CALC, meanwhile, was first convened in Brazil in 2008 and marked a milestone, being the first time ever that every government in the region was represented without the presence of the US, Canada, or any European country.

The final declaration of the Unity Summit announced the agreement to create the CELAC and employed language rarely if ever seen in OAS documents: “the need to carry out efforts to advance towards … political, economic, social and cultural integration,” “we reaffirm our commitment to the defense of sovereignty and the right of each state to constitute its own political system, free of threats, aggressions and unilateral coercive measures,” “the need for a distinct regional space that consolidates and protects the Latin American and Caribbean identity.”  The statement also included repeated references to “solidarity,” “social inclusion,” “complementarity.”  Notably absent were any references to the Washington mantras of “free trade” and “open markets.”  In the event that there might be any doubt regarding the intentions of the summit participants, Mexico’s Rio Group coordinator spelled it out in an April op-ed: “In time, the Community should become the region’s most representative interlocutor vis-à-vis main international actors, other groups of countries and regional organizations.”  Though US officials insisted that the new group posed no future challenge to the OAS’s regional clout, the documents and statements that came out of the summit suggested otherwise.

The Caracas ministerial this July has taken the CELAC project a step further by establishing a “Unified Forum” which will coordinate the work of the CALC and GRIO during the transition period in which CELAC is constituted.  The meeting participants approved a detailed work agenda, dubbed the “Caracas Plan,” which sets out a schedule of multilateral meetings focused on implementing the “Montego Action Plan” developed in the 2009 ministerial meeting of CLAC in Jamaica.  The agenda includes meetings around 8 broad areas of discussion — cooperation between regional integration schemes; the international financial crisis; energy cooperation; social development; sustainable development and climate change; natural disasters; cultural cooperation; migration issues — with the goal of developing coordination mechanisms and common positions in each area.

Most significantly, the foreign ministers agreed that Chile and Venezuela, the pro tempore presidents of GRIO and CLAC respectively, would co-chair the Forum and tasked the two governments with drafting the future statutes for CELAC.

Chile and Venezuela?  On the surface, such a match-up might appear risky, even explosive.  After all, Chile — whose new president is the right-wing businessman Sebastian Piñera — has a free trade agreement with the US and is considered to be one of Washington’s closest allies in South America along with Colombia and Peru; the government of President Chavez, meanwhile is left-wing and is intensely opposed to the US free trade agenda.  Is such a partnership not doomed from the start?

Not necessarily.  Chavez, though he is the chief promoter of the ALBA regional grouping that is explicitly conceived as a bloc to counter US regional influence, has shown himself adaptable to making major compromises in order to further Latin American and regional integration, as his pragmatic leadership role in the South American group UNASUR has demonstrated.  In the case of Piñera, his foreign policy is still not clearly defined, but his toned-down approach to international relations indicates that he too is prepared to act pragmatically.  He has, for instance, chosen to officially support the decision of UNASUR to not recognize (for now) the government of Honduras, although his South American right-wing colleagues — Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Alan García of Peru — have chosen to openly recognize and support the Honduran government.  Moreover, should the two co-chairs butt heads during the drafting process, a larger working group of governments — including Mexico, Brazil, and Jamaica — has been tasked to help the co-chairs push the project forward.

As the Caracas ministerial convened, a potentially larger threat of disunity loomed over the proceedings.  According to some accounts, tensions have emerged between Brazil and Mexico over the manner in which CELAC was created.  CLAC, whose membership is identical to CELAC, as currently envisioned, was the proud creation of Brazil, and Mexico, by proposing the merger of CLAC and GRIO, effectively became a founder in its own right.  The two regional powers — the biggest in the Latin American and Caribbean region both in terms of economy and population — have competed before for regional influence, and Brazil appears to be unconvinced that supporting the CELAC project is in its best interest.  Certainly, Brazil appeared to manifest its lack of enthusiasm when it chose to send a relatively low-level representative to Caracas, while most of the other Latin American nations, including Mexico, sent their most senior diplomats to the meeting.

Still, following the Caracas meeting, CELAC is now on a clear path towards becoming the first formal association of states to include every Latin American and Caribbean nation while excluding other countries such as the US and Canada.  And if all goes according to plan, it could well displace the OAS as a forum for furthering regional cooperation and addressing critical issues and differences between member states, despite what the US State Department may believe.