“Haha, Ortega doesn’t know what he’s talking about, neither does Evo, they don’t know anything about crime, there are reports out there that know more,” said a journalist from Bloomberg to his colleague. The journalist was sitting next to me in the press tent set up outside the CELAC plenary sessions in the Patio de Honor of the Bolivarian Militia University of Venezuela. He was watching Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega on one of the various large screens broadcasting the summit live, working at one of 60 laptops provided by the Venezuelan government.
And right there were two things already that made the CELAC different to other regional blocs; inclusiveness- that alternative journalists like us from Venezuealanslysis.com, as well as many others, who normally would have been outside the meeting protesting, were instead involved in it and sitting next to naive and bigoted mainstream journalists such as the man from Bloomberg, and the fact that the whole summit was broadcast live- not just to journalists, but around Venezuela and on the internet. Many Venezuelans at home followed the meeting closely, because unlike the OAS or APEC, they felt that the CELAC summit had to do with them, and that it was important.
Nothing like the OAS
“And the president of the United States is more the president of my country / than the president of my country,” wrote Roque Dalton in a poem about the OAS.
Initiated eight months after the coup in Honduras, the absence of the US and Canada, the only countries in the Americas not in the CELAC, is nothing but deliberate. The CELAC is a conscious and collective effort to combat US economic, political, military, and cultural domination in the region.
As Cuban president Raul Castro said on the first day of the summit, “It would be a serious mistake to not recognise that Latin America and the Caribbean have changed, that we can’t be treated as we were in the past. We have had to work hard to confront the burden of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and one can expect a firm regional determination to defend the independence we have reached.”
“The OAS is a …reflection of the 50s and 60s, when it was an instrument to promote the colonialist policy of Washington…that’s why no one talks about the OAS as something Latin American. It represents the past rather that the future,” wrote James Petras.
During the summit, many heads of state echoed similar sentiments, including the prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, “CELAC can’t follow in the footsteps of blocs like the OAS and the UN,” he said, and Ortega agreed, “It’s a different Latin America today.”
Many of the heads of state talked about south-south cooperation and regional integration as something necessary, that hadn’t existed in the past. They also talked about solidarity, something that isn’t in the scope of organisations like the OAS.
While following the summit from the press tent, I interviewed Llafrancis Colina, director of Caracas based alternative television station Avila, and Augusto Melero, also with Avila. Molero explained, “The initiative taken by Venezuela for Latin American integration comes at a time when the vision of the world is changing, where there are occupations of Wall Street because the US and Europe haven’t been able to beat their economic crisis. In the CELAC we believe that cooperation will strengthen economic democracy.”
The CELAC’s formally stated objective is to deepen integration and political, social, economic, and cultural unity and to promote sustainable development. That is, rather than a fiesta of free trade deals and luxurious feasts for businessmen or women as is standard fare for regional blocs, CELAC, with the influence of a range of left wing presidents such as Chavez, Morales, and Correa, is about cooperation, social justice, and benefiting the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“This summit has been more humane, there’s a position of respect for people’s self determination,” said Melero.
“In the summit itself, there’s a feeling of camaraderie between the different countries, it goes beyond diplomacy. There’s the feeling that, despite having different political perspectives, the presidents can sit down and arrive at agreements, there’s a real intention to solve problems, to work together. The interests of CELAC go beyond the individual interests of each country. For example, the European Union, it’s just about politics and economy, but here with CELAC there’s a cultural aspect, a social one, it’s not just economic,” Melero explained.
One example of that was the proposal by Rafael Correa at the summit for an inter-American system to defend human rights, without the contradictions, hypocrisy, and imperialist arrogance of human rights “reports” that come out of U.S backed organisations about the rest of the world’s human rights situation.
“For the rights of the weak to have weight in the world, we have to unite, that is the fight, this isn’t a struggle for a utopia, it’s a struggle to be,” said Uruguay’s Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica.
Venezuela has prioritised the CELAC and Latin American integration
The US government with its arrogant and deathly invasions and its paid coup puppeteers offers much less to the cause of Latin American integration than Venezuela does with its social policies and its numerous concrete efforts for Latin American collaboration such as Telesur, the Simon Bolivar satellite, the Radio del Sur, cross continental tourism, petroleum agreements, free eye surgery performed by its doctors in other countries in the region, and so on.
It’s therefore not surprising that it was Venezuela and Chavez who became the president pro tempore of CALC, the predecessor to CELAC, that Venezuela hosted the founding summit on the weekend, and has lead the push to make CELAC real and legitimate.
“For 12 years since Chavez came into government, we’ve been fighting for Latin American integration,” Colina from Avila told me, as she sipped Venezuelan coffee.
“The president [Hugo Chavez] has had a political policy of strengthening Venezuela’s relations with other countries, through bilateral agreements, talks, and ALBA and UNASUR,” Melero added.
“It’s an honour for Venezuela [to host the summit]… many talk about the dream of Bolivar [for a united Latin America] but few talk about it as a project, about actually putting it into practice. Today we’re laying down the first stone, a fundamental one for the unity of Latin America and for our real independence,” Chavez said.
The seriousness the Venezuelan government is giving CELAC was evident in the ongoing coverage and debate by its radio, television, and written media, the decoration of Caracas streets and parks with CELAC posters and photos of Latin America, and the high level of organisation of both the summit and for the media.
Media war comes subtly to CELAC
In the past, spoilt private media journalists have complained of the mediocre reception and non subservient type facilities in Venezuela. One freelance journalist once commented to me that it was a global standard that any restaurant, hotel, or company treat journalists well (ie free food, stay etc) in order to get a good write up, and that Venezuela was doing itself a disservice by not doing the same, and with its chaotic streets and transport. While I beg to differ on the ethics of that, it was important to the Venezuelan government last weekend that the CELAC was accessible to all media- private, public , and alternative, and it wanted that media to be able to easily cover the summit and thereby help the new organisation gain legitimacy and world wide recognition.
At VA we got a 22 page media guide about five days before the summit, then on the day, made our way in the train to La Rinconada station. In a parking lot nearby a tent was set up where journalists registered, and were taken to the summit. After going through security, we made our way to the press tent, with its free lunch and dinner, coffee, laptops and internet, phones, printers, 16 television monitors, and antennas.
The cooperation between progressive media, and the assistance and information provided by Venezuela’s ministry of communications was special. As Melero told me, “This summit has been premised on inclusion, for example, our media, Avila, an alternative youth station, hasn’t been excluded, we have the same opportunities [access to technology, permission to take photos etc] as other media, we sit next to CNN and talk to them.”
Nevertheless, the mainstream media, in a choir of scepticism, and despite the good hosting by Venezuela, predictably has either boycotted covering the CELAC (Christmas and sports are more important) or has focused on irrelevant angles of it, and purposefully missed the point.
Reuters dismissed CELAC, saying it was just another bunch of “initials” and criticising it for having “no budget nor a permanent secretary”, writing that “analysts” (who the article doesn’t bother to name) are “sceptical” about the bloc and suggesting that historical differences and different national agendas have always got in the way. Another Reuters article, this one in English, reduced the importance of CELAC to a “test” of Chavez’s health and wrote (lied) “The CELAC summit will give the theatrical but authoritarian 57-year-old a much-loved opportunity to grandstand at a big event, and bash the United States at the same time.”
Americas Society also used unnamed “detractors” who “question the usefulness of a potentially redundant forum in a region already plagued by a history of hobbled attempts at integration” and the Wall Street Journal followed what seems to be a private media trend, quoting more unnamed “analysts” that while the US should note the “latest indication of growing Latin American autonomy”, different strains of government could hamper the Community’s effectiveness.
“The media [when writing about Venezuela] always looks for the negative things, the errors and failures, in this case of the summit,” Colina said.
“The mainstream media has tried to minimise the impact of CELAC. They aren’t interested in a united block that goes against the interests of US imperialism, they did the same when they invented things that didn’t happen in the Green Square in Libya to justify the killing of Gaddafi, but in this case they are trivialising the CELAC or making it invisible,” Melero added.
CELAC not just for the suits
Apart from many people here following CELAC live or in the press and debating its outcomes, there were also other activities in Caracas related to the summit, such as art and museum exhibitions, cinema forums, a food festival including dishes from 16 of the CELAC countries, theatre, poetry, sculpture, and book stalls.
Colina expressed it well, “CELAC is not just about sitting at tables and talking, it’s not just for the government, but for all of us, for Latin America”.
The CELAC didn’t end in a million dollar feast in a five star hotel with 30,000 police outside the hotel arresting and repressing protesters, as is common with other regional blocs. No, it ended in a huge concert in the rain, and the sounds of Venezuela’s youth orchestra united with Calle 13’s hip hop,
I’m Latin America / A people without legs that walks …
You can’t buy my life / My land isn’t for sale
Long live Latin America!