Latin American Unity Takes Center Stage as U.S. Influence Declines

In spite of surprises in the lead-up to the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14–15, the results of the conference were predictable. The United States and Canada found themselves distanced from their neighbors to the south. The newly created regional organizations that exclude the United States were at least partially responsible for this shift.


In spite of surprises in the lead-up to the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14–15, the results of the conference were predictable. The United States and Canada found themselves distanced from their neighbors to the south, particularly on the key issues of Cuba, decriminalization of drugs, and the dispute over the Malvinas—otherwise known as the Falkland Islands. For Washington, the conference was the latest in several years of diplomatic reverses highlighted by the defeat of the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2005. The most far-reaching development leading up to the Cartagena summit was the new hemispheric configuration manifested by the consolidation of organizations promoting Latin American unity, specifically the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and more recently the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

A lack of consensus prevented the summit from producing a final document. In the previous summit in Trinidad in 2009, a 22-page document was signed by only the host country for the same reason. On that occasion, however, Trinidadian prime minister Patrick Manning in his closing speech spoke optimistically of “the more open and conciliatory position” of the then recently elected U.S. president Barack Obama, which would assure Cuba’s participation in hemispheric discussions in the near future.[1]

Following the Cartagena summit, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos pointed out that the “direct and open” manner in which a wide range of “hot issues” were discussed constituted a breakthrough in inter-American relations. The Obama administration’s acceptance of this style of debate represented a concession, albeit a relatively minor one. “Historically, the summit agenda has been seen as dictated by the United States,” explained the Christian Science Monitor.[2]

The newly created organizations that exclude the United States were at least partially responsible for the change. “ALBA has acted somewhat as a bloc within UNASUR and CELAC and the resolutions and stands of all three organizations have hardened the positions of Latin American governments vis-à-vis the United States,” Bolivia’s UN ambassador Rafael Archondo told me. CELAC, which was founded in Caracas, Venezuela, in December, goes beyond the confines of the South American-based UNASUR by bringing the Caribbean and Central American nations into the organizational fold.

Much of the U.S. media—and the foreign policy experts they quote—dismisses the importance of these organizational developments. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, it is claimed, is bankrolling all three organizations as venues for grandstanding.[3] This depiction ignores UNASUR’s impressive track record in conflict resolution following rampant political violence in Bolivia in 2008, Colombia’s military incursion in Ecuador in the same year, and the attempted Ecuadoran coup in 2010. In all three conflicts, the OAS was left on the sidelines.

More recently, The Wall Street Journal labeled CELAC “Mr. Chávez’s party.” The paper quoted Christopher Sabatini of the Council of the Americas, who called CELAC a forum for Chávez to “pontificate and fan anti-U.S. sentiment.” In the same article, economist Boris Segura of Nomura Holdings stated that “in terms of what . . .  [CELAC] is going to achieve, it will be very little, because the region is divided.”[4]

Latin America’s unified positions at the Cartagena summit put the lie to these statements, but the full impact of the issues that are being raised by these organizations is an open question. After all, the UN General Assembly has passed near unanimous resolutions condemning the Cuban embargo over the last two decades without tangible results.

I asked Venezuela’s OAS representative, Carmen Velásquez, one of her country’s chief negotiators at Cartagena, whether anyone is taking the debate and infighting seriously. She responded affirmatively pointing out that the Summit of the Americas is “Washington’s baby.” Indeed, it was an initiative of President Bill Clinton, who in 1994 intended it to provide momentum for the FTAA proposal.

“Any breakdown of the summit tradition,” Velásquez added, “will look bad, particularly because the U.S. boasts that Latin America is a safe place for democracy and free of the head-on clashes seen elsewhere in the world.”

Velásquez pointed to additional evidence of U.S. apprehension over the possibility that Latin American nations may distance themselves from their neighbor to the north. She recalled that at the OAS General Assembly in 2009, the United States voted with the rest of Latin America in favor of Cuba’s readmission into the OAS. However, it did so only out of fear of being isolated on the Cuban issue, and only if Cuba promised to respect the human rights of its citizens—a condition, Velásquez said, that “the Cubans rightfully considered humiliating and predictably rejected.” The U.S. stratagem was risky. The mere appearance of acquiescence on the issue of Cuban membership into the OAS brought down the wrath of the U.S. right, including Congressman Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who called for defunding the organization.

The Cuban issue again flared up just two months before the Cartagena summit. In a surprise move, Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa called on the ALBA nations to boycott the conference if Cuba were not allowed to participate. The call caught different actors by surprise. In response to the U.S. veto on Cuban participation in the Summit of the Americas on grounds of alleged human rights violation, Santos traveled to Havana in an attempt to stave off a boycott by all ALBA nations. Cuba surprised some by announcing its interest in attending the summit. After some hesitation, Bolivia and Venezuela decided against following Ecuador’s lead, in large part because they were eager to maintain cordial relations with summit host Colombia, particularly in light of Santos’s activist role as conciliator on Cuba and other issues, according to Archondo. Correa, whom the U.S. State Department has hoped to rein in for some time, proved more intransigent than the alleged firebrand Chávez, who opted for a diplomatic strategy and a broad-based alliance.[5]

The ALBA nations, along with Argentina and Uruguay, refused to sign any document at Cartagena that failed to commit itself to Cuban participation at the next summit to be held in Panama. Santos, for his part, called the U.S. policy toward Cuba “anachronistic” and “ineffective,” and added that Cuba’s exclusion in Panama would be “unthinkable.”

Another issue that pitted the countries of the south against those of the north was the Malvinas dispute. Since the defeat of the Argentine invasion of the Malvinas in 1982, Great Britain has beefed up its military presence on the islands, culminating this year in the alleged deployment of a nuclear submarine, while in recent years it has engaged in exploratory offshore oil drilling in the area. The Obama administration refuses to take a stand on the issue, even to the extent of urging both sides to sit down and negotiate, as it had done up until recently.[6] In contrast, CELAC’s founding document, the “Declaration of Caracas,” rejects the “anachronistic colonial situation on American soil” and applauds the “disposition of the Argentine government to reach a peaceful solution.” The CELAC resolution reflects the more militant and active role of the Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the support for its position by nations that had turned their backs on Argentina at the time of the war, such as Chile and Colombia. Fernández, evidently annoyed at the Cartagena summit’s failure to arrive at a consensus on the issue, left the conference early.

Recently elected Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina sprung another surprise shortly before the summit when he attempted to secure Central American support for the decriminalization of illegal drugs, a position supported by several former Latin American presidents. Although other Latin American governments were not convinced of the proposal’s feasibility, they nevertheless applauded Guatemala’s initiative for starting a much-needed debate on the failed war on drugs. Bolivia, for instance, hopes that the new open atmosphere on the topic will generate support for its recent proposal to take cultural traditions into consideration in order to exempt certain nations from enforcing international agreements on prohibiting coca leaf cultivation, Archondo told me.

Shortly after Guatemala proposed that illegal drugs be decriminalized, Álvaro Forero, a prominent columnist for the centrist Colombian El Espectador, wrote, “It is said that the United States opened the door to discussion, but the reality is that they had no choice because the Central Americans were pushing hard on the issue. After . . . the opposition to Cuba’s participation in the summit, the Americans were left without veto power.”[7]

From the viewpoint of the more radical nations like Venezuela, the consolidation of ALBA, UNASUR, and CELAC forms part of what could be called a “war of position,” in which new spaces are occupied that undermine U.S. hegemony and favor the assertion of national sovereignty and other just causes.[8] Many in Washington feel threatened by these developments, although they may not admit it. This was inadvertently made clear by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, in a speech to the OAS shortly before the Cartagena summit. Engel harshly attacked Venezuela and Bolivia and denounced CELAC as a “rival” to the OAS that fails to “promote unity or cooperation.”[9]

The defiant positions on specific issues from the conservative presidents of Colombia and Guatemala reflect Washington’s waning influence in the region (particularly in light of Santos’s hope that the United States will quickly implement the recently approved U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement). In more general terms, the failure to produce a final document at Cartagena is a setback for Washington in two respects. First, it weakens the OAS, which sponsors the summits, thus creating a vacuum that UNASUR and CELAC are in a position to fill. Second, the lack of an agreement was largely the result of Latin America’s resolve to push for certain changes. Only important concessions by Washington can forestall an organizational shift in the hemisphere, a reality that will thrust hard choices on Washington in the immediate future.

Steve Ellner has been teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. He is a long-time contributor to NACLA Report on the Americas and the author of numerous books and articles on Venezuela, including his latest, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner, 2008). 

[1] Official Documents from the Summits of the Americas: From Mar del Plata (2005) to Port of Spain (2009), vol. 5, pp. 154-155.

[2] Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Cuba and Drug Policy Headline Summit of the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2012.

[3] Javier Corrales, “Conflicting Goals in Venezuela’s Foreign Policy,” in Ralph S. Clem and Antony P. Maingot, eds., Venezuela’s Petro-Diplomacy: Hugo Chávez’s Foreign Policy (University Press of Florida, 2011), 34–36.

[4] Ezequiel Minaya and Kejal Vyas, “Venezuela Hosts Regional Summit, Excluding U.S.,” The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011; Minaya, “Regional Group Launches, but U.S. Isn’t Invited,” The Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2011.

[5] Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner, 2008), 202–212.

[6] Mark Landler, “Cameron and Obama Show Unity on Afghanistan,” The New York Times, March 14, 2012.

[7] Álvaro Forero Tascón, “Will the Summit of the Americas be Historic?” El Espectador (Bogotá, Colombia), March 12, 2012, published in English by BBC Monitoring Latin America on March 14, 2012.

[8] Alfredo Toro, “El Alba como instrumento de soft balancing,” Pensamiento Propio (Universidad de Guadalajara) 16 (January-June 2011): 162–167.

[9] Daniel Hellinger, “Caracas Connect Venezuela Update: Oil Leaks, Conflict in Chavista Ranks, Prejudice in the Campaign,” Center for Democracy in the Americas, April 13, 2012, available at democracyinamericas.org.