Earlier this month the Latin American and Caribbean Community of States (CELAC) held its first summit in Caracas, Venezuela.

CELAC, which was created in 2010 excluded both the United States and Canada. It was created with the purpose of deepening regional integration within the Americas in order to form a regional block. However, with the rise of the left in Latin America, extreme and moderate, there is an additional element in the creation of CELAC: the reduction of U.S influence in the region as well as providing an alternative to the power of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS has largely been seen as an American-dominated entity that was created as a result of the cold war.

Some observers and analysts have dismissed the summit as empty rhetoric and the organization as being weak and basically unable to compete with the OAS. Others have stated that the conference was a major victory for Hugo Chavez and a major defeat for the United States. This perception is mainly due to the fact that the conference was not only attended by members of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) but by the overwhelming majority of Latin American and Caribbean heads of state.

Indeed, Presidents and Prime Ministers from a variety of ideological and political positions attended the summit in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela; a country that has pursued a radical agenda for more than a decade. At the end of the conference a number of resolutions were adopted, mostly non-controversial. Yet, one of them and perhaps the most ground-breaking was a call to lift the economic and financial blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba. Cuba was also offered the temporary presidency of CELAC for the year 2013. This certainly could be considered a victory for the Bolivarian Alliance but still the conference presented a more complex picture.

In order to better understand the spirit of the conference and perhaps the spirit of Latin America in the future, I have analyzed a number of selected speeches delivered by the different leaders and separated them into three groups: The Bolivarian Alliance, the Conservative group, and the Moderate Left.

The Bolivarian (ALBA) Group

President Hugo Chavez stressed the need for unity as a keystone for a new era after 500 years of exploitation. Delving into the past, Chavez spoke about how attempts at unity were aborted by “North Americans and Europeans who made our life impossible and by “our own lack of will to power and lack of awareness”. He condemned all the coups d’état planned from external powers that prevented the continent’s independence and unity. In a long speech he gave detail about the different countries where such coups took place while receiving a standing ovation by loyal Venezuelans in the audience and by a few leaders such as the Argentinean president, Cristina Kirchner. He also defined efforts at unity as the continuation of unfinished projects begun by the heroes of Latin American independence such as Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Jose Artigas and Bernardo O’Higgins, all of them leaders of early 19th century struggle for independence from the Spanish Crown.

Continuing with his spirit of grandeur, Chavez bragged about Latin American successes that he contrasted with the United States and Europe that are now facing major economic depression and street protests. He enthusiastically spoke about the energy resources the continent possesses and reaffirmed Latin America’s welfare programs in contrast with European austerity measures. Likewise, he defined Latin America as a non-chaotic continent in contrast to Europe. Chavez’s message is that Latin America has all the necessary qualities to become a great global player.

President Raul Castro of Cuba, views U.S. military bases as an obstacle to continental unity. He blamed inequality for the region’s inability to achieve full development and acknowledged that the economic growth that the region has been experiencing is due to exports of basic products.

Castro then disclosed his views on democracy. He expressed opposition to coups d’état and other steps that might destabilize constitutional rule (which is nonexistent in Cuba). Likewise, he referred to the attempt to depose Chavez in 2002, the ouster of Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, and the police rebellion against President Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2010, not as internal developments but inspired by external forces (particularly Americans and Europeans). He pointed out that the state, (regardless of whether it is democratic or authoritarian) is the defender of the legitimate rights of the people not foreign and egoistic interests. Castro attempted in his speech to vindicate and reinforce the authoritarian (even totalitarian) state that his brother created and developed in the last 52 years and that his colleagues in ALBA, under the leadership of Chavez plan to continue.

By the same token, he referred to the consciousness of people in Europe and the U.S. who are now rebelling against capitalism and Wall Street. He purposely confused the difference between protests and real rebellions as he called these movements’ rebellions. However, he referred to revolts in the Arab world as being the result of neo-liberal economic models and not an expression of popular discontent with Arab authoritarian states. Thus, Castro dismissed the Arab spring as being inspired by the West and NATO saying they committed “the crime of deposing Muammar Khadafy” from power in Libya.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador focused his speech on the need to replace the OAS. The main reason for that is that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the OAS discussed the denunciations made by sectors of the Ecuadorian press over Correa’s violations of freedom of expression. Correa attacked the OAS as being an instrument of the U.S. “The U.S imposes on us its conceptions of freedom of the press exactly as they impose economic and financial policies”. According to Correa “in the United States you can slander the President but you go to jail if you fail to feed your dog”.

Correa spent most of his speech attacking the Ecuadorian press which in his view represent the interests of less than 10 oligarchical families and the interests of foreign powers”. During his speech he showed two videos that focused on the evils of the press which he continued to call “powers that be” (poderes facticos).

President Evo Morales of Bolivia stressed throughout his speech how the misery of Latin American peoples is so closely linked with the last 500 years of imperialism, neo-colonialism and even neo-liberalism. Morales pointed out that countries in Latin America have been divided by the imperial powers. According to Morales, it is important to identify those forces that have divided, looted, and impoverished the continent. .“If we do not identify those responsible for our miseries, it will be difficult to unite”. He proposed neo-socialism. He pointed out that “electricity and water cannot be in private hands because these are our basic needs.”

Morales’ was probably the most radical advocate of building a new future by destroying the forces that caused harm in the past. His soft spoken speech could not hide the extreme radicalism of Morales’ philosophy. Morales fell short of calling for warfare against those “forces” but did not provide major specifics for action.

The Conservative Group

Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, began his speech by expressing support for Cuba’s presidency of CELAC. However, he placed emphasis on the need to find new solutions to new problems and focus less on the past. He defined the problems as being drug-trafficking, corruption, terrorism, and global warming. He was very clear on the need to help Mexico and Colombia fight the drug cartels and expressed staunch opposition to terrorism and execution of hostages such as the ones conducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

He stressed the fact that “death, pain and suffering undercuts the advancement of countries that do not have the ability to fight against drug trafficking”. Thus, Pinera stated that a united region can achieve better order and stability. He added that divisions between right and left should be things of the past since the region confronts real problems. He expressed criticism over the region’s obsession with ideological differences and called for dialogue between all the countries in the continent. In clear allusion to Bolivarian leaders Pinera also criticized the region’s tendency to blame others for what he considers being “our problems” and called on regional leaders to assume responsibility for the region’s fate.

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico also expressed support for integration, as well as for the struggle against drug trafficking. He advocated fighting against inequality and opened a door to solving health problems in the hemisphere.

President Manuel Santos of Colombia pointed out that CELAC’s creation should not be a means to replace the OAS, as Correa suggested. In a clear rebuttal of ALBA leaders, Santos pointed out that “We need a positive attitude. Our enemy is poverty and drug trafficking. We should be ashamed of ourselves for having them”

The Moderate Left

Brazilian president, Dilma Rouseff, views CELAC as a consensus forming body, established to carry out a political program for the region. She stressed the importance of enfranchising populations that have been marginalized for a long time such as those who descended from African people and Indians. She also emphasized the achievements of her predecessor, Inazio Lula Da Silva, in extending citizenship to previously marginalized populations.

Most importantly, Rouseff pointed out that Brazil is economically sound and is not interested in looking inwards. “Brazil is capable to build with its allies in Latin America integration capable of making our region into something big”. We are determined to pursue such integration bi-laterally and multi-laterally”. Rouseff offered Brazil’s universities and other resources to achieve this goal.

Rouseff also acknowledged, contrary to Chavez, that recession in the West represents a serious problem for Latin America as such a recession could have major implications for the region. Her proposed response to such a crisis would be to simultaneously maintain economic growth and social inclusion. Like Pinera, she supports a region not only capable of providing raw materials but also science, technology and innovation. She expressed “that prosperity for one country should be transformed in prosperity for all”.

It is clear that Brazil aspires to become a regional leader and has expressed its desire to become a member of the United Nations Security Council. Brazil is also considered to be one of the four emerging markets and has tried not always successfully to play a role in international affairs (Iran nuclear crisis).

Thus, there is no reason to doubt that Brazil is trying to use regional integration to enhance not only its regional leadership but also an honorable place in a world that is becoming increasingly multi-polar. As a former advisor to the Brazilian president pointed out; “Brazil knows that in order to promote its values and objectives, the best allies are its next door neighbors”.

The Argentinean president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, stressed the fact that 16% of imports to Latin America and 84% of exports take place outside the region. In other words, there is little trade that takes place between the various countries of Latin America. She insinuated that CELAC cannot be effective unless this situation is remedied. She proposed giving commercial priority to countries of the region. In a clearly ideological tone she also expressed fear that the export sector not be re-privatized. Like other Bolivarian leaders, she believes that only the State can protect levels of employment and people’s rights while the private sector is greedy and insensitive. Likewise, she suggested building mechanisms that can protect the region from economic crisis that are not internal but “come from outside”.

Like Chavez, Kirchner believes that Latin America is doing things right while the West is doing things wrong. On drug trafficking, she raised a very weird argument by saying that the victims of drug trafficking, the dead, are Latin Americans while the money is laundered elsewhere. So, she directly blamed the West for being the beneficiary or the place where that money is laundered. The fact that her close friend, Hugo Chavez, is a major ally of the drug cartels did not seem to bother her.

Likewise, in another odd remark she referred to the veto powers of countries (such as the U.S) in international forums as the source of the major problems the world faces including drug trafficking.

The Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, echoed Roussef on the need to stress education and industrialization and suggested further cooperation between Latin American universities. Like Pinera he made a call not to fall in the trap of dogmatism. He stressed the need to work together t to solve concrete problems.

Conclusions and Implications for U.S Policy

It is clear that there are serious divisions in CELAC as the three groups do not fully converge in their views. Under these circumstances it will be very difficult in the short run to achieve regional integration. This is why the CELAC charter agrees that resolutions must be adopted by consensus of the 33 members. Yet, I would argue the region is determined to move into some sort of integration in the long run. Thus, what can we conclude from what these Latin American and Caribbean heads of state have said? How should the United States react to this situation?

First let us analyze the Bolivarian group. This group remains highly divisive. It is mainly nihilistic and negative, identifying a multiplicity of enemies but has no specific program that sounds desirable to the other CELAC members.

The Bolivarian group reaffirmed its commitment to seek revenge for past injustices while promising an uncertain future. Vengefulness prevailed over constructiveness.

The Bolivarians described the continent as a new rising power and an historical success while expressing contempt for the Euro-Americans whose recession reflects failure. Not only did they chose to ignore the fact that the socio-economic situation in their countries keeps deteriorating but also failed to recognize the implications of the Euro-American economic crisis on Latin America. Even Raul Castro acknowledged that economic growth in Latin America is the result of exports of primary raw materials and not the result of any superior quality the region possesses.

The Bolivarian group did not offer anything concrete and mostly used the CELAC forum to blame and attack what they consider to be their enemies.  They also fantasize about the greatness and superiority of the continent over other regions.

It does not seem likely that regional integration will take place around the Bolivarian alliance, although this group is far away from being irrelevant. In fact, the group is very much alive and Chavez has still hegemonic ambitions in the region. However, this group has also promoted many of the problems that were raised at the conference like crime, corruption, drug trafficking and terrorism. These countries can cause serious harm. However, they are often admired for their courage and use of straightforward language to challenge the (American) “empire”. The Bolivarian block also scored a major victory by reintegrating Cuba to the status of a normal nation. Yet, the agenda and nature of these regimes will not generate the consensus needed to strengthen the unity and integration being sought.

The Conservative group emphasized problems the region faces such as criminality, drug trafficking, and loss of state authority and order. They even showed signs of being progressive-conservatives by stressing the need to reduce inequality and increase education to face the economic realities of our times. Contrary to the Bolivarians, they spoke about real problems and desperately were asking for solutions above ideological differences and dogmatism.

In order to solve problems related to drug trafficking and terrorism, this group will not find a better ally than the United States. By the same token, these countries are likely to cooperate with the United States on these matters.

It is precisely because of this that under the current circumstances this group will not play a major role in the unity of Latin America. Given the dominance of left-wing governments in the continent, the Conservative group will not be able to be the center of such unity. These countries are viewed as being too close to the United States economically and militarily. Yet, it is this group that will effectively veto the anti-American dimension of regional unity. The United States must continue to embrace this group and strengthen it.

The moderate left is a different group than the Bolivarian alliance but it suffers from several problems. Argentina is a country that historically has not taken any leadership. It is by far less productive than Brazil and in the long run is likely to succumb to a collapse of international prices of the few products they export. At this point the Argentinean government is sympathetic to and cooperates with Hugo Chavez despite the fact that it is not formally part of the Bolivarian Alliance. The rest of this group also likes to flirt with Chavez but remains clearly different than Chavez.

We conclude from the CELAC conference that the region has expressed its determination to achieve regional integration. This is certainly is translated into a desire to achieve more political independence from Washington. Whether it is true that only a handful of countries are openly hostile to the U.S, the rest of the countries seem to celebrate such independence. It will be realistically very difficult for the U.S to fight this trend. Moreover, trying to do so could have counterproductive results.

The U.S. may need to accept the idea that the United States will no longer have the same type of influence in Latin America that it enjoyed in the past. However, the emergence of the new block does not necessarily have to be hostile to the United States if we know how to adapt to this new situation.

Nowadays, attacks against democracy and abuse of democracy constitute a far greater problem than the will of a continent to be stronger and less dependent. This is why the U.S. needs to make sure that if this block arises, it would be democratic with values akin to the U.S. The European Union should serve as a model.  The European Union constitutes a block of its own that often in the past has had tensions with the U.S on a number of matters. However, that block shares our values and on issues that most matter to us it has been generally on our side. Nothing proves this point better than the solidity of NATO.

In this sense Brazil may offer a window of opportunity despite its current foreign policy.

The Brazilian government holds a number of positions that are far from being ideal. It is not very interested in the subject of drug trafficking or terrorism. Brazil’s current foreign policy is not akin to the United States. It has been apologetic of Iran, a rogue state, and has played its cards against the United States in international forums. Brazil has avoided criticism of the Bolivarian revolution. It has developed South-South relations in an attempt to establish alliances with third world countries in order to increase its global influence. This ended sometimes in dubious joint resolutions between Brazil and the Arabs where human right violations were downplayed and their aggressive foreign policy agenda was accepted.   (See our article on this subject here)  However, the Workers Party will not be in power forever and Roussef seems to be a more reasonable leader than her predecessor, Mr. Lula Da Silva.

Brazil’s democracy and democratic process are likely to prevail regardless of the sentiments of the views of one particular government.

Brazil is not only the largest country in Latin America in terms of demography and geography, it is also the most advanced and stable in the long run.

As Brazil continues to grow and raises its regional and international aspirations, it offers hope that its long-term regional domination be a means to make the continent into a block similar to the European Union in the future. The ideal would be to have a region dominated by a solid culture of democracy that would naturally ally with the West in the most crucial matters.

At this point the Bolivarian Alliance is willing to bring China in as a new superpower that could replace the influence of the United States. Chavez (who during the conference publicly read a letter from the Chinese president reiterating its desire to strengthen the alliance with the region) and his allies are nihilistic and more interested in diminishing the presence of the United States than in developing the region. China’s presence in the region is highly problematic, not because it competes economically with the United States but because it strives for geo-political aggrandizement and has military ambitions. In this endeavor, China will perpetuate the Bolivarian regimes and could have a nefarious influence for democracy. If the “successful authoritarianism” of China turns into a role model and its influence continues to increase tensions could arise.

In light of all this, it might be wise to support the role of Brazil as a regional hegemonic power. Brazil can play a role of leader that could potentially veto the political power of the Bolivarian block and the increasing presence of China. Whereas Brazil has increased trade with China to the point that it surpasses its trade with the U.S, its role as a regional leader and a sound democracy might prevent China’s political influence from expanding. It will not be the U.S competing with China but Brazil. Brazil and China have recently experienced tensions. Brazil complained about China’s policy of keeping a cheap yuan and it also took steps such as limiting imports of some Chinese products and filing cases against China in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To sum up, U.S policy must maintain and strengthen relations with Conservative countries and cultivate relations with Brazil. The U.S must urgently deal with problems related to drug trafficking, regional and national security. However, it must also find a political way to guarantee a strategic alliance with a changing region. Cultivating relations with Brazil has no guarantee of success but under the current circumstances is worth trying.



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