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January-February 2012

Vol. 37, No. 1


New bloc sign of dwindling U.S. influence

CELAC logoOn December 3, leaders from 33 countries met to begin a new regional organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, by its Spanish acronym.) Two countries conspicuously not invited were the U.S. and Canada, a clear sign of the growing distance between the powerful northern nations and the rest of the region. While many commentators downplayed the potential for the new group, shifting global realities could help the bloc become a major world player.

CELAC countries comprise some 600 million people and together are the number one food exporter on the planet. The combined GDP of the bloc is around $6 trillion, making it the third largest economic power in the world, and while richer nations have recently experienced serious economic woes, the CELAC region now has its lowest poverty rate in 20 years and its growth rate in 2010 was over six percent, more than twice that of the U.S.

At the summit in Venezuela, 22 documents were approved by all governments defining the structure and procedures of the new Community as well as agreements on specific themes such as democracy, energy cooperation, sustainable development, terrorism, climate change and food security. Their top priority was addressing the international financial crisis through deeper economic cooperation and working to develop new international financial structures and reform international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank.

Some in the U.S. say that CELAC's lack of formal structure indicates its probable failure. But Alex Main of the Center for Economic Policy Research points out that "the group's statutes are likely to evolve over time and one need look no further than the recent South American group UNASUR to find an example of a regional organization that had no permanent organs and then progressively acquired institutions like a secretariat and a parliament." He continues, "Since then, UNASUR has developed the position of Secretary General … and established various institutions and regional cooperation mechanisms such as a Secretariat [based in Quito, Ecuador], a soon-to-be inaugurated South American Parliament, a Center for Strategic Defense Studies and a series of ministerial councils that consult regularly on issues such as social development, economy and finance, energy, defense and infrastructure."

For many participating governments, the CELAC is a response to the heavy role of the U.S. in regional affairs. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega said it is "the death sentence for the Monroe Doctrine," referring to the 1823 declaration of the United States, initially to warn Europe to stay out of Latin America, and later used to justify military aggressions throughout the region.

Many countries participated in the CELAC summit because of dissatisfaction with the heavy amount of U.S. influence in the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS response to the Honduran coup in 2009 is a good example of this power. After the coup, the vast majority of countries in the region were not supportive of elections being overseen by the new regime and tried to pass resolutions in the OAS rejecting elections under those circumstances. Yet the U.S. strongly supported the elections and stymied any vote against them in the OAS. The controversial role of the OAS in Haitian elections, where organization officials discarded numerous "suspect" ballots, resulting in a reversal of the original results, was another example of concerns that many have with the OAS.

While Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez and other members of the progressive Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) see the CELAC as a direct challenge to the U.S. and OAS, Chavez stated, "As the years pass, CELAC will leave behind the old OAS," and "There have been many coup d'états with total support from the OAS, and it won't be this way with the CELAC." Yet many other leaders present at the summit were clear to say that the CELAC is not being created to be against the U.S. or to replace the OAS. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, "CELAC isn't being born to be against anyone," while Mexican Chancellor Patricia Espinosa said the OAS and the CELAC are "complementary forces of cooperation and dialogue."

Working out these rather stark differences in visions for the CELAC will be a significant challenge in coming years. With Chile's conservative government and Venezuela's leftist government co-chairing CELAC in the coming year, their ability to move forward, or not, will be a good indication of the Community's future: It could fade away into non-existence as so many other regional initiatives, or it will grow to play an important role in international relations for decades to come.


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