8 December 2011

Celac: Convergence And Contradictions

Sweet, vengeful irony: 188 years to the day that the Monroe doctrine was proclaimed, 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries came together in Caracas on December 2 and 3 to set up the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) without the United States and Canada.

The entire Latin American and Caribbean political spectrum was represented in this coming together: socialist governments such as that of Venezuela, the driving force of the summit and the dominant voice at least for now, the moderate progressive governments of Argentina and Brazil, the Right-wing states of Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica and every other shade of regime in between, including post-coup Honduras. What are the points of convergence among these disparate states and what are contradictions they will have to manage?


The immediate impulse is economic. There is broad acceptance, and some excitement, among the Latin Americans that this is their time, that this is to be their century. With the USA and Spain in economic difficulties, the gravitational pull that drew in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Mexico into a near-permanent imperial orbit has largely gone, at least when it comes to the economy. China is now a credible alternative trading partner. Brazil has emerged from its long slumber and trade among the continental nations is expanding. The capitalist classes of countries still politically situated to the Right see better opportunities of capital accumulation in their immediate neighbourhood rather than in the troubled markets abroad.

There is no threat of armed revolutions within their borders to drive the ruling classes of the Right-wing states to irrational fratricidal wars. The mad dog of Colombian politics, former President Alvaro Uribe, has had to leave office. Venezuela and Cuba are more into defending themselves than exporting revolutions but not weak enough to be needled without consequences. Brazil and Argentina are wedded to the project and Mexico sees in it a leveraging card with its big-brother neighbour. The Socialist bloc has convinced others that it will not mount an ideological take-over; that Celac will not be hijacked and that it will respect plurality and divergence in this as they have done with their own internal Opposition.

With an operational Celac, the Left-wing states like Bolivia and Ecuador will feel more able to deal with armed internal subversion. Celac effectively stops the USA from outflanking them. The big winner was Cuba: it was striking to watch one President after another from Latin America and Prime Ministers and others from the Caribbean nations effusively, almost defiantly, welcome Cuba to their fold at the summit. The blockade of Cuba was unanimously condemned and the USA named in the Caracas declarations. Celac is an overarching insurance policy with each state imagining a different dividend for itself.  


Celac was born with at least one of the midwives trying to strangulate it. The rabidly pro-U.S. Costa Rica – its President kept out of the summit – suggested that it only be a forum so as not to challenge the Organisation of American States (OAS) and that all its decisions be taken only by consensus. The Ecuadorian delegation was the first to spot this trap, arguing that this would, in effect, give veto right to each member. Costa Rica had few formal backers, only Colombia coming close to it, and the final decision was that the decision-making procedure would be sorted out in the coming months.

The wish-list of the progressive countries to declare Latin America a zone of peace, get rid of U.S. military bases, develop their own electoral and human rights monitoring agencies (would Colombia, Chile, Mexico or Honduras like the record of their prison systems or their armies to be investigated by less pliant observers?) and take on Spain and USA for the treatment of migrants will be stonewalled by the Right. How long before their patience snaps? Will the Celac countries stick together when one of them, say Ecuador, Bolivia or Venezuela, takes on the Western media monopolies and their local allies? What happens to Celac if the Right returns to power in one of these countries? Will there be unanimity if there is a Honduras-like situation again or if the USA militarily intervenes in the continent? Will the degree of unity in Celac transfer to international issues – there were clear differences on Libya and will this not be the same for Syria or Iran? How far will the Caribbean countries go in asking for a more respectable role in Celac and not remain an afterthought, as Trinidad and Tobago publicly demanded at Caracas?

Celac’s biggest weakness, as the Uruguayan President, Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica, made clear is that it is an institutional project. The people are still not involved in any meaningful way. And, though the dream of Latin American and Caribbean integration has broad support in the continent, and though many Latin Americans are comfortable with assuming a continental identity, they still do not have the common travel, working, residential and legal rights that many West Europeans have. Will Celac deliver or will it be knifed and left to bleed in the dark corridors at any of its next annual summits?

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