An alternative bloc

Print edition : January 27, 2012

Thirty-three countries form a new regional grouping to strengthen cooperation and challenge the hegemony of the U.S.

in Caracas

AT the opening session of the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Caracas on December 2.-REUTERS/HANDOUT

THE main avenues of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, are still filled with hoardings and slogans hailing the launch of the new regional economic grouping, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), at a summit of leaders from the region on December 2-3, 2011. The summit was originally scheduled to be held in July but had to be postponed to allow the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, to recover from his treatment for cancer. Most of the continent's leaders were present at the meeting. The United States and Canada have not been invited to join the grouping. The aim of CELAC is to be the voice of the region and, eventually, make the discredited Organisation of American States (OAS) irrelevant.

President Chavez and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, described the occasion as the most important event in the continent in the past hundred years. Many of the leaders present at the summit expressed the hope that CELAC would fulfil the dreams of the liberator Simon Bolivar of creating a united America. Bolivar, who was born in Caracas, liberated most of South America from colonial yoke. He wanted a united Latin America but the U.S. sabotaged his dream. In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe invoked the Monroe Doctrine to ensure that the region remained within Washington's zone of influence. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. regularly intervened militarily in Latin American countries. To create the Panama Canal, a new country, Panama, was forcibly carved out of Colombia in 1903. Mexico lost much of its territory to American conquests in the 19th century. Puerto Rico, too, became a colony of the U.S.

Until the end of the 20th century, barring Cuba, most governments in Latin America were under American dominance. The U.S. interfered freely in the internal affairs of the southern countries, propped up military dictators and rode roughshod over democratically elected governments. In his opening speech at the summit, Chavez cited Bolivar, saying that the fundamental building blocks of South American unity, independence and development had been put in place with the formation of CELAC. All the 33 states in the region are members of the new regional bloc, which will be ranked among the biggest regional groupings in the world. More than 600 million people reside within the borders of CELAC member-countries.

The OAS was formed in 1948 when the Cold War began, with the stated aim to defeat communism. Until the late 1990s, Washington virtually laid down the ground rules for the OAS. At its bidding, Cuba was excluded from the OAS soon after the revolution. At the same time, the OAS winked at the military coups and large-scale human rights violations that had taken place in the continent from the 1950s onwards. The role played by the OAS after the 2010 coup in Honduras came in for a lot of adverse comments. According to the Venezuelan writer and commentator, Luis Britto Garcia, Washington has a plan to militarise the Central American region in a bid to perpetuate its hegemony. He points out that Latin America is not only the richest region in terms of biodiversity but has 60 per cent of the world's water resources. Washington has a plan to make Venezuela and Colombia go to war. But relations between the two countries have improved since a new government came to power, said Garcia.

The U.S. State Department spokesman, while trying to downplay the significance of CELAC, insisted that the OAS remained the pre-eminent multilateral organisation speaking for the hemisphere. His confidence seems to be misplaced. The U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas is a non-starter. Only a few states in the region signed free trade agreements with Washington.

The U.S., of course, will keep on trying to regain its influence through diplomatic and military means. President Barack Obama had even stated that he did not want to be remembered as the man who lost America's backyard. The main goal of the U.S. is to control strategically scarce resources and markets and secure the help of Latin American countries on issues such as climate change and reformation of the international financial system. Washington does not want a powerful independent power bloc to emerge in its neighbourhood. The U.S. influence has been waning in the region. The majority of the countries have turned their back on the neoliberal economic policies prescribed by Washington.

CELAC is the brainchild of Chavez and former Brazilian President Lula da Silva. The idea was first mooted by the two leaders at the Rio Group Summit held in Cancun in 2010, soon after the OAS, under the influence of the U.S., refused to intervene in Honduras following the military coup there. CELAC has the potential to speed up genuine economic and political integration of the region on the basis of sustainable development, justice and equality. However, many of the leaders present in Caracas warned that the road towards meaningful integration would be a difficult one. There are ideological differences still to be overcome. This is evident from some of the views expressed at the summit.

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT HUGO Chavez (left) greets his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, during the opening session of the summit.-JORGE SILVA /REUTERS

The Presidents of the left-leaning governments want CELAC to serve as a forum to resolve regional conflicts. The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, said he wanted CELAC to replace the OAS. It is clear that we need an inter-American system. The OAS has been captured historically by North American interests and vision, and its cumulative bias and evolution have rendered it inefficient and untrustworthy for the new era that our America is living, he said in his speech. On the other hand, Chile, which currently holds the rotating presidency of CELAC, wants the focus to be on promoting human rights and democracy.

CARACAS DECLARATION

The leaders attending the founding summit of CELAC issued a Caracas Declaration besides approving 22 other important documents. The Caracas Declaration stated that the member-countries would put forward a concerted voice for Latin America and the Caribbean on all important issues. A separate Statute of Procedures, drafted jointly by Venezuela and Chile, which has a right-wing government, called for the coordination of common positions between member-countries in multilateral fora, political spaces and spaces of international negotiations to promote the Latin American and Caribbean agenda. The Caracas Declaration calls on all the member-countries to advance jointly the political, economic, social and cultural integration of the region.

With this goal in view, members of the new grouping will be encouraged to develop programmes, projects and initiatives on integration within the region. CELAC will develop mechanisms for coordination with subregional integration mechanisms such as the trading bloc Mercosur (Common Market of the South) and the South American regional grouping UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). UNASUR is already playing an important role in the region. It helped defuse serious internal tensions in Bolivia in 2008 and helped prevent hostilities between Colombia and Venezuela following a tense border stand-off in 2010. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Latin America (ALBA), another grouping of ideologically like-minded states such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and many several Caribbean island nations, has also made great strides. There already exists a high level of cooperation in economic, social and cultural areas among ALBA members.

The Caracas Action Plan, approved during the summit, envisages closer interaction among member-states in the fields of energy and eradication of hunger and illiteracy and in overcoming environmental and humanitarian challenges. The top-most priority will be given to finding solutions to the grave economic challenges that the new international financial crisis has brought about. The way forward for Latin America, according to the Caracas Action Plan, is to find ways to strengthen and deepen the integration of our economies through CELAC. Most of the leaders present at the summit were critical of the U.S.' role in the region. Argentinian President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner said the people of the region were paying a huge price for the trade in drugs. She criticised drug-consuming countries for not doing enough. The U.S. is the biggest consumer of illicit narcotics. It seems that Latin America ends up with the deaths and the guns, and others end up with the drugs and the money, she said.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said the U.S. should not be allowed to set up military bases in the region. Now is the best moment to put an end to certain impositions that are coming from above with regard to our armed forces, he said. Morales also referred to the global financial situation and its impact on Latin America. He said the world was witnessing the terminal and structural crisis of capitalism.

The CELAC communique criticised the continuing U.S. economic blockade on Cuba and supported Argentina's territorial claims on the Malvinas (Falklands). The special communique on the Malvinas calls on the United Kingdom to engage in talks with Argentina in the shortest time possible.

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