Luis Ruiz Tito

Placing CELAC in the Proper Latin American Context

The creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC – Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños) has attracted a fair amount of international attention, both by the international media and by Latin Americanist researchers and academics. For example, Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argued in a Center for Economic and Policy Research article that “CELAC will continue to advance…positive changes [such as recent successful financial policies], including regional economic integration, co-ordination around foreign policy, and conflict resolution.”

Meanwhile, my own organization, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), recently took a more cautious stance on CELAC’s future, arguing that “if CELAC wants to productively implement policies to solve major regional issues and eventually be a major player in the making of Latin American and Caribbean policy, it must first work on its fundamental structure.”

The Organization of American States

Promoting regional integration among Latin American and Caribbean states is an important step, and deliberately not inviting Canada and the U.S. to join demonstrates that the region wishes to continue its separation from Washington’s historical clout. The only agency that involves all hemispheric states (except Cuba, which chose not to return after the lifting of its 47-year old suspension in June 2009), the Organization of American States (OAS), has been perceived for a long time as Washington’s watchdog for the continent and has little real power. Nevertheless, some OAS agencies, such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the more decentralized Inter-American Court of Human Rights, are important entities that have carried out key initiatives in their specific realms.

Moreover, the OAS has a few security wings, like the Committee on Hemispheric Security (CHS) and the semi-autonomous Inter-American Defense College (IADC) that carry out important work. For example this past March 2011, I was invited to attend a three-day seminar in Washington DC co-sponsored by the CHS and the IADC, entitled the “Seminar on Disarmament and Nonproliferation.”

During my time at the conference, I had the pleasure to engage extensively with several OAS and IADC staff, and it seemed clear to me that both agencies employ plenty of intelligent and highly qualified individuals. Hence, the OAS, its delegates, charters and branches, as well as its qualified staff and future potential employees, should not be easily discarded by the assumption that CELAC will be able to quickly take over all of the more silent initiatives that the OAS and its agencies carry out.

In Comes CELAC

Regarding CELAC, it is important to remember that it, perhaps problematically, joins a plethora of other regional organizations in Latin America, each with its own niche. We will have to see if CELAC can work in harmony with these organizations and groups, despite their apparent differences and overlaps. Besides CELAC, the OAS and its agencies, other Latin American and Caribbean organizations include, Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR), Parlamento del MERCOSUR – MERCOSUR’s Parliament, Comunidad Andina – Andean Community of Nations (CAN), Parlamento Andino – Andean Parliament, Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Asociación de Estados del Caribe – Association of Caribbean States (ACS/AEC), Parlamento Centroamericano – Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) and Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana – Central American Integration System (SICA).

There are plenty of other Latin American and Caribbean integration agencies, including more focused entities such as multinational trade associations and development banks. There is even a Latin American anti-nuclear watchdog, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Organismo para la Proscripción de las Armas Nucleares en la América Latina y el Caribe – OPANAL), created after the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco. It’s in this agency-prone region that CELAC comes in.

A Quick List of CELAC’s Issues

Reports of CELAC’s creation have been quick to highlight the variety of issues that this organization will face. For example, a recent article in the Washington Times brings up three immediate political challenges confronting the new agency: “First, will leaders such as [Venezuela’s] Mr. [Hugo] Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who used the summit to lambaste U.S. military bases in Latin America, ‘hijack’ CELAC for anti-Americanism? Second, will the bloc, which voted to hold its third summit in 2013 in Cuba, act as a ‘legitimizer’ for the Castro regime and a bullhorn for the Argentine government in its territorial claims in the British Falkland Islands? Third, will CELAC seek to ‘dilute external pressures for democracy’ and act as a cover for government infringement on individual liberties?”

Other issues regarding CELAC include finances. Currently Washington pays for most of the OAS’s annual budget, hence, as neither the U.S. nor Canada are members of this new agency, will we see regional powerhouses like Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico volunteering to pay more to get this new agency jumpstarted? And if this happens, could the organization be unfairly influenced by a troika of richer countries, as compared to the OAS, which currently is only influenced by one?

My Two Centavos

Personally, I think CELAC’s biggest challenge will be proving that it can promote regional integration, even if it means making some of the existing agencies irrelevant. To compare what’s going in Latin America right now to other regions, before the European Union existed as we know it, the European Community absorbed another agency, the Western European Union (WEU), slowly taking over its duties until the WEU formally ceased to exist on June 30, 2011. Could CELAC, like the EU, absorb the Andean Community, MERCOSUR and CARICOM, or would CELAC become some kind of umbrella organization for all these different regional blocs and specialized agencies like OPANAL?

There are plenty of scenarios, both idealistic and realistic, for CELAC’s future. With that said, Latin American governments are very cautious and protective of their sovereignty, and smaller blocs like MERCOSUR, CARICOM and the Andean Community have had limited and varying degrees of success regarding integration. I remain skeptical that CELAC will be able to reshuffle the way Latin American and Caribbean governments see international organizations and their own national sovereignty, anytime soon.