MANAGUA – The first attempt by hemispheric leaders to create a “union” or “community” of Latin American and Caribbean nations without the participation of the United States or Canada is provoking reactions ranging from idealistic optimism to scoffing cynicism.
This week, leaders from 32 countries in the hemisphere met at a resort in Cancún, Mexico for a two-day summit with the goal of forming a new regional institution for Latin American and Caribbean integration, without the participation of the United States or Canada – a proposal some have referred to as a new Organization of American States (OAS). Also absent from the meeting was the new government of Honduras, which has yet to be recognized by all of Latin America following the coup last June.
“It’s time to concentrate on Latin American and Caribbean unity. To translate the natural inclination of our countries into something concrete,” said Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the opening of the summit.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also spoke in lofty and grandiloquent terms about the importance of Latin American unity.
“This will allow us to be truly free and will give us the strength to end illiteracy and poverty throughout the length and width of Latin America,” Ortega said during his intervention at the summit.
Ortega also lauded the merits of the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a leftist bloc of nations including Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Honduras recently dropped out of ALBA, and other countries in the region have declined the invitation to join. But that hasn’t limited the enthusiasm of Ortega and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the two leading boosters of the socialist bloc.
“I would say that ALBA is a model that we should try to develop even more in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean,” Ortega said this week in Cancun, apparently conflating the proposal for a greater hemispheric unity summit with the expansionist goals of ALBA.
In a 2008 interview with The Nica Times in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Nicaraguan Deputy Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz confirmed ALBA’s expansionist agenda in the region. ALBA’s aim, Kautz said, is “to expand the group of countries so that we can create our own OAS, our own organization, and not be in an organization where the empire is managing all the decisions.” (NT, Dec. 19, 2008).
Who’s The Boss?
While ALBA tries to jockey itself into a leadership position in the new push to form a greater Latin American and Caribbean integration movement, Mexico and Brazil – Latin America’s two powerhouses – seem to have their own leadership aspirations, according to Latin American analysts.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, former Costa Rican vice president and senior fellow in foreign policy for the Washington, D.C.- based Brookings Institution, says that while “nobody has spelled out the details of this creature,” Mexico’s interest in taking the leadership role at the summit is noteworthy.
“The fact that the Mexicans have come out so strongly supporting (the integration proposal) probably means that the idea is getting some real traction and they don’t want the new body to be controlled either by Brazil, or worse still, by Chávez,” Casas-Zamora told The Nica Times in an email.
The analyst said the resurgence of the old idea of Latin American unity also has to do with the fact that the OAS is in “a very weak position at the moment,” particularly, he said, “because Brazil seems to have lost all interest in the OAS and wants to flex its newly found power in other regional bodies.”
Casas-Zamora added, “The level of diplomatic clout that Brazil currently has is clearly something unprecedented.”
At first glance, the U.S. government does not have a problem with the regional integration effort that excludes them, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela. U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tomas Shannon went a step further and said he thinks such Latin American integration initiatives are positive for the region.
Yet there remains confusion – apparently even at this week’s summit in Mexico – whether the new body aims to replace the OAS, or act as a parallel organization.
That confusion, coupled with doubts over what country or political figure will emerge as the leader of the pack, has some people skeptical about the success of the integration effort. But not everyone thinks the project is necessarily doomed to failure.
Some analysts and politicians claim that Latin American integration is part of a natural evolution that’s occurring as the region moves out from under the shadow of the United States.
Even Nicaraguan Vice President Jaime Morales, a former contra leader who does not share the leftist ideological zeal of his boss, President Ortega, said this week that he had to explain what’s happening in the region to visiting U.S. Senators Chris Dodd and Bob Corker.
“I gave them the message that Latin America is detaching itself from the U.S.’s historic tutelage, which has been maintained for many years,” Morales said during a Feb. 22 press conference in Managua. “Sometimes this is not something that is understood by certain political sectors in the U.S.”
Latin America watcher Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, agrees that many U.S. analysts and politicians do not understand the profound change that is happening in Latin America right now.
Weisbrot said he thinks it’s a mistake for Washington pundits to dismiss the push for Latin American unity as a part of Chávez’s ALBA agenda, which began as a rejection of U.S. policy under the former administration of George W. Bush.
“It’s much deeper and has been going on a lot longer than that,” Weisbrot said. As an economist, Weisbrot said the phenomenon of Latin American integration is better understood in the context of the “absolute failure” of U.S. economic policy in the region over the past 30 years, the United States’ declining role as a trade partner, and the “collapse” of the international lending “cartel” headed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“The cartel is destroyed, and now the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have a lot more freedom to act independently,” Weisbrot told The Nica Times in a phone interview this week.
“The IMF’s power is now disbursed and destroyed,” he added. “This is a sea change.”
As a result of the United States’ declining economic and political clout in the region, Weisbrot predicts that Latin American integration will continue as a natural process, as the countries in the hemisphere increase intra-regional trade and work as a bloc to become an influential player on the world political scene.
Weisbrot said analysts in Washington who dismiss what’s happening in Latin America as nothing more than the “demagoguery of the ALBA countries,” and think that it is “all going to reverse itself eventually,” are making a mistake.
The United States’ traditional power in Latin America is “gone and is never going to come back,” Weisbrot predicts. “Things are going to keep going in the same direction.”
Chasing its Tail?
Others, however, are less convinced that Latin America is moving towards a great awakening.
In fact, despite the rhetorical promises of leaders such as Chávez and Ortega, Latin America’s greatest moment for unity occurred almost 200 years ago, when Central America was united as a federal republic and much of South America was united under President Simón Bolívar’s “Gran Colombia.”
Though Chávez now tries to invoke the spirit of Bolívar, relations between his country and current day Colombia have deteriorated to the point where the Venezuelan President allegedly got in a shouting match with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at this week’s unity summit in Cancun, according to international wire reports.
“If the past is a good reference for the future, the possibility that the summit will produce an effective model for Latin American integration is not good,” said Nicaraguan political analyst Andrés Pérez, a professor of comparative politics at Canada’s University of WesternOntario. “Many of the premises for this new effort – a common destiny, common interests, etc. – are strictly rhetorical and have been used ad infinitum in the past without results.”
While Pérez admits that virtually every member nation of the OAS is frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the regional body, he said the solution isn’t to form a new institution that excludes the United States and Canada.
“In Latin America, we have suffered polar attitudes regarding the United States, passing from aggressiveness to resignation to ubservience,” Pérez told The Nica Times.
He added, “What we really need is to articulate voices and positions that can talk with Washington with fortitude and seriousness. We need a vision that transcends both adolescent aggressiveness and submissive resignation.”