Latin America’s CELAC Summit: A Definitive Rejection of the U.S.?

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Ariana Cubillos / AP

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff listens to Venezuelaís President Hugo Chavez during a welcoming ceremony upon her arrival to Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, December 1, 2011.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez brands himself the standard bearer of all things revolutionary in Latin America – including the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States (CELAC), the new hemispheric organization that pointedly excludes the U.S. and Canada, and whose inaugural summit Chávez started Dec. 2 in Caracas. But in reality there’s little revolutionary about CELAC. In fact, considering that the world for two centuries now has recognized the nations south of the Rio Grande as a distinct cultural and geopolitical entity, it’s a wonder something like CELAC is only debuting this month.

What would really be revolutionary is if the 33-member CELAC becomes something more than just a revolutionary symbol – something more than just a badge of Latin America’s increasing independence from U.S. hegemony in the western hemisphere. CELAC boosters like Chávez, rather prematurely, call it the fulfillment of the regional integration that Latin American leaders have been pontificating about since Simón Bolívar drove out the Spanish 200 years ago. Many of them already talk about CELAC supplanting the Organization of American States (OAS), a body which Latin America has long regarded as Washington’s lackey (and which Washington has long regarded with indifference). Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has even suggested CELAC break with the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHRC) and create a Latin America-exclusive monitoring system.

Problem is, if the CELAC nations actually take that step, their standing in the international community would likely tumble. And that’s largely because Latin heads of state like Correa haven’t exactly been human rights paragons of late. Correa and his left-wing government are prosecuting as many journalists and critics as they can find for “insult crimes” that wouldn’t merit libel suits in most countries – last month an indigenous leader was sentenced to a year in prison simply for calling Correa’s chief of staff “nouveau riche” – while Chávez’s socialist government is busy disqualifying scores of opposition politicians from running in elections, with little or no due process of law, because of vague corruption charges. Right-wingers like Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli have mounted their own campaigns to stifle dissent.

So, gosh, could this disdain for the OAS’s Inter-American Commission have anything to do with the fact that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights often rules that violations have occurred in cases like these? The OAS is hardly a model outfit – we’re all still picking our jaws up off the floor after General Secretary José Miguel Insulza last month called Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s constitutionally illegitimate re-election victory “a step forward for democracy” – but it still holds out what Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, calls “the only normative framework for regional jurisprudence.”

In other words, it’s the only independent body in the Americas (Latin America can squawk all it wants about U.S. control of the OAS, but Insulza’s Nicaragua remark hardly reflects White House oversight) that’s pushing for institutional rule of law in a region where it’s still woefully underdeveloped. And until an organization like CELAC can proffer a watchdog process that proves as inconvenient for leaders like Correa and Martinelli as the IAHRC has been – until it shows as much concern for building democratic institutions in Latin America as the IAHRC court in Costa Rica has usually displayed – then it’s way too early to herald the OAS’s demise in Caracas this weekend.

The region’s real leader nations, like Brazil and Mexico, should diplomatically make that point to their host. Brazil too snubbed the IAHRC this year when the human rights court ruled (as a Brazilian court also has) that Brasília did not adequately consult indigenous communities when it pushed ahead with a massive hydroelectric dam project in the Amazon. As Shifter pointed out to me, “it would be profoundly more worrisome for the hemisphere if a country like Brazil were to join a call for CELAC to break with the OAS as well.”

All that said, however, it’s not surprising that every Latin American head of state plans to attend the CELAC inaugural. Granted, Latin American integration is an elusive if not quixotic goal: the region stretches farther than Africa, and its nations’ interests are just as balkanized. Still, even if most of them distance themselves from Chávez’s radical leftism, as they did with Fidel Castro, Latin leaders endorse his push for Bolivarian unity – and the historically popular challenge to U.S. imperialismo that it represents, especially as U.S. engagement with and influence over the hemisphere declines even further under the Obama Administration. (Even that phenomenon is often exaggerated, however: Latin America still does far more trade with the U.S. than with China or even Europe.) Given the region’s current economic boom, says Shifter, “Latin America is feeling pretty good about itself right now, and the CELAC summit marks the tremendous distancing going on between it and the U.S.”

The Latin leaders’ impulse to recognize Chávez’s integration efforts may also be heightened by recent reports that his cancer (though he strongly denies it) is worse than first thought, and that he might be too ill next year to campaign for re-election. (Chávez in fact had to cancel the original summit date last July while recovering from surgery in Cuba.) If his health is indeed that grave, CELAC’s most important challenge may not be whether it displaces the OAS, but whether it survives Chávez.