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Con: What’s in an acronym? In CELAC’s case, very little except the trumpeting of its own importance

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Ray Walser
December 22, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Does CELAC’s shunning of the U.S. and Canada signal the end of their domination in Latin America?”

Have the U.S. and Canada been deliberately snubbed by their neighbors to the south? That’s how the international media characterized the exclusion of both nations from the launch of a new regional organization or bloc—the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)


Latin American leaders gathered in Caracas, Venezuela, with host president Hugo Chavez earlier this month to christen CELAC and trumpet the importance of this all Latin American-Caribbean gathering. Reading some accounts, one got the impression that a new, unified colossus had arisen in what was once confidently labeled “our backyard.”


Yet few commentators have bothered to examine the striking disparity among CELAC’s constituent parts—ranging from a confident, rising, global power in Brazil to a perennial failed state and ward of the international community in Haiti.


What does democratic, liberty-loving Chile and repressed, communist Cuba have in common other than speaking Spanish?


For that matter, what the Westminster democracies of the Caribbean can really learn from the increasing authoritarianism of strong-man leaders such as Hugo Chavez or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega? Even with CELAC, Latin America remains a heterogeneous region of divergent cultures, economies, interests, and political principles.


Sure, the parties in Caracas promised to foster greater political and economic integration. But such high-sounding commitments have been a staple of every Latin American summit since the days of the Great Liberator Simon Bolivar.


So what will be the lasting impact of the new bloc? CELAC adds a new but not necessarily effective layer of organization in the Western Hemisphere. It will not replace the Union of South American States, which shows potential for drawing the nation’s of South America closer together. It differs greatly from the leftist alliance of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which promotes socialism, anti-Americanism, and presidents for life, and which depends primarily on Venezuela’s abundant oil wealth.


Without a serious follow-up with resources and organization, CELAC will likely remain another acronym in search of raison d’etre.


At least three negatives arise from CELAC’s formation.


First is the dangerous moral equivalence that allows Cuba’s aging dictator, Gen. Raul Castro, to negotiate with genuine Latin American democrats. CELAC helps legitimate the communist regime as it stumbles toward a post-Castro transition. Without steady pressure from the region’s democracies or oxygen for Cuba’s internal democratic opposition, that transition will leave Cuba in the hands of the asphyxiating apparatiks of the Cuban Communist Party and their police-state friends.


Second, CELAC promotes the false assumption that the region will be better off with a regional body that replaces the Organization of American States and shuts the door on the meddlesome democracy promotion and human rights concerns of the U.S. and Canada. Any such body will certainly dilute the region’s commitment to the full spectrum of rights associated with representative democracy, individual liberty, and economic freedom.


Finally, some within CELAC will follow Chavez and the Castros as they attempt to promote an ideological, anti-American agenda and undermine U.S. interests in the region. In the name of combating American “imperialism” and “hegemony,” they will seek to nudge Latin America away from the U.S. and the West and in the direction of China, Russia and Iran and the multi-polar world they believe enhances their power and international influence.


The fading of American leadership in the region is palpable. The Obama administration has largely remained on the sidelines when dealing with Latin America. The rebuff by CELAC has hardly elicited a shrug in the White House or any spirited defense of the ideas, interests and values Americans cherish.


With next Summit of the Americas slated for Cartagena, Colombia in less than four months, one can only wonder if Obama will use it to try and reverse this disturbing trend.


Ray Walser is a senior policy analyst in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.

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