By Michael M. McCarthy
The announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to normalize diplomatic relations could leave a big hole in the agenda of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met January 28-29 for its third heads of state Summit in San José, Costa Rica. Raúl Castro kicked off last year’s summit, in Havana, with a speech decrying the United States NSA spying scandal. In San José, he moderated his tone, noting that “our America has entered a new era” since CELAC was founded (2010) while also calling on the U.S. to end the trade embargo – a point other member states echoed – and to return the naval station at Guantanamo Bay. In concrete terms, the results of last week’s CELAC summit were modest. The technocratic goals of quantifying progress on poverty and technology development announced by Ecuador, the group’s 2015-2016 President Pro-Tempore, suggest no major changes are imminent.
Since President Chávez’s death March 5, 2013, the former leader’s Bolivarian vision of Latin American and Caribbean integration and unity has shown signs of weakening. CELAC now faces even tougher challenges defining and defending its identity and mission beyond the creation of a common political space for regional decision making insulated from the U.S. and Canada. With Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, losing support amid economic crisis, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) can no longer throw its weight around on the international scene. Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas – increasing the likelihood of its participation in the OAS – is a major achievement but represents the loss of a major rallying point.
Going forward, three issues will determine the group’s trajectory. The Cuba issue won’t go away suddenly, but rapid change in U.S.-Cuba ties could reset hemispheric relations – and leave CELAC’s mission muddled and potentially irrelevant. Disagreement among CELAC members over issues such as Puerto Rico’s status may create tensions, as they did when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave the island a high profile during the presidential plenary – underlining the risks inherent in the “unity within diversity” principle embraced by CELAC. (Ecuadoran President Correa, another ALBA supporter, chided Ortega.) But perhaps the biggest determinant of the group’s future relevance lies in its emerging relationship with China. A CELAC-China foreign ministers forum met in Beijing last month, formalizing the Asian nation’s relationship with CELAC. The forum announced the 2015-2019 China-CELAC cooperation plan calling for the doubling of two-way trade and the increasing of Chinese investment in the region to $250 billion. Exclusion of the U.S. and Canada may remain a tenet of CELAC’s platform, but the group’s leaders may judge that its long-term relevance can be rescued by reaching out to China instead.
February 2, 2015
*Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.