Undeterred by the coup in Honduras that stunted its growth in 2009, the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) will take another stab at creating an alternative hemispheric forum during this weekend’s inaugural powwow of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The Venezuelan-hosted summit will bring together 33 government leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean with the intent of creating a new platform for region integration without the United States or Canada.
“This will be an organization that is totally different from the Organization of American States (OAS), which has always given priority to the interests of the United States and tried to disguise its expansionist yearnings,” gushed a reporter on Cuba’s Radio Habana.
Critics, however, wonder if CELAC’s most notable divergence from the OAS will be the abandonment of the Democratic Charter in exchange for ALBA’s questionable standards of good governance.
The most vocal members of ALBA have touted the CELAC summit in romantic and fanciful terms—the glorious beginning to a new world order that honors Simon Bolívar’s dream of unifying and liberating Latin America from the oppressive model of imperialist hegemony.
“The creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, in the land of Bolívar, is a transcendental act that will have major repercussions in the world, and for that reason, we are being threatened by the empire that has invaded in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries and will attempt to sabotage this meeting,” Fernando Soto, president of the Venezuelan Parliament, said importantly.
Some analysts expect less greatness and fewer history-altering resolutions to come from the meeting. In fact, some predict the CELAC meeting will probably be like most other Latin American presidential summits: there will be longwinded speeches that may or may not include any memorable phrases, an official photo where all the presidents get a chance to wave goofily at the camera, an unremarkable lunch buffet with grilled chicken and boiled vegetables, and a handsome tote bags embroidered with CELAC’s multi-flag logo.
“CELAC is a nice idea and aspiration, in keeping with Latin America’s grand tradition of regionalism. But it is hard to see how it will get much traction in today’s environment; there is a pervasive sense of summit fatigue and the recent gathering of the Ibero-American Summit was disappointing,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
Shifter notes that President Hugo Chávez is the “main impetus” behind CELAC, but says “He has serious health and political problems, and his Venezuela is hardly the model for the rest of the region.”
Shifter predicts CELAC will fail to make much headway if it’s hijacked by ALBA leaders and turned into a platform for Chávez and Daniel Ortega to spout political rhetoric and rail against the United States.
“Most governments are more pragmatic than ideological,” Shifter said. “Anti-US posturing has its limits.”
Nicaraguan foreign policy analyst Mauricio Diaz says different countries participating in this weekend’s summit are going into it with different expectations. He says the ALBA nations are interested in creating CELAC as a substitute for OAS, but the more established Latin American democracies won’t want to ditch one for the other, especially with captain Chávez at the helm.
“If this meeting is about celebrating Chávez’s narcissism, CELAC won’t have any sustainable future,” Diaz said.
Still other analysts think a couple of days of U.S.-bashing might be good for hemispheric team-building, especially since Uncle Sam deserves a punch in the arm for being such a regional deadbeat.
“Given the Obama Administration’s lack of interest in the region, and the truly embarrassing opinions from the Republican presidential hopefuls on issues central to the Latin American agenda, one has to wonder whether such (anti-U.S.) attitudes are not justified,” says Latin American foreign policy analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, of Costa Rica.
But some analysts think CELAC’s best strategy would be to focus on Latin American integration, rather than U.S. exclusion. Nicaragua’s Mauricio Herdocia, an expert on regional integration, says CELAC must focus on big-tent issues on which there is agreement among the 33 participating countries.
In order to be an effective forum for integration, Herdocia says, CELAC must be a democratic organization that respects the political pluralism of its member countries and doesn’t get lost in the ideological proclivities of certain members.
Solís thinks it can work. He notes that ALBA is “by no means alone in pursuing the goals of the nascent organization.”
Solís says Colombia seems “pretty enthused about this new regional space.” And says support from Mexico and Brazil is “frankly more important than the support from Venezuela and Nicaragua in the long run” because it “adds considerable diplomatic and political leverage to this idea.”
Is the hemisphere big enough for OAS and CELAC?
While integration experts claim CELAC has the potential to be an interesting complimentary forum to other institutions, such as the OAS and Grupo de Río, the ALBA countries might have other plans.
For the past five years, the ALBA ambassadors—some of whom never miss an opportunity to speak at OAS meetings, and never seem to know how much time they’ve been allotted to do so— have railed against the regional body claiming it’s an antiquated institution controlled by the United States. In the United States, meanwhile, conservatives claim the OAS has become an antiquated institution that panders to Chávez and his cohort of Latin leftists.
So while the OAS is an equal opportunity disappointer, it is—by all accounts—toothless and sluggish.
Despite its follies, most analysts seem to think it’s still the closest thing the hemisphere has to a regional democratic body, and that still counts for something in a messy world.
Nicaragua, which has been playing the unintentional role of court jester in recent weeks, seems to think the OAS should be junked completely and cast anew in ALBA’s image.
On Nov. 21, one week after thanking the OAS for its report on Nicaragua’s Nov. 6 election process, Nicaraguan Ambassador Denis Moncada did a diplomatic 360 and argued the same report was riddled with lies and false information that was being used to destabilize the Ortega government.
The basis of Moncada’s histrionics is a shaky claim from a formerly outspoken Sandinista opponent who had a curious change of heart after spending a month in jail.
In a plot that seems farfetched even by Nicaraguan telenovela standards, Víctor Boitano— the Ortega critic who was arrested before the elections on two wild and unrelated allegations of plotting to kidnap Ortega’s daughter and shooting a bystander at a political rally last August—was released from jail last week and promptly told the Sandinista media that the U.S. embassy is working with Nicaragua’s opposition to destabilize Ortega’s government.
During Boitano’s incarceration, in which he was held incommunicado for a month, human rights activists came to his defense, calling him a political prisoner of the Ortega regime. He seemed to reinforce that claim when he suddenly reappeared before the Sandinista cameras and read—rather unconvincingly—a written statement alleging that the U.S. was conspiring with opposition leaders and civil society to destabilize the Sandinista government. Boitano added, with sweaty nervousness, that Ortega is a changed man.
The only two people in Nicaragua who seem to be taking Boitano seriously are Sandinista electoral prosecutor Armando Juárez and OAS Ambassador Moncada.
Juárez, a squirrely man who showed little interest in investigating the long list of electoral irregularities noted by the opposition, civil society, religious leaders and international observers, is now determined to get the bottom of Boitano’s conspiracy theory. Boitano was supposed to meet with Juárez Monday morning, but canceled at the last minute citing health issues.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Moncada considered Boitano’s allegations serious enough to merit a mention before the entire OAS general assembly.
Carlos Tünnerman, an academic and former Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS in the 1980s, says the Ortega government is looking increasingly unhinged.
“The Ortega administration is ignoring the differences between what they can do in Nicaragua and what they can do abroad; they think they are in Nicaragua where people will believe whatever they say,” Tünnerman said. “Ortega was trying to weaken and discredit the OAS, but he ended up looking ridiculous.”
Is there a method to the madness?
The Sandinistas’ behavior is perhaps not as erratic as it seems. In fact, it’s part of their long-term strategy to create an alternative to the OAS without the U.S.
In December 2008, Nicaragua’s vice minister of foreign relations told me in an interview in Honduras that ALBA has an expansionist strategy to accumulate enough member countries in the hemisphere to form an alternative OAS.
“ALBA,” Kauz said, “has two projects: One project is to create a platform for solidarity between the countries of ALBA; and the other is to expand the groups 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. What we want is to be our own leaders.”
That was three years ago, which, in hindsight, was ALBA’s glory days. Honduras was still a member of ALBA and the Sandinistas were hopeful that the anticipated electoral victory of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador would soon lead to that country joining the club too.
The FMLN did win, but El Salvador declined its ALBA invite. Then the coup in Honduras bumped that country out of the tree house.
Since ALBA appears to have reached its high-water mark three years ago, CELAC has apparently become the new vehicle to carry forth the plan for an alternative OAS.
But if the ALBA countries repeat the same politics of confrontation and adulation of personality cult, CELAC too shall sputter, predicts veteran Nicaraguan analyst Emilio Alvarez.
“Will this be Chávez spending money on a project to support his megalomania?” Alvarez asks. “If it is, CELAC will last a little while, but not too long.”