CELAC aims high in first summit with EU

The bi-regional summit aimed to deepen the ‘strategic alliance’—mostly trade and investment—between Latin America and the EU

The first bi-regional summit between the European Union and the 33 countries of the recently formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) ended Sunday afternoon in Santiago, Chile with optimistic calls for a new “strategic alliance for sustainable development” between the new and old worlds.

“When it comes to shared values, there is no continent that is closer to Europe than Latin America,” said Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, at the conclusion of this weekend’s summit.

Van Rompuy said the relationship between Europe and Latin America is “unique” in that both regions share “common values of peace, democracy, social justice, human rights and rule of law.” The European political leader stressed that the worst of the euro zone’s economic crisis is over and said the EU is now ready to “speed up its recovery” by increasing trade and “quality investment” with regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean.

Van Rompuy noted that the EU does more than $200 billion in trade with Latin America—double from a decade ago—and is looking to accelerate that in the years to come with new free-trade agreements with Colombia and Peru, the Association Agreement with Central America, and a forthcoming trade agreement with Mercosur. The EU already has free-trade agreements with Mexico and Chile.

The EU also represents the largest foreign investor in Latin America, accounting for 43% of all foreign-direct investment in CELAC countries, according to Van Rompuy. He said the amount that Europe invested in Latin America in 2012 totaled $385 billion—or “more than the EU has invested in Russia, China and India combined.”

However, the EU investment in Latin America had dipped significantly since euro zone crisis hit in 2008, according to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who played the role of president pro-tempore of the 2013 CELAC Summit in Santiago.

“We need to recover the amount of investment (prior to 2008),” said Piñera . The Chilean president called the euro zone crisis “excessively long” but rejoiced in the announcement that “the worst is now behind us.”

“2013 will be a year to sow the fields and 2014 will be a year of harvest and economic recovery in Europe,” Piñera predicted.

The goal now, Piñera said, is to “unite forces” between the EU and Latin America—two regions that together represent one-third of the UN’s member nations—to assure a “strategic alliance that has a fecund and long-lasting life.”

As a roadmap for that strategic alliance, the CELAC-EU Summit produced a hefty document called the Santiago Declaration, a 48-point pronouncement that touches on everything the 60 member countries could think of, from condemning terrorism and economic protectionism, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting trade and investment, supporting workers rights, encouraging dialogue on gender issues, and more than three dozen other points of common interest.

The summit also produced an action plan for implementing the bi-regional agenda before the next CELAC-EU summit in Brussels in 2015.

Is there agreement on CELAC?

Notably absent from this weekend’s first CELAC summit was Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has been notably absent from everything—including his own presidential inauguration—since undergoing his fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba last December. Since the inception of CELAC in 2011, Chávez has been the most enthusiastic booster of the regional initiative, which the leftist leaders of ALBA want to groom as a homegrown replacement for the Organization of American States (OAS).

Unlike the OAS, CELAC does not include the United States or Canada. As a result of that exclusion, the ALBA bloc has touted CELAC in glorious terms as the 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. Denis Moncada, Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the OAS and a member of President Daniel Ortega’s delegation in Chile, told Cuban press this weekend that CELAC is like a “second independence” for Latin America, presumably from U.S. influence.

That narrative is likely to find increased echo now that Cuba, which was suspended from the OAS in 1962 and has not rejoined the regional body since being readmitted in 2009, is taking over the role of president pro tempore of CELAC. The pro tempore presidency will effectively be Cuba’s most prominent international leadership role in decades.

 But the outgoing president pro tempore doesn’t seem to share ALBA’S ambitious view of CELAC. On the contrary, Chile’s Piñera said during a press conference on Sunday that CELAC is a compliment to the OAS, not a competitor.

“This is not meant to replace the OAS, which has a permanent secretary general and institutions,” Piñera said. The Chilean president stressed that CELAC is an important platform for Latin America to engage in more “symmetric and horizontal relations” with the EU and other regions of the world, but said that unlike other institutionalized unions, “CELAC is a community that meets and shares experiences.”

In Washington, CELAC is still viewed with some skepticism due to the divergent political agendas in Latin America.

“CELAC is holding regular meetings, whose value should not be dismissed. But so far there are few signs that it is becoming an effective regional organization,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “There are just too many differences and divisions within CELAC to progress on substantive policy questions.”

Adds Shifter, “I doubt that Washington is terribly concerned about being excluded. The U.S. will want to focus on its own agenda and opportunities for deeper engagement with a set of friendly governments.”