December 1, 2011
Latin and Caribbean leaders challenge US role in region
By Jim Wyss | McClatchy Newspapers
BOGOTA, Colombia — The hemisphere is throwing a party but not everyone's invited.
On Friday, the leaders of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries are gathering in Venezuela to forge a new organization that will include every nation in the region except the United States and Canada.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, will supplant the Rio Group and some are hoping it will replace the Organization of American States, which they accuse of being a U.S. mouthpiece.
The new body comes to life as Latin America is flexing its muscles on the world stage, and the region is expected to see economic growth of almost 5 percent this year on the back of surging commodity prices. It also comes amid hand-wringing over waning U.S. influence in the region.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - the event's host and promoter - has called the CELAC a "historic" organization that will bring the region closer together as it shakes off the United States' imperialist pretensions. The event culminates Saturday with the signing of the Caracas Declaration that formally launches the bloc. Chile will head the organization in its first year, followed by Cuba in 2013.
Attempts to sideline the U.S. and dethrone the OAS aren't new. The Rio Group, the Venezuelan-led ALBA bloc of left-leaning nations, and the Latin American Association for Integration have all vowed to counterbalance U.S. influence in the region, with varying success. Cuba was barred from OAS membership for four decades and then refused to join when it was invited to do so in 2009.
The administration is not worried that CELAC will someday replace the OAS, said Dan Restrepo, President Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America.
"The notion that you can create an organization simply to be anti-American is not viable over a sustained period of time," Restrepo told McClatchy Newspapers on Thursday.
Despite the flailing U.S. economy, it's still the hemisphere's powerhouse and the principal destination for most Latin American exports, including Venezuela's. And unless the CELAC receives solid financial backing, such as the OAS receives from the United States, it's unlikely to flourish, said Dennis Jett, the former U.S. ambassador to Peru and a professor at Penn State University.
"This organization will probably last as long as Chavez is willing to underwrite it," Jett said, "and I'm not sure how much longer he can do that."
While the CELAC is a regional effort, it's Chavez's baby. Originally scheduled for July, the formation of the CELAC was delayed as Chavez traveled to Cuba to undergo treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer.
He says that he's cured and has stepped up his public appearances, but that hasn't stopped reports that his condition is far more serious than he lets on. In that sense, the CELAC marks Chavez's return to the world stage as he eyes a tight presidential race in October.
While the full impact of the organization won't be known for years, some worry that it could become a tool for governments that have bristled under international criticism.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa is proposing the creation of a human rights venue within the CELAC that would supplant the OAS's influential Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"It's not possible that Latin American conflicts have to be dealt with in Washington, where the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is, when even United States doesn't recognize the commission," he said in a statement. "Sooner rather than later (the CELAC) should replace the OAS, which has historically been distorted."
While it's true that the United States has ignored commission rulings - most notably to close the Guantanamo detention facility - the body has been a powerful voice in the hemisphere.
The commission and the OAS's Inter-American Court "have been essential in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of the America's division of Human Rights Watch.
Correa's call for an alternative forum comes after he has effectively muzzled dissent at home by consolidating power and attacking the press, Vivanco said. The OAS recently held a special session to look at deteriorating press freedoms in Ecuador.
"Now Correa feels like it's time to take it a step further and openly propose to restructure the international mechanisms we have to promote and protect human rights," Vivanco said. "The more serious and democratic governments that are participating in this meeting should not echo this type of initiative."
The OAS did not respond to interview requests, but in a press release said it looked forward to cooperating with the CELAC.
Just what kind of organization the CELAC will become remains to be seen. While moderate, free-market nations such as Brazil, Chile and Peru have the economic power to make the CELAC viable, it's countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia that have been some of its biggest backers.
"If you look at who is really pushing the organization, it's countries that don't want the United States to have any dominant kind of role in the region, but equally, and more importantly, they don't like to be criticized by international organizations," said Susan Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. "This is a way of setting up an alternative world where they have more control over who can say what about them."
The initiative comes as some see signs of waning U.S. influence in the region.
"Without a doubt this has not been a wonderful time for U.S.-Latin American relations," said Sally Shelton-Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America, a former ambassador in the Caribbean and a diplomat in residence at The American University. "The U.S. is focused like a laser beam on the Middle East, South Asia and China for reasons of national security."
But that doesn't mean it's disengaged. Latin America does four times more trade with the United States than it does with Asia or Europe, and the U.S. pours millions into defense in Mexico, Colombia and parts of Central America, she said. Free trade deals were recently signed with Colombia and Panama, and Brazil and the United States recently hammered out a defense pact.
"If you examine Latin American relations with the U.S., you will see a huge amount of interconnectedness," she said.
To complicate matters, the U.S. has not had an assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere since Arturo Valenzuela stepped down in July. His replacement, Roberta Jacobson, is facing resistance from congressional Republicans who are threatening to hold up her nomination until the administration takes a stronger stance on Cuba.
Even so, the United States will have a chance to strengthen ties again when President Barack Obama returns to the region in April for the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, and the OAS has survived such threats before.
"People have been predicting the demise of the OAS for a very long time," Shelton-Colby said. "Has it disappointed? Yes. But it's still there."
And the success of CELAC will be measured not by its rhetoric but on "whether it improves the lives of people in the Americas," Restrepo said. "If it does that, great."
(Staff writer Jose Antonio Delgado contributed to this report.)
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