- - Sunday, December 18, 2011

CORDOBA, Argentina — A new organization meant to unite 33 nations in the Americas against the United States just adds to the region’s crowded field of largely meaningless multilateral entities, observers say.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, made up of all of the hemisphere’s sovereign nations except the United States and Canada, last week held its inaugural summit. It was hosted with great fanfare by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But, the bloc, known by its Spanish initials CELAC, lacks brick-and-mortar structures as much as common interests among its members, ranging from U.S. allies such as Mexico and Colombia to foes including Mr. Chavez, experts at Washington-based think tanks say.

Much depends on whether CELAC can evolve from a mere forum into a true multilateral organization, said Ray Walser, a Latin America specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“It’s one thing to put on a big two-day, dog-and-pony show,” Mr. Walser said about the Caracas summit.

Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institution in Washington said the big question is: “Who is going to put the money where the mouth is?”

Mr. Chavez and his allies, who aspire for CELAC to replace the Organization of American States, which they view as a U.S. mouthpiece, must take note that half the OAS budget is made up of U.S. contributions, Mr. Casas-Zamora said.

Meanwhile, countries such as Brazil and Argentina might be more inclined to invest in the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, which has established institutions and a mandate beyond “keeping the U.S. and Canada out,” he added.

Even if CELAC manages to obtain the needed funding from backers like Mr. Chavez, three factors will determine whether it will be taken seriously, Mr. Walser added.

*First, will leaders such as Mr. Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who used the summit to lambaste U.S. military bases in Latin America, “hijack” CELAC for anti-Americanism?

*Second, will the bloc, which voted to hold its third summit in 2013 in Cuba, act as a “legitimizer” for the Castro regime and a bullhorn for the Argentine government in its territorial claims in the British Falkland Islands?

*Third, will CELAC seek to “dilute external pressures for democracy” and act as a cover for government infringement on individual liberties?

“The problem is the dynamic of these institutions,” said the Cato Institute’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo, referring to the track record of the various Latin American and Caribbean summits.

They tend to evolve around the political interests of their presidents instead of the policy interests of their member countries, he said.

Keeping the United States out of CELAC is a tactical move that reduces the focus on free elections, democratic institutions and civil liberties, Mr. Hidalgo added.

He said it is “pretty disappointing” that Presidents Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Juan Miguel Santos of Colombia and Sebastian Pinera of Chile - U.S. allies from countries with functioning democracies - decided to join CELAC.

“They prefer to be included in any new endeavor” to be able to exercise influence from the inside, Mr. Hidalgo said. “[But] they’re just playing along with Chavez and the other autocrats in the region.”

The State Department said it is not concerned that their decision to join CELAC will weaken the U.S. ties with Mexico and Colombia.

Strong bilateral relations are underlined by the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico and by the recent U.S.-Colombia free trade pact, said Will Ostick, a spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Whatever role CELAC will play, the OAS will continue to be the “pre-eminent multinational organization” in the Americas, Mr. Ostick said.

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