The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and Latin American Integration for the 21st Century
Author: Tara Ruttenberg and Gustavo Fuchs
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 05/19/2011
The majority of the twentieth century fell victim to the not-so-benign hegemony of the United States over Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), to the tune of human rights’ violations through illegal military intervention and CIA terror in support of undemocratic regimes; displacement of rural populations resulting from failed USAID development initiatives; distortion of traditional modes of production through US-led import-substitution industrialization; covert meddling in domestic political affairs under the guise of democracy promotion; and last but not least, the well-known symptoms of Washington’s neoliberal policies: increased poverty, disturbingly high socioeconomic inequality, and the plundering of natural resources by private multi-nationals to the detriment of local producers, national wealth and the environment as a result of asymmetrical trade liberalization, privatization of resource ownership, healthcare, education, and profit-seeking enterprise, along with structural adjustment programs as stipulated by Bretton Woods financial institutions’ loan conditionality.
These realities paint a grim picture of US influence in the region, and it is no longer taboo for academics and politicians alike to link the ills experienced throughout the region with Latin America’s former dependence on the North. As a result, and recognizing that US involvement in regional affairs is not in their best interest, the new LAC leaders in the 21st century have begun turning away from Washington, with their arms outstretched in new directions closer to home – toward places like Caracas, Buenos Aires, Quito, Brasilia, Bogota, Lima, and even Havana.
Nineteenth century independence icon and Father of South America, Simon Bolivar is coined with planting the seeds of Latin American integration and unity; now at the start of this century, we are witnessing the fruit of his labor, along with that of other revolutionaries who have fought for regional integration free from US dominance in decades past. Autonomous LAC integration is no longer the controversial brainchild of Hugo Chavez and member states of leftist bloc, the Boliviarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), but rather an ideal taking shape across political and ideological paradigms. The proposed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is the ripening fruit of a new era blossoming in Western Hemispheric relations for the 21st century.
Guy Taylor for the World Politics Review writes that CELAC “represents the first step in a historic geopolitical shift away from an era dominated by pro-U.S. policies.” Taking this observation at face value, however, we oversimplify the truly historic reality of what CELAC really represents for the Americas: the practical next step among a series of existing regional integration schemes designed to unite and strengthen LAC independent of US influence. The creation of CELAC builds on the regional framework already in place, including the South American Common Market (Mercosur), the Andean Community (CAN), CARICOM, Central American Integration System (SICA), ALBA, and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), along with the emerging Pacific Alliance. Where these regional economic groupings and intergovernmental organizations leave off, CELAC fills an important gap in uniting existing efforts to target a unified social agenda across the region, seeking solutions to the common challenges faced throughout LAC. While CELAC is groundbreaking in its comprehensive regional membership, offering it the legitimacy as a formal international actor not enjoyed by any other LAC grouping other than the Organization of American States (OAS), we would be remiss in overlooking the valuable contributions of existing regional integration initiatives in paving the way for the emergence of CELAC. This article is the first in a series on Latin American integration in the 21st century, analyzing the creation of CELAC in relation to UNASUR and ALBA—regional arrangements also exclusive of US involvement.
Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)
With Colombia’s former Foreign Minister, Maria Emma Mejia now formally in office as Secretary General, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is six months away from celebrating its seventh anniversary as a regional entity gaining increasing legitimacy as an organization created to “fill numerous official roles, acting simultaneously as a military alliance, an international parliament and a vehicle for economic integration.” Add to the list “representative for South America in the international community and pioneering mediator in regional peacemaking”, and we are getting closer to a comprehensive understanding of what UNASUR represents within the envisaged model of an autonomously integrated Latin America free from US dominance.
Established in December 2004 as the mechanism to further integration initiatives above and beyond existing regional arrangements Mercosur and the Andean Community (CAN) and currently consisting of member states Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela, UNASUR seeks to provide the means for “political, social, cultural, financial, environmental and infrastructure” integration in order to realize the region’s multifaceted potential and tackle the shared challenges of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. UNASUR members signed the Constitutive Treaty in March 2011, further institutionalizing the organization and prioritizing “energy integration, infrastructure, security and defense, health and technology innovation”, seeking “social justice with equity, social inclusion, solidarity, cooperation, culture of peace, identity, respect for the democratic system and universal human rights”.
UNASUR’s overarching objectives and proposed projects include the following: convergence between Mercosur (Argentina, Brasil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the Andean Community (CAN) (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador y Perú), and incorporating Chile, Venezuela, Suriname and Guyana to create a single free trade zone among member countries; physical, communication and energy integration led by the South American Regional Integration Initiative (IIRSA); harmonization of rural development and agro-food policies across the region; knowledge transfer and horizontal cooperation in all areas of science, education and culture; strengthened interaction between civil society and businesses in integration initiatives; construction of an interoceanic highway (between Peru and Brazil, passing through Bolivia); Energy Ring: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay with gas from Peru; bi-national gas and oil pipelines between Colombia and Venezuela; freedom of travel for South Americans between all South American countries for up to 90 days, with the exclusion of French Guyana. 
Specific integration efforts to date include the creation of the South American Defense Council and the formalization of the South American Health Council (UNASUR-SALUD). The South American Defense Council, originally proposed by Brazilian President Lula da Silva, is currently negotiating the Protocol of Peace, Security and Cooperation, along with the question of approving measures of mutual confidence at the military level. As evidence of heightened security cooperation, UNASUR member states agreed in 2010 to disclose information on their country’s defense expenditures, as the first step toward re-organizing regional military spending. The South American Health Council held its most recent conference in April 2011, following the creation one year prior of an elaborate five-year plan for health integration commissioned by the health ministers of UNASUR member states.
While still in its incipient phase of institutionalization, UNASUR has begun translating rhetoric into action with a number of tangible initiatives both regionally and internationally. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, UNASUR’s regional response capacity passed significant tests in the past year regarding urgent socio-political situations in Venezuela/Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Haiti.
In response to Venezuela’s severance of diplomatic ties with Colombia, following Colombia’s accusation that Venezuela provided safe haven for Colombian guerilla groups, and amid mounting tensions between the two countries in July 2010, UNASUR convened an emergency meeting to support a negotiated resolution of the conflict, reflecting the region’s “commitment to the construction of conditions for peace, harmony, and that cooperation in the region is maintained”, calling on both parties to seek peaceful means of conflict resolution. Later, then-Secretary General, Nestor Kirchner’s role as mediator between Venezuela and Colombia, acting on behalf of UNASUR, was praised by Brazil’s Lula as a “political miracle”, supporting a peaceful mending of diplomatic relations between the two countries. According to Roque Planas, writing for World Politics Review, UNASUR’s mediatory role in the Venezuela-Colombia dispute reflects the organization’s successful history as regional mediator: “UNASUR got its start in conflict mediation in September 2008, when Bolivian opposition and government forces clashed in the northern Bolivian state of Pando. At the time, some were speculating that the sharply divided country had a separatist crisis on its hands.”
Next, in solidarity with Argentina regarding the Falkland Islands dispute with the UK, UNASUR came out strongly with public statements to protest and oppose UK military activities in the Falkland Islands, urging negotiation to find a solution to the question of sovereignty as stipulated by relevant UN and OAS resolutions. Interesting to note in this case is the fact that the Argentine government lobbied UNASUR for more than just lip-service support, requesting their backing at the UN and OAS regarding sovereignty in the Falkland Islands vis-à-vis the UK. This scenario points to UNASUR’s increasing legitimacy as a regional entity and credible representative of Latin American interests as perceived at the international level.
Responding to the September 2010 attempted coup against Rafael Correa, Ecuadoran President and then-acting President Pro Tempore of UNASUR, an emergency conference was held in Buenos Aires, where UNASUR “released a statement strongly condemning the rebellion and emphasizing the importance of institutional order and democracy in the region”. Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, then-Secretary General of UNASUR, took the opportunity to express “the regional bloc’s commitment and most absolute solidarity” with the democratically elected President of Ecuador. Events in Ecuador strengthened support for earlier calls to include a “democracy clause” in UNASUR’s founding treaty, to “demonstrate UNASUR’s determination to place its full weight in ostracizing any South American regime if ever it seizes power by non-constitutional means.” In late November 2010, UNASUR succeeded in adopting a “democratic charter” calling for sanctions against non-democratic regimes, particularly in response to attempted coups and coup regimes. UNASUR’s response in Ecuador mirrored its statements a year earlier condemning the illegal coup in Honduras in June 2009, expressing that it would not recognize any de facto election or government in Honduras and calling for the restitution of constitutional order in the country. Despite original statements condemning the coup, however, UNASUR has since been unable to reach consensus over formal non-recognition of the post-coup Honduran government, reflecting the realities of a regional bloc comprised of divergent political and ideological players.
Finally, UNASUR provided relief supplies to assist counter-cholera efforts targeting Haiti’s dire sanitation crisis in October 2010. Sent from Venezuela, supplies included medicine, drinking water and other aid to help combat the outbreak of cholera on the island. Additionally, the bilateral agreement between Ecuador and Dominican Republic provided support in the form of funds, logistics, sanitation, personnel and provision of goods. The Ecuadorian ambassador to Dominican Republic indicated that “this bilateral instrument constituted an important effort of the new tendencies of South-South cooperation [and]…the optimization of resources designated by Ecuador, within the framework of UNASUR.”
UNASUR’s increasing leadership capacity as a capable mediating body is reflected by the ways in which Latin American state and non-state actors have sought UNASUR support in negotiating peaceful solutions to conflicts. In addition to the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela/Colombia mentioned above, illustrative is the example of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the most prominent non-state armed actor in Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict, who sought UNASUR’s auspices in August 2010 to “mediate between rebels and government to help find a political solution to end the violence that has wracked Colombia since the FARC and other guerrilla movements declared war on the state in the 1960s.” Although UNASUR declined the FARC’s request following objections from the Colombian government, Ecuador and Brazil, whose presidential advisor on international affairs, Marco Aurelio Garcia said that “UNASUR [would] ‘intervene to help’ if and when it is asked to by the Colombian government”, the fact that key regional players have begun to seek out UNASUR for the settlement of disputes reflects the organization’s pioneering role in strengthening regional autonomy in peacemaking and conflict resolution free from US intervention.
As a result of its increasing institutionalization and growing legitimacy throughout the region, UNASUR has set up a working framework of sovereign integration, paving the way for CELAC to take these efforts one step further and consolidate an independently Latin American mechanism to target shared Latin American challenges.
Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)
Founded in ideology yet pragmatic in nature, the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas is a regional alliance among Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, San Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, created as an alternative to the proposed neoliberal Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA) as introduced by the US. Initiated in December 2004 between the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, ALBA is envisioned as a people-centered, anti-neoliberal, anti-imperial regional integration mechanism for endogenous development, reducing regional socioeconomic asymmetries, strengthening local production and energy cooperation, and supporting grassroots social movements. As a result, ALBA’s growth in membership and integration capacity has translated into a number of bilateral and regional agreements, including cooperation in energy (oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, proposed PetroAmerica), food security, culture (Telesur, afro-caribbean Summits, ALBA houses), finance and banking (ALBA Bank and the proposed Banco del Sur, debt forgiveness, unique currency), social development ($10 million social program donation to Nicaragua, plus Child Development centers, for example), healthcare (export of Cuban doctors, eyesight restoration programs through Barrio Adentro program), education (student exchanges, eradication of illiteracy in Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela) and security initiatives (proposed ALBA defense school in Bolivia).
While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an in-depth analysis of the hundreds of bi- and multilateral economic arrangements under the auspices of ALBA, the examples provided above represent a glimpse into the breadth of integration initiatives currently underway in ALBA member nations and beyond. In addition, it is significant to note that ALBA energy projects in non-ALBA member states are also thriving (in Mexico, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, to mention a few), and according to Hugo Chavez, ALBA-affiliated grassroots social movements within non-ALBA countries are on the rise. To get an idea of the volume of ALBA’s regional influence, Venezuela Analysis draws attention to the fact that between Cuba and Venezuela alone, as of July 2010, there were 139 economic cooperation projects under discussion in the areas of light industries, heavy industries, agriculture, mining, and energy, and the Council on Foreign Relations notes that Venezuela has already spent “some $60 billion to back the project”.
In addition to the bloc’s tangible projects in energy, infrastructure, healthcare and development, ALBA has also grown into its role as a mouthpiece for the Latin American left on the international stage. Most recently, ALBA’s objection to military intervention in Libya, proposing the creation of an international peace commission as a first step in conciliation, was covered widely in the press and echoed by non-ALBA countries in Latin America, as well as in Africa and the Middle East, whose own political futures hang in the balance.  The stated plea by Hugo Chavez was that “Venezuela and the countries of ALBA demand a halt to the attack on Libya and against any nation of this world”, a sentiment that has also been reflected strongly by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.  Opposition to intervention in Libya follows ALBA’s earlier statements in July 2010 condemning the “aspirations of destabilization” against Iran’s nuclear program by the US and Israel, warning that action against Iran would cause “terrible consequences for the world” and emphasizing that dialogue must be sought toward a “peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear case.”
Seeking deeper cooperation on the economic front, Venezuela announced that ALBA member nations “plan to discuss the creation of an ‘ALBA common market’ to boost economic integration.” The common market would build on ALBA’s existing economic initiatives, including the single currency used between member states and the ALBA Bank founded in 2008, whose aim is to support “the sustainable economic development of the region, fighting poverty and inequality and promoting fair exchange, inspired by principles of solidarity, cooperation and respect.” ALBA is unique in its commitment to economic cooperation as opposed to competition, distinguishing it from neoliberalism and capitalism, as the means to develop pro-poor solutions to inequality and inequity. Amenothep Zambrano, Executive Secretary of ALBA, contends that seeking to eradicate poverty through capitalism is a confusion of stated goals and means: “There cannot be a discourse about social welfare and an economic discourse that damages all social initiatives. There cannot be a rhetoric that says we are going to eradicate poverty, when all the economic initiatives are doing damage to the eradication of poverty. In the ALBA, this contradiction does not exist.” It is within this paradigm that ALBA presents the greatest confrontation to US dominance in Latin America, finding allies and beneficiaries of real alternatives to the “system of capitalist domination and imperial domination”.
While representing a threat to US economic interests in the region, ALBA has also challenged the existing political framework of the OAS, within which the United States’ historically dominant omnipresence has been cause for more than just concern throughout Latin America. For example, in February 2011, responding to an OAS proposal supported by Washington to investigate allegations of human rights’ abuse in Venezuela, ALBA member nations presented the joint statement: “We demand that the secretary-general of the OAS stop his attacks against Venezuela’s government,” accusing Insulza of “being a pawn of the U.S. government”.
While critics dismiss ALBA as a limited arrangement of leftists and empty rhetoric financed by unsustainable Venezuelan oil dollars, in so doing they tend to overlook the significance of ALBA as a voice of solidarity against the neoliberal framework, putting forth tangible projects that focus on South-South cooperation and homegrown development funded within the region, representing an alternative to typical IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and USAID-funded programs and their US-interests-based conditionality. On the international scene, ALBA is gaining recognition and relevance, particularly on climate change, as has been seen most notably in its successful blocking of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from adopting the Copenhagen Accord. While ALBA was seen as a spoiler by most states party to the Copenhagen Accord, environmentalists around the globe celebrated the outcome as a victory. As a result, ALBA’s position was taken seriously in the 2010 Cancun climate talks, and member nations took advantage of press coverage to pursue high-reaching goals, including that “the rich world commit to a near-50 percent greenhouse emissions cut from 1990 levels by 2017 — far deeper than cuts planned by any developed nation — and give as much money to fight climate change as for defense budgets”.  Understood in this light, and given the group’s increasingly outspoken stance in international fora, ALBA is indeed both an instigator and a reflection of changing dynamics in geopolitics, permitting Latin America to be seen as a force to be reckoned with at a time when US leadership and influence continue to diminish throughout the region.
While ALBA continues to perturb conservatives in the US, OAS and throughout Latin America, its anti-imperial foundations and leadership in tangible pro-poor development strategies based on cooperation and endogenous regional solutions are a source of inspiration that integration exclusive of US influence is both desirable and indeed possible, with benefits experienced across industries and social sectors. It is within the existing regional integration framework of ALBA and UNASUR that CELAC finds ample and open ground for its establishment.
CELAC: The Future of Latin American Integration
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), while of very recent creation follows the long-term aspiration of regional integration beyond commercial relations. While perceived by many as another initiative of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who announced the ambitious project as a counter-OAS body to resolve Latin American issues during the Honduras Coup crisis in 2009, it is important to note that CELAC is also strongly supported by Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, the three most powerful states in the region. CELAC’s 32 comprising states have demonstrated their commitment to seeking the same goals of integration. CELAC is considered the product of joint efforts between the Grupo Rio countries and the Caribbean and Latin American Summit on Integration and Development (CALC). CELAC was launched in February 2010, and the April 2011 CALC meeting furthered the organization’s founding principles and legal framework. Beyond being an alternative to the OAS, CELAC will serve as a mechanism in which regional cooperation and dialogue can be widened past the present summits and state representatives’ meetings.
Although the OAS was created with these same intentions, the influence of the United States – who eagerly launched the OAS project half a century ago – has out-maneuvered the will of Latin American governments, and, in many instances, has damaged the overall project of regional unity. As such, Hillary Clinton’s misinformed oversimplification of the launching of CELAC should come as no surprise: Venezuela is a threat to democracy as it pushes forward an anti-OAS project. It is worth recalling that the OAS was created at the start of the Cold War, when the political conditions were quite different: most of the continent was ruled by illegitimate governments, in many cases dictatorships, which were backed by Washington. Given the influence of the US within the OAS, it is not surprising that the OAS has neglected to condemn the many instances of US intervention in Latin America. Today, the OAS continues to be mired in its historical inefficiency as a result of US involvement, and has been unable to resolve important issues, such as the profound ideological differences between states, and the democratic crises of the past two decades (Haiti, 1992 and 2001, Venezuela 2002, Honduras 2009, Ecuador 2010). The Honduras’ coup in 2009 was a clear example of the maneuvering capability that Washington still enjoys in the regional forum.
As a result, CELAC is the largest regional initiative since the creation of the OAS, seeking to overcome the shortcomings and ineffectiveness of the OAS and represent a reliable, effective and broad-reaching arrangement for conflict resolution and long-term agreements. Analysts have pointed to the unique nature of CELAC as a regional entity with membership across the ideological and political spectrum, uniting conservative and leftist governments toward the goal of Latin American unity exclusive of the United States. As Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes, “It’s not just Bolivia and Ecuador [or Venezuela] that are trying to push a social agenda…. Governments, regardless of whether they lean right or left, are giving more priority to addressing the symptoms and the causes of poverty, at a minimum in their discourse, as well as making a priority of a social agenda that was for so long undermined, even marginalized during the phase of neoliberalism.”
“We are here constructing the basic regulatory architecture for the functioning of this new institution…We are constructing the dream of integration that the Liberator [Simon Bolivar] sought for all of Latin American and the Caribbean.” While we might expect such words from Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales, this time they were said in reference to CELAC by Fernando Schmidt, Chile’s centre-right Vice-Chancellor.
According to member nations, CELAC is founded on the following “common values”: respect for International Law and the Charter of the United Nations; the sovereign equality of states; the non-use, nor the threat of use, of force; democracy; respect for Human Rights; respect for the environment, taking into consideration the environmental, economic, and social pillars of sustainable development; international cooperation for sustainable development; the unity and integration of Latin American and Caribbean countries; an ongoing dialogue that promotes peace and regional security. The April 2011 meeting in Caracas reviewed the subjects of energy security – a growing issue in world affairs, which has not been seriously undertaken by the OAS or any of its programs –, climate change, and a commitment to democratic values as part of the organization’s founding charter. Other meetings for advancing the project have already been scheduled; the finance and economy ministers of the member countries will discuss the global financial crisis to reach conclusions and discuss measures to take on the issue. Climate change will also be debated in a meeting in which the environmental ministers from each country will participate. Results of these meetings are expected in June, to continue the construction of a set of founding principles of the organization and concrete common policies on the region’s most pressing issues.
While building on the existing regional framework set out by UNASUR and ALBA, CELAC’s formal establishment in July 2011 will reflect a strong sentiment of departure from 20th century, Washington-led political dynamics in the LAC region. While Latin America seems to be uniting across the ideological divide, CELAC’s staying power will depend on the commitment of regional leaders to the shared goal of Latin American unity over policy differences. One such challenge to CELAC’s incipient sense of harmony may be the newfangled neoliberal creation of the Alliance of the Pacific, comprising Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, “connecting two hundred million people, 10,000 miles of Pacific coastline, and over $1.4 trillion of GDP—triple that of ALBA and rivaling the Brazilian economy”. The Alliance’s pro-Washington postures on regional conflicts and shared right-of-center neoliberal ideologies are certain to provoke controversy at critical decision-making junctures. This confrontation will be felt especially among ALBA member nations, who no doubt perceive the intention behind the pro-US Alliance as an attempt to undermine their efforts to pursue different solutions seeking distance from the neoliberal standards that have misguided the economic policies of Latin American countries in decades past.
Despite challenges ahead, CELAC represents a significant turning point in 21st century Western Hemispheric relations, an historical opportunity for Latin America to put aside ideological differences in the name of true regional integration, and a vital next step in solidifying the work of existing integration schemes, exclusive of the United States, that have laid the groundwork for its creation. CELAC’s success is a critical tipping point as to whether or not Latin America is finally in a position to go it alone, free from US dominance, to realize a new era in integration, honoring Simon Bolivar’s legacy and fulfilling Hugo Chavez’s prophecy that “2020 will find us united and liberated”.
Bio: Tara Ruttenberg is Assistant Editor for the Peace and Conflict Monitor and a graduate of the International Peace Studies program at the University for Peace.
Gustavo Fuchs is an intern for the Peace and Conflict Monitor.