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CELAC: Chavez's Latest "Alternative"

After creating the ALBA with Cuba 10 years ago, Hugo Chávez now is hosting the inaugural for the CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y del Caribe - Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

ALBA is mostly dependent on Venezuelan oil, and its current members - Bolivia, Nicaragua, (Honduras dropped out), Ecuador, Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua - are not exactly the largest economies in the world. Another Chávez brainchild, the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur) has tanked, so far, due to liquidity issues and lack of reserves.

But Chávez knows how to get publicity, and he also knows that his fellow heads of state in Latin America love to travel all-expenses-paid-by-their citizenry to other countries since it gives the appearance of doing something; everybody gets to badmouth the USA; the local media (which he controls) will lap up the meeting; Mexico wanted to be included in something; and, who knows, there may even be slush fund opportunities in the bargain.

Voilá, CELAC was born, created in Mexico last year.

The spin is intense: CELAC is touted as "a new geopolitical structure," soon to replace the "old and worn out" OAS, with Caracas not only as its capital (of course!) but also the capital of the Americas, with growing economies; just take a look at the map:

The map shows the purported growth in GDP for 2010 in each country's economy. Let me dampen your enthusiasm over these numbers by pointing out that anyone who believes Cuban government statistics deserves to be called a fool. I leave it to you to verify other statistics, for instance, Argentina's, where its government is prosecuting independent economists.

Canada and the USA are not invited, of course. Chile's president prudently sent his vice-president instead. In total, leaders of 33 countries are expected.

Raúl Castro turned up for the opening, crowing "for the first time, we'll have an organization for our America", conveniently forgetting that his brother said more or less the same thing about ALBA a decade ago. Venezuela rolled out the red carpet and lined up the military in full tin soldier garb, but Hugo couldn't make it to the airport to greet him,

Crisitina Fernández of Argentina and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil already met with Chávez, and Felipe Calderón tweeted from Mexico this morning that he's on his way.

And, this morning oil price is up, which may help fund the proceedings.

What is there not to love?

Well, for one thing:

Because it lacks any formal charter or mandate, however, Celac will be more effective as a forum for left-wing figures like Mr. Chávez to "pontificate" and fan anti-U.S. sentiment, said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.
It's a good photo-op, but:
"It's a good show for Chávez. It boosts his standing and shows Venezuelans that he is a regional leader and that other heads of state will come to Venezuela," Mr. Shifter said.

But beyond photo opportunities, Mr. Shifter says he doubts CELAC will be able to distinguish itself from the slate of existing regional organizations such as Mercosur, the Union of South American Nations, the Andean Community of Nations, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

"There are very significant problems among the subregional organizations," Mr. Shifter said. "It's hard to imagine that an organization that includes all of Latin America and the Caribbean will have fewer obstacles."

Or, as The Economist put it:
On paper CELAC will try to co-ordinate among trade blocks, such as Mercosur and the Andean Community (but UNASUR is also supposed to do that). It will also try to stimulate regional trade and speak with one voice in international forums. If only. The lesson of ALBA is that regional clubs based on political ideology rather than national interest do not get very far.
The USA is the major trading partner for most of these countries.

It'll be interesting to see what the heads of state end up signing, if anything, at the end of this summit.


Cross-posted at Fausta's blog