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Latin America: integration without the USA?



By Javier Farje

altSince 1948, Latin American countries have been part of a system – the Organisation of American States, the OAS – the headquarters of which are not in Caracas, Bogotá or Brasilia but in Washington.

During the years of dictatorship, democracy was a postponed value, sacrificed on the altar of the war against communism. The OAS, dominated by the United States, became a pawn in this Cold War game and Cuba lost its membership.

But in recent years dissatisfaction with this situation has been growing. Today OAS members are largely democracies – imperfect, flawed and incomplete, but basically democracies. Of course, the elites are reluctant to relinquish power, as was shown in last year’s coup in Honduras and the attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002. But the trend towards democracy has been undeniable.

Along with the growing political maturity has come a greater desire not to be seen any longer as the US backyard. Even those nations that want to remain friendly with Washington see the need to speak with their own independent voice.

On 23 February, a new regional organisation – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CALC in Spanish) – was born at a summit in the Mexican resort of Cancun. It does not include either the USA or Canada, both of which are members of the OAS.

Many seem to define the new body by the countries that are not in it rather than by those who have joined it. This means that the radical governments in the region, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, are happier with it than the more conservative governments, which seem more resigned than welcoming to the new body.

Chávez said triumphantly: “At last, we are breaking away from the colonialism that the United States imposed on [our] continent”. And Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, talked about “a new political movement of heads of state, with new proposals from the … governments of Latin America, like a new OAS without the North, the USA or Canada”.


The OAS has long brought together Cold War anachronism and incompetent bureaucracy – a lethal combination. And its evident failure to respond to the new geo-political realities of the 21st century has made it easier for Latin America to find its own voice.

The OAS’s most recent failure was over Honduras, when it was completely ineffectual in its attempt to deal with the military coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya last July. The General Secretary of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, did not rally the democratic troops in the continent to defend the democratically elected government and it was left to the most influential countries in the region, mainly Brazil, to react. But Brazil, which has very little influence in Central America, was not up to the task.

In the end, to the annoyance of Brazil and Venezuela among others, the United States, which is still the dominant power in Honduras and in the rest of Central America, decided to recognise the results of the December election, held to choose a successor to President Zelaya, and asked Latin America to do the same. Even now there is no agreement over the legitimacy of the December elections.

altThe expectations that many Latin American countries had for a government led by a liberal African-American President were dashed by the way it handled the Honduran crisis. It suggested that Washington had not really broken with its old pattern of behaviour in which it often put US economic and political interests before respect for the democratic wishes of the Latin American people.

Indeed, many believe that President Obama has broken his earlier promise of “equal partnership”. Robert E. White, former US Ambassador in El Salvador and Paraguay, appears to agree: “Lula, and other Latin American democratic leaders, understood that by ‘equal partnership’ Obama meant a sharing of responsibility and joint action with other American states to safeguard the future of democracy in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, in the case of Honduras, our diplomats apparently did not get Obama’s message,” he says.

It is likely that dissatisfaction with US behaviour was at the back of the minds of the Latin American presidents, when they decided to sign the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

Gradual decline

In any case, Honduras is only the most recent example of the OAS’s inability to resolve member-country political conflicts. In 1997, the then OAS General Secretary, César Gaviria, was openly snubbed by government and opposition in Ecuador, during the political crisis that saw President Abdalá Bucaram deposed by a dubious vote in parliament. On his arrival in Quito Gaviria was told that he was not welcome. He left without even managing to meet the main protagonists of a crisis that left Ecuador with three Presidents at the same time.

Those of us who were in Quito at the time, trying to keep up with the pace of events, saw a disorientated Gaviria at the airport on his way back to Washington. This public humiliation of someone meant to be one of the most powerful diplomats in Latin America was a clear indication that the power of the OAS was limited and declining.

Some of the regional structures created by the OAS after its creation in 1947, while still technically extant, are clearly out-dated and ineffectual. The best example is the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, TIAR in Spanish. It is supposed to be the hemispheric equivalent of NATO and was created as a military force to defend a member-state from external aggression. In fact, it soon became a military expression of the Cold War, used symbolically by Washington more than once to “protect” the region from an unlikely Soviet invasion.

The biggest test for TIAR came in 1982, during the Falklands war, when TIAR, in theory, should have been used to help Argentina. After weeks of hesitation, the USA decided to support the United Kingdom because Argentina was seen as the aggressor, and the TIAR meekly accepted this ruling, even though most Latin American countries supported Argentina. If some countries had earlier doubts about the validity of TIAR, the 1982 conflict helped them make up their minds. Mexico, which was critical of the role (or lack of) it played by the Treaty during the Falklands conflict, decided to leave the organisation in 2002.

In 2001, Washington tried to revive the TIAR, after the end of the Cold War had left it looking like a dinosaur from a past era, by trying to make it part of President George Bush’s “war on terror”. Despite widespread sentiments of solidarity with the USA after the 11 September attacks, not a single Latin American country signed up to the re-jigged TIAR. In any case, TIAR was created to fight communism not religious “fundamentalists” and its structure would have been difficult to adapt for use in Afghanistan.

Economic confidence

altThe end of the Cold War and the emergence of democratic governments on Latin America, as imperfect as they are, have also been accompanied by a revival in the fortunes of the regional economy. Brazil is an important role in the BRIC group of rapidly developing economies, together with India, China and Russia. All in all, Latin America has grown and its dependence on the USA has diminished.

This new confidence has made it possible for countries like Brazil to challenge the trading might of the USA. Earlier this month the World Trade Organisation (WTO) upheld Brazil’s request to impose extra tariffs on more than 100 US products coming into the country, in retaliation for the US government’s granting of excessive subsidies to cotton farmers.

Although the USA is still Latin American’s main export market, the region’s economic dependency on Uncle Sam has also diminished in recent years, with the emergence of strong trading partnerships with Europe and Asia. China, in particular, has become an important, if controversial, partner. With the increase in demand from developing countries, particularly China, for minerals and other raw materials coming from Latin America, the continent is acquiring a new independence in its trading patterns.


Not everybody is happy with the proposal for the new organisation in its current shape, and the new structure will not have an easy ride. The Colombian Foreign Minister, Jaime Bermúdez, said that the continent “cannot create mechanisms for exclusion” with the aim of creating a “counterweight” to other countries. Bermúdez said that “it does not make sense to talk about unity and community when there are big problems [between us] that are not even discussed.”

These differences of opinion partly reflect the ideological divide the new Community will inherit from the existing regional structures: the Rio Group (Latin America) and Caricom (Caribbean). And it will be a challenge for Chile, which takes over the rotating presidency of the Rio Group. First the outgoing President, Michelle Bachelet, and afterwards the new President, Sebastian Piñera, will have to deal with the transition to the new Community.

During the Cancun summit, it was agreed that the Summit of Latin American and Caribbean States will remain in place until the new Community is formally created.

Hugo Chávez said that he wanted outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as head of the new organisation. This would be a popular choice becaltause Lula maintains a good relationship with both the radical governments of the region and the “moderates”, like Peru and Costa Rica.

What nobody seems to question is the presence of Cuba in the Community. For years, the exclusion of Cuba from the OAS has been a source of tension, especially after Latin America got rid of its right-wing dictatorships. Moreover, many believe that isolating Cuba does not work, even from the point of those critical of Havana. All Latin American countries have diplomatic relations with the island-state and many believe that its inclusion in the new organisation would help promote political and economic change in Havana.

The ideological divide in the continent will not be solved by the new Community, but there are issues around which the continent can speak with a single voice, like supporting Argentina in its dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands and helping Haiti ands Chile in their reconstruction after the earthquakes.

The problem is that the concept of regional integration has different connotations to different governments. Some years ago, the current Peruvian Foreign Minister, José Antonio García Belaúnde, told me in a meeting in the Peruvian Embassy in London that every country should look after its own interests, especially in the case of economic partnerships. Indeed, Peru, for instance, signed a free trade agreement with the USA together with Colombia, to the angry opposition of Bolivia and Ecuador, the other two members of the Andean Community.

It is too early to claim that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is the answer to the issue of regional unity and integration. It is also too early to talk about the demise of the OAS. However, the fact that all Latin American countries signed the agreement for the creation of the new Community with relatively minor disagreements suggests that the region may be learning to live with itself without looking up North for guidance and money.

Photo credit

Mexico Summit: Geovani Fernández, Gramma


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