Chispa or Latin wit can’t disguise conundrum of anti-US body

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 31, 2013
"CELAC's focus for Latin America and the Caribbean goes no further than being anti-USA and Canada"

Leaders of CELAC nations at the opening summit in Caracas. The body excludes the US and Canada

A stiff, if substantial ‘family’ photo of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean (CELAC) states when it came to life in Caracas in December 2011. But why aren’t these people smiling a great deal more? CELAC, which is basically the Organization of American States minus the US and Canada, was meant to symbolise Latin American and Caribbean unity, happiness and strength. Haiti is emphatically a part of it, as are 32 other countries in the region. The US and Canada are firmly excluded.

The paucity of smiles at CELAC’s birth is a conundrum. Latin American leaders arguably do this better than others – with more verve and certainly better teeth than those in other regions. They also do a better quality of rhetoric than those in the Anglo-Saxon world. They have more of that sparkling quality that Hispanics call “chispa”, ie Latino wit, the ability to have fun. It’s hard to imagine an American or British leader exhorting their counterparts at a regional summit, “welcome to a better world”. But that’s what Chilean president Sebastian Pinera told delegates from the European Union (EU) to the first joint summit with CELAC.

President Pinera was arguably displaying more chispa than warranted by the circumstances. Even as he opened the summit, protesters clashed with police in the streets of Santiago. It did not seem to bode well for CELAC’s showcase, big-ticket attempt to deepen the strategic alliance with the EU. A deeper alliance would make for a whole load more chispa (on all sides, including on the part of the reserved and wintry northern Europeans) because as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council told CELAC, the amount that Europe invested in Latin America in 2012 totalled $385 billion, or “more than the EU has invested in Russia, China and India combined.” In other words, Europe has invested more in CELAC’s core countries than in the RIC of the BRIC nations. Deeper alliances generally mean reaching deeper into one’s pockets – on all sides and to mutual benefit.

So far, so valid.  But the tone at CELAC’s European lovefest renews questions about its conception, parentage and purpose in life. It was established largely as a consequence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s determination to create a South American bloc sans the US and Canada. But, Chavez, as Tim Rogers wrote in the Nicaragua Despatch, was “notably absent” from the summit, as he “has been from everything—including his own presidential inauguration—since undergoing his fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba last December.”

Without Chavez, can CELAC still serve as the antipode to the US it was set up to be? At the weekend summit, the Chilean president insisted that CELAC was “not meant to replace” the 35-member Washington DC-headquartered Organization of American States. It’s meant to compliment the OAS, not compete with it, he said. The OAS “has a permanent secretary general and institutions,” Piñera added approvingly. In contrast, CELAC is more about discussing “experiences”. The Chilean view contrasts with that of other CELAC movers and shakers, not least the Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans. If Chavez remains on his sickbed – or never leaves it again – might CELAC become no more than an acronym for the history books?

Would that be a fitting end for a project that began in rage, continued in rebellion and was consecrated with reserved applause. It’s worth remembering that CELAC’s birth provoked much soul-searching across Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, many wondered whether snubbing the US was a realistic substitute for strategic balance. Though some regional media outlets (such as Mexico’s La Jornada) hailed CELAC as “part of a global and continental shift, characterised by the decline of U.S. hegemony and the rise of a group of regional blocs that form part of the new global balance”, others openly admitted to floundering as they tried to explain the new organization’s purpose. Bolivian newspaper La Razon summed up the confusion symbolized by CELAC. “Latin America has excluded the U.S. … so what now?” it editorialized. Won’t it be “more complicated for the nations of our continent to relate with the world’s leading power only bilaterally?” it asked, “Or are we going to ignore the U.S.? And why has Canada been excluded? Is it because it is imperialist or because it’s a highly developed country and, as such, doesn’t fit in well with the third world? With this decision the American hemisphere has been cut in two, leaving the wealthy countries outside, so as, in the words of President Lula, to achieve our ‘personality as a region’.”

What is the personality of the Latin American and Caribbean region? Chispa, rum, a certain toe-tapping beat? Chispa with a Chilean twist and a Cuban conscience?