AMLO’s proposal: to build an alliance of states within Latin American and the Caribbean, and then pursue economic integration with the United States and Canada.
Over the past weekend Mexico hosted the sixth summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). A total of 16 heads of state, two vice presidents and 13 foreign ministers attended the event, which was held behind closed doors at Mexico’s National Palace. They included Cuba’s leader Miguel Diaz Canel, Peru’s recently elected president Pedro Castillo and Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro, who arrived as a surprise late addition on Friday afternoon. It was Maduro’s first foreign trip since the US Justice Department made him a wanted man, in March 2020, by putting a $15 million reward on his head for his alleged role in drug trafficking offences.
Also present, though not in person, was China’s premier Xi Jinping, who delivered a three-and-a-half minute video address to attendees. In other words, as Javier Tejado Dondé writes in El Universal, a newspaper that was closely tied to the former Peña Nieto government, the seat of the Mexican government played host this weekend to the heads of state of three countries that Mexico’s most important trading partner and direct neighbour to the north, the United States, considers among its biggest geopolitical foes: Venezuela, Cuba and, of course, China.
It’s not the only provocative move Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO for short) made last week. To mark the celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day, on September 15, he invited the Cuban leader Miguel Diaz Canel to be guest of honour for the military parade. In his speech AMLO asked the US, “respectfully”, to put an end to its 59-year economic blockade of Cuba:
“Hopefully President (Joe) Biden, who is politically attuned, acts with greatness and puts a permanent end to the (US) policy of aggression towards Cuba. He should also help the Cuban-American community by putting aside electoral or partisan interests; it’s time to leave resentment behind, understand the new circumstances and seek reconciliation.”
The US Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, was quick to respond to AMLO’s request, by stressing that the US will stay firm to its commitment to “continue fighting for the democracy of Cuba, of the people of Cuba.” He also issued what could be construed as a veiled warning to AMLO: “the important thing is that the United States and Mexico are more focused on the things we can do, we cannot be distracted from what we have to do now.”
The CELAC summit was supposed to serve as a springboard for Mexican president Andres Manuel Loprez Obrador’s vision of a united Latin America, as AMLO himself explained in his inaugural speech:
“In these times, CELAC can become the main instrument to consolidate relations between our Latin American and Caribbean nations, and achieve the goal of economic integration with the United States and Canada, within a framework of respect for our sovereignty.”
This is the second first time AMLO has proposed the creation of a Latin American union; the first was at the fifth CELAC summit, held on July 24, the birthday of Simón Bolivar, the Caracas-born revolutionary leader who liberated a large chunk of South America from the Spanish in the early nineteenth century.
Since neither the US nor Canada are members of CELAC, there was no immediate response to AMLO’s invitation. But in all likelihood, it will be negative. It’s virtually impossible to even imagine senior representatives of the US and Canadian governments sitting around the same table as leaders of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, let alone debating regional policy with them. As previously mentioned, Maduro has a price on his head. One of the last actions of the Trump Administration was to designate Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, for its “malign influence in Venezuela and the rest of the Western hemisphere.”
AMLO, who is currently interim president of CELAC, called for the creation in Latin America of something similar to the European Economic Community, the six-member economic association formed in 1957 that would eventually evolve into today’s 27-member European Union. But he emphasised “the need to respect national sovereignty and adhere to non-interventionist and pro-development policies”. In a previous statement he also underscored that it must be “in accordance with our history, our reality, and our identities.”
It is easy to understand the potent draw of AMLO’s dream, writes Kurt Hackbarth in Jacobin:
A union of Latin America and the Caribbean would bring together some 660 million people — 8 percent of the world’s population, and also 8 percent of its GDP. All of this is spread out over a surface area of some 7.8 million square miles, an area larger than the United States and Canada combined. Despite centuries of colonial plunder, it remains a region of abundant natural resources, arable land, a head-spinning diversity of peoples and traditions, and a culture of contestation that has produced some of the most transcendent political movements of the last century.
Hackbart sketches out what a Latin American Union should include, “starting with a public development bank to liberate itself from international financial institutions, as well as from the United States, EU, and, more recently, China”:
It should also establish a common green agricultural and energy policy to counter the effects of climate change and achieve genuine regional independence. It would need to lay emphasis on workers’ rights, including full freedom of movement, the right to collective bargaining, and a living wage. Such a union would need a comprehensive regulatory policy to prevent foreign multinationals from pitting one country against another; a joint diplomatic and defense framework to resolve regional conflicts and stymie attempts at foreign intervention; and integration of education, transport, scientific investigation, and health infrastructure, the lack of which has become glaringly evident during the pandemic. It would seek to promote sustainable, local development, including culture, sports, and the arts, instead of a reliance on resource extraction and development for tourism, and form a region-wide media body to counter the effects of corporate press oligarchies, both foreign and domestic.
But bringing the continent together is not going to be a gargantuan task. Since the Bolivarian wars of independence in the early eighteen hundreds Latin America’s disparate nation states have been wracked by division, due to political ideology, territorial disputes and, most of all, colonial interference. Recent attempts at integration, such as the Pink Tide-inspired initiatives of the early 2000s — ALBA and UNASUR — ended up achieving little, while the US-backed proposals of the 2010s, such as the Pacific Alliance, the Lima Group, and PROSUR, have fallen flat.
At last weekend’s summit consensus proved largely elusive on many vital points, as was no doubt expected given the broad diversity of political ideologies and geopolitical allegiances among the attendees. As Reuters reports, sparks flew at times.
“We are worried and look gravely at what’s happening in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela,” he said, ticking off what he described as repressive actions including jailing of political opponents.
Cuba’s Diaz-Canel fired back by attacking neo-liberal policies that he said have retarded social progress. He also criticized Lacalle’s leadership, noting the large response from a recent petition drive by his domestic political opposition.
The Uruguayan responded by criticizing Cuba’s communist government, noting it does not tolerate opposition or allow its people to elect their own leaders.
Despite bitter exchanges like these, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard was still able to announce 44 points of agreement in the summit’s political declaration, each of which required weeks of prior negotiation. They included an agreement to set up a fund to counteract the effects of climate change, whose impact is already being felt in parts of the region as well as an agency to regulate new medicines and vaccines at the regional level.
There was also unanimous agreement that the US should put an end to its trade, economic and financial embargo of Cuba, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic. In the summit’s statement attendees reaffirmed “their rejection of coercive economic measures not supported by international law, including unilateral actions applied against sovereign countries that affect the well-being of their peoples and which are designed to prevent them from exercising their right to decide, by virtue of their own sovereign will, their own political, economic and social systems”.
Countering US Influence
CELAC was first proposed at the Rio Group–Caribbean Community Unity Summit, in February, 2010, and was later founded on December 3, 2011, in Caracas, with the implicit goal of deepening Latin American integration. The organization currently has a membership list of 32 countries. They do not include the United States, Canada or the overseas territories in the Americas of France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Founding members such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Lula de Silva, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa saw CELAC’s creation as a means to reduce the influence of the United States on the politics and economics of Latin America. In his speech at the summit AMLO reiterated his hopes that CELAC would eventually supplant the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) as the main institution for intra-regional relations.
Founded in 1948 by the United States and 21 other Latin American nations, the OAS was supposed to be a multilateral forum that furthered peace, security, democracy and the peaceful resolution of conflict between member stated. But given the dominance of the US, which provided most of the organization’s funding, it ended up being largely used as a countermeasure against potential Soviet influence in the region. The OAS continues to wield influence to this day. And that influence is not always welcome. For example, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Manuel Ebrard recently accused the organization of “practically facilitating” the recent coup d’état in Bolivia. He also described OAS’ current secretary general, the former Uruguayan diplomat Luis Almagro, as one of the “worst in its history.”
The governments of Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba fully support AMLO’s proposal of sidelining OAS. But not everyone is on board. The governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia, all closely aligned with Washington, oppose the move. Further complicating matters, says Hackbarth, is the fact that any new union would have to contend with a morass of existing commitments.
The ink is barely dry on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the sequel to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tying Mexico to the United States and Canada (and which was supported by AMLO himself). But that is far from all. Of the twenty countries with which the United States has free-trade agreements, over half are with Latin America, including virtually all of Central America, as well as Colombia, Chile, and Peru. Several more, including Mercosur, have agreements in force or in process with the European Union.
Brazil: A Vital Clog
Conspicuously absent from the CELAC summit was Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who pulled out from CELAC last year after criticising it for promoting undemocratic countries. Which is a little rich given Bolsonaro’s well-documented contempt for democratic processes and institutions as well as his recent threats of staging a military coup if he doesn’t win next year’s election against Lula. AMLO’s dream of creating a regional alliance of left-leaning states in Latin America will depend massively on the outcome of those elections.
If Lula beats Bolsonaro comfortably, as recent polls suggest he will, and Bolsonaro doesn’t try to cling onto power, as his recent actions and statements suggest he will, AMLO should be able to count on Brazil as a key ally in his plan to create a Latin America Union. Between them, Brazil and Mexico account for around 60% of total GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean. To put that into context, it is significantly more than France and Germany’s combined economic clout in the EU (approx. 43% of GDP).
Someone who did take part in the event, albeit remotely and extremely briefly, is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who delivered a three-minute video speech to the attendees. In his address Xi underscored the importance for China of developing close relations with CELAC:
“In July 2014, the leaders of regional countries and I jointly announced the establishment of the Forum of China and CELAC, which has developed a new way for the comprehensive cooperation between China and Latin America… China will continue to provide support to Latin American and Caribbean countries to the best of its capability, and help the regional countries overcome the pandemic at an early date and resume economic and social development.”
Chinese vaccine developers have already provided over 230 million vaccine doses to 18 countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru, mostly through exports. China’s vaccine diplomacy has helped to bolster its economic and geopolitical influence in the region, which had been steadily rising since the turn of this century, as NC previously reported.
China’s trade with the region grew 26-fold between 2000 and 2020, from $12 billion to $315 billion, and is expected to more than double by 2035, to more than $700 billion. In the last 20 years China has moved from an almost negligible position as a source of imports and destination of exports within the region to become its second trade partner, at the expense not just of the US but also Europe and certain Latin American countries such as Brazil whose share of inter-regional trade has fallen.
Xi Jinping’s participation in the CELAC summit will certainly not have gone unnoticed in Washington DC. Xi’s words confirm that China’s interest in developing economic and geo-strategic partnerships in Latin America has not dimmed. That he was able to say those words at the invitation of Mexico, one of the US’ largest economic partners, whose president is determined to reduce his country’s economic and energy dependence on the US, will also have not gone unnoticed.