Declining U.S. Influence in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 13, 2011


The recent creation of CELAC, yet another Latin American regional organization, highlights the lack of traction in the actual integration of Latin American nations as much as the declining power of the U.S. in the region.


The pompous inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC for its Spanish acronym) took place in Caracas on December 2, 2011. The event had little news repercussion in a region with way too many regional integration initiatives and an excessive number of presidential summits.


As the most recent political integration initiative launched in Latin America, CELAC is slightly different from other existing organizations. With its 33 member nations—2 less than the Organization of American States—it is the second largest regional organization. Other than the conspicuous absence of Canada and the United States and the equally prominent presence of Cuba, CELAC perfectly reproduces the OAS.  However, created in 1948—to replace the Pan American Union, an organization originally formed in 1910—the OAS has a much stronger and better funded institutional structure and scope of action.


Championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Latin America’s leading anti-U.S. president (and thus the favorite villain in the eyes of American conservatives still trapped in Cold War logic), CELAC’s main objective is to show that Latin America has grown out of its historic dependent relationship with the United States.  Just as there is nothing better in the eyes of an adolescent to show her independence than to do things that will annoy adults around her, President Chávez wanted to show the irrelevance of regional integration initiatives led by Washington by creating a new organization that explicitly excludes the U.S.  Ironically, the creation of CELAC clearly highlights how much Latin American countries define their own regional identity vis-ŕ-vis the historic influence of the United States.


Strictly speaking, CELAC is the prolongation of the Rio Group, an organization formally created in 1986 and initially comprised of 8 democratic regimes in Latin America. The Rio Group was a direct successor of the Contadora initiative, a group created by Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama in the mid 1980’s to help end civil wars in Central America.  As more countries made a transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1980s, the Rio Group incorporated more members.  In 2010, the Rio Group and the Caribbean Community came together to form CELAC.


CELAC joins the OAS and other existing Latin American integration initiatives. The IberoAmerican Presidential Summit brings together Spain, Portugal and all Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in the region.  Unasur, which includes the 12 independent countries of South America, is widely seen as a Brazilian effort to exert its regional leadership in competition with Mexico, the other Latin American giant.  Sub-regional integration initiatives, like Mercosur, the Andean Community and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are also part of the complicated web of Latin American integration initiatives.  Tough many people have forgotten about it, the Latin American integration Association (ALADI), created in 1980, remains as an organization charged with promoting a trade pact among all Latin American nations (excluding the U.S.). Presumably, with the creation of CELAC, the Rio Group has now formally disappeared, but the organization has not been officially ended.  


To be sure, if Latin America continues to create multilateral organizations that seek to represent different regional blocs, there will eventually be more acronyms than countries in the region.  The proliferation of regional organizations with similar mandates and objectives underlines Latin American integration conundrum. On the one hand, the need to integrate and the intention to do it are evident. On the other, concrete steps towards real integration are blurred in a complex web of bureaucracy and duplicate structures.  The problem has gotten so bad that many presidents simply skip many presidential summits. Public opinion only pays attention when a scandal or an unscripted comment breaks an otherwise monotonous series of diplomatic speeches and politically correct declarations.


The proliferation of regional initiatives underlines the little actual progress in going from deeds to real economic, political and trade integration. The noticeable absence of the U.S. government from many of the initiatives points to a declining American influence in the region. It would reasonable to argue that the U.S. does well in abstaining from participating in new initiatives that simply duplicate existing ones. However, the real news is that the U.S. is not even invited to several of these initiatives.


Thus, even though there is very limited actual progress accomplished by these integration initiatives, the fact that the U.S. is not on the guest list speaks volumes as to the prevalent long term vision of regional development and integration in Latin American these days.  Actual progress on the integration roadmap is certainly limited and presidential summits are becoming much-a-do-about-nothing affairs. However, the fact that the U.S. is no longer a part of the constant going in circles and not moving forward does signify a dramatic departure from the times when the U.S. championed and promoted equally discrete and disappointing regional integration initiatives.