An unnoticed absence

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 29, 2013


The absence of the United States in the summit that brought together the European Union (EU) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) went largely unnoticed. That Washington did not take part in the bi-continental summit highlights all the things that Washington has gotten wrong on its Latin American agenda, but it also shows the limits of the current integration initiatives that are dominating the political agenda in Latin America.


Chilean President Sebastián Piñera greeted the European leaders who attended the summit in Santiago, Chile’s capital, this past weekend, with the phrase “welcome to a better world.” The rapid economic growth experienced by Latin America in recent years contrasts with the stagnation that has characterized the European Union.  However, the high levels of inequality that persist in Latin America lead many of the disposed there to think that they would be better off in economically-depressed Europe because they could benefit from what remains of the social safety net in those countries. In Latin America, as the benefits of economic growth are unequally distributed, levels of discontent and dissatisfaction with their democratic institutions remain worryingly high. Latin Americans want to see the macro economic growth experienced by their countries materialized in their daily lives. The summit offered Latin American countries a unique opportunity to discuss with European countries ideas and policies that can foster economic growth through trade—something that Europe is desperately in need of—and that can promote more social and economic inclusion—an area where Latin American countries need to make inroads.


The U.S. was not invited to the event because CELAC is an organization created precisely to exclude the U.S. and Canada.  Comprised of the same members that make up the Organization of American States, OAS—except Canada and the United States—CELAC was created as a result of an initiative championed by President Hugo Chávez. Though many feared that CELAC would duplicate OAS functions, the fact that CELAC does not have a formal structure has not undermined the OAS.  As Latin American leaders who championed the formation of CELAC failed to put their money where their mouth was, CELAC remains a highly symbolic organization with little power to transform deeds and promises into actual policies and verifiable spending initiatives.  President Chávez wanted an OAS without the United States. CELAC was the result of that initiative. But as CELAC is not adequately funded nor does it have a proper bureaucratic structure, its influence remains rather limited.  The OAS, largely funded by the U.S., continues to exert more influence and power through its institutional structure and its existing bureaucracy.


The CELAC-EU summit was organized by the government of Chile, led by a center-right politician. Rather than advocate for the inclusion of the U.S., the Chilean government successfully lobbied to make the summit focus on investment and trade promotion. As a result, the initiative created to undermine the power and influence of the U.S. ended up promoting the favored policies of the U.S. The themses discussed in the summit were market-friendly oriented and focused on promoting free trade. Yet, the U.S. was not present.


In recent years, Washington has simply forgotten about Latin America. In the recent confirmation hearings for Senator John Kerry, President’s Obama nominee for Secretary of State, Latin America was largely absent from the inquiries. Kerry did talk about strengthening relations and consolidating trade, but his statements sounded old and unimaginative.  As China steps up its presence and influence in the region and Latin American countries undertake free trade initiatives without even considering the U.S., Washington remains trapped in a Cold War mentality as it deals with Latin America.  Because bringing about the end of the Cuban revolution remains atop the U.S. agenda and trade promotion is stagnant because the U.S. is not ready to make concessions on issues that matter to Latin American producers, Latin Americans are increasingly uninterested in what the U.S. has to offer.


Though the U.S. loses more than Latin America by failing to engage with the region, Latin America also pays costs when forgetting that the most powerful nation of earth is the next door neighbor.  As CELAC has not been able to replace the OAS in developing institutions that can follow up on the agreements signed at summits, Latin Americans should be aware of limits of the strategy that seeks to move forward ignoring the U.S. The region will not embrace development and became an industrialized continent if it fails to engage with the United States. It should not engage in the same way it did during the cold war—Latin America is not the U.S.’s backyard. But the region should not ignore that the U.S. continues to be an important neighbor.


The fact that the U.S. was an unnoticeable absence in the CELAC-EU summit should serve as a warning to Washington about the increasing distance between the U.S. and Latin America but it should also remind Latin Americans that their future is inextricably linked to the economic and political developments that take place in the United States.