The gathering of Latin American leaders in Cancun, Mexico on February 23 grabbed the headlines after its 32 participants pledged to create a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The new alliance, which includes Cuba and excludes the United States and Canada, was conceived as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional institution established in 1948 to fight communism and promote democracy and human rights.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon noted that the new bloc "must as a priority push for regional integration... and promote the regional agenda in global meetings." The outgoing Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, chimed in, saying, "We must protect our people, be more inclusive... construct the paths and networks necessary so we don't live with our backs turned toward each other."
While the Obama administration appeared undisturbed by the developments, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, opined that the new alliance "should not be an effort that would replace the OAS."
Commenting for Look Who's Talking, Dr. Ray Walser, senior policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, noted that, while the bloc "is more symbolic than substantive...[i]t does nevertheless reflect the widening public perception gap between the U.S. and its southern neighbors."
Indeed, the nascent Community reveals the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) states' growing uneasiness with the regional fissures caused, in part, by Washington's policies. And, as someone who aspires to elevate Mexico to a regional superpower, Mr. Calderon apparently used the powwow in Cancun to capitalize on the rising anti-U.S. sentiment across the continent and establish Mexico as a champion of South America's political unity.
Clearly, the LAC nations' grievances against the United States abound. Last December, for instance, the Obama administration was pressured by the partisan in-fighting in the U.S. Senate to recognize the newly-elected Honduran President, Porfirio Lobo. (The spat with the Senate Republicans also delayed confirmation of several key appointees to the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, prompting the LAC nations to question the importance Washington attached to their region.)
The Obama administration's decision to acknowledge the legitimacy of Mr. Lobo's cabinet provoked a muffled indignation throughout Latin America, where the incumbent presidents feared that the ouster of Mr. Lobo's predecessor, Manuel Zelaya, might embolden opposition forces elsewhere in the region. Last January, Mr. Zelaya was expelled from Honduras and settled in Costa Rica, where he was granted political asylum.
Mr. Lobo was not invited to Cancun, and the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed again for the recognition of his government during her Latin American tour last week.
Most recently, Mr. Calderon, along with other Latin American presidents, endorsed Argentina's claim for the British-controlled Falkland Islands. Argentina's President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, asked if the United States could mediate the dispute--an offer that Secretary Clinton diplomatically sidestepped.
The inclusion of Cuba in the newly-emerged alliance signals the growing clout of Latin America's leftist regimes, as well as their desire to be fully integrated into the continent's political fabric. Cuba's socialist regime was banned from OAS in 1962, and the Latin American nations have been pushing Washington to agree to Cuba's reinstatement after the end of the Cold War. However, President Raul Castro refused to re-join the organization after receiving a conditional invitation last June. The invitation, whose wording was approved by the U.S., tied Cuba's re-entry to improvements in its governance and human rights record.
According to Dr. Walser, "the addition of communist Cuba as a member and the exclusion of Honduras with its elected government demonstrated a serious lack of commitment to fundamental democratic principles." He added that the new Community "will not make the OAS obsolete but it will make it less effective as Latin Americans, urged on by [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales, and the Castro brothers, can run away from hard issues such as serious commitments to upholding the inter-American democratic chapter in all its aspects for a fora where little is accomplished but everyone feels better."
The new alliance will not end the region's protracted conflicts but it may facilitate efforts at reconciliation. President Chavez and his counterpart in the neighboring Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, had a heated public fall-out in Cancun over Colombia's agreement to host the U.S. military bases--a step that Mr. Chavez, the United States' most avid critic in the region, views as a threat to his regime. In a bid to broker a truce between the two adversaries, President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic has launched negotiations.
Dr. Walser is certain that "bilateral relations will remain the critical elements in U.S. relations within the region." Indeed, latest disagreements notwithstanding, cooperation with the United States is viewed as crucial by many LAC countries. While meeting President Obama in Mexico in April 2009 during the U.S. leader's first visit abroad, President Calderon said he hoped to strengthen the partnership with Washington on issues ranging from immigration reform to cross-border security to free trade. Likewise, the economies of Central American and Caribbean states have, over the years, benefited from the remittances of migrant workers in the United States. In addition, Colombia has received a hefty U.S. economic aid to help its government replace drug trafficking with legal income-earning opportunities. And the Obama administration is now closely involved in post-earthquake relief operations in Haiti and Chile.
While the creation of this new and still vaguely defined Community may not change much in U.S. relations with LAC nations in the short-term, it underpins a larger a trend of regional integration across the political right-left divide that the U.S. diplomacy should be mindful of in its future policy-making.