YouTube video

Alex Main: Latin America moving away from US control with CELAC, an alternative to OAS

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

On Tuesday, President Santos of Colombia announced that he had not been able to reach a consensus on inviting Cuba to the upcoming Summit of the Americas, of which he is host. One assumes the consensus that didn’t exist was because the United States wouldn’t agree to it. And that’s a reflection of something broader, a new politics emerging in Latin America giving rise to organizations and politicians who are increasingly breaking away from United States dominance in Latin America and creating new ways of creating Latin American integration.

Now joining us to talk about all of that and the newest venture in this, CELAC (a new organization called the Community for Latin American and Caribbean States), is Alex Main. Alex is a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. And he now joins us from Washington. So thanks for joining us, Alex.


JAY: So talk about CELAC and why it came into being, and what this means in terms of where Latin American-U.S. relations is going.

MAIN: Oh, absolutely. So CELAC is just the latest in a series of integration movements within Latin America over the last 15, 20 years that have really taken off in the last decade. And it’s basically, you know, the community of Latin American and Caribbean states. As the name suggests, it doesn’t include North America, or at least the U.S. and Canada. And it really got started in the beginning of 2010, in February 2010, in Cancun, Mexico.

It was Mexico that—the Mexican government that gave it its original impetus. Mexico brought together two organizations, regional organizations: the Rio Group, which included nearly every country in the region outside of Canada and the U.S., and also the CALC, a recent creation of Brazil that was basically a series of summits that started in 2008. Every two years, nearly every Latin American and Caribbean government would meet to discuss some of the issues on the regional agenda.

So Mexico brought them together with a very explicit agenda to not include the U.S. and Canada. And this was coming right out of a bit of a crisis in the region, which formed around the coup that took place in Honduras, that took place in June 2009, a coup that originally was condemned very harshly by every government in the region, including the U.S. and Canada, but where the U.S. progressively became softer and softer in its position towards the coup regime, until it ultimately supported the holding of elections under the coup regime in November 2009, under a de facto regime with no press freedom to speak of. There was a great deal of repression. The elections were not recognized by the rest of the region; the U.S. did recognize them immediately. And this provoked a very bitter reaction, I think, from the rest of the region. And it’s in this context that CELAC was created.

JAY: So, essentially, CELAC’s created as an alternative to the Organization of American States, the OAS, which the U.S. plays such a dominant role in, and in fact eventually did recognize the Honduran government, although that was to some extent a deal that Chávez was involved with, right?

MAIN: Well, yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And there’s a great deal of back and forth on that, with the Mexican government actually—spokespeople from the Mexican government, before the Cancun summit was held, certainly suggesting that it could be a replacement to the OAS, and then, afterwards, denials from the Mexican government and then other governments that chimed in, such as the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia that did insist that it would be an alternative to the OAS.

But certainly it was seen as a forum where countries could more easily agree on issues like Honduras. And I think, you know, one of the big points of contention around discussions on Honduras was that within the OAS, countries tried to have much stronger measures passed, in particular, measures to not recognize the elections that took place under the coup regime. And the U.S. systematically blocked those efforts, and Canada apparently followed along. And so, at any rate, it became clear that the OAS was not a forum where, you know, Latin American and Caribbean countries could really accomplish much when it came to some very politically sensitive issues in the region, and therefore they had to create another forum. And they did so in a hurry.

JAY: Well, this coming Summit of the Americas in April in Colombia is becoming another point of conflict, and so far it’s over the issue of Cuba. So talk a bit about the split on how to deal with Cuba between Latin America and the United States. And what are some of their examples of where Latin American countries are taking positions more or less in unison and more or less at odds with United States?

MAIN: Well, yeah, no, it’s actually quite interesting to see what’s happened in the preparation of the Cartagena summit. There have been previous Summits of the Americas. The last was in Trinidad and Tobago in early 2009, and the first one was in Miami back in 1994. There have been, therefore, a number of summits, and this is the first time that the exclusion of Cuba has really been a very hot issue. And this is because a number of countries, in particular countries from the ALBA group, and led by Ecuador, President Correa of Ecuador, called on Cuba’s participation. This the first time that it became such a crucial issue, to the extent that President Santos of Colombia—and Colombia, of course, being one of the countries closest to the U.S.—felt obliged to travel to Cuba to offer an explanation, to meet with Raúl Castro and explain what was happening. And it’s fairly certain that in those conversations he explained simply, look, you know, this is a group that functions by consensus, and I’m afraid there’s one country that disagrees with having Cuba participate, and that’s the United States.

And so it was very interesting to see that Santos made a huge effort, including having originally asked Cuba to participate. And then the U.S. reacted, I think, somewhat angrily, I’m sure sent some very strong private messages to President Santos. Of course, in an election year it would be considered disastrous for Obama to be seen anywhere near the likes of Raúl Castro, with, you know, the key election taking place in Florida.

JAY: Right. So this is all an indication of something far more profound, which is a whole movement of Latin American countries out of the more direct banana republic or U.S.-supported dictatorships. I mean, you still have some of that in Latin America, but the bigger countries are moving into their—somewhat their own orbit. China, as we know, is now, I think, the major trading partner of several Latin American countries. So what is the bigger trend here?

MAIN: Well, there’s sort of a partial movement towards independence, towards a real independence in Latin America. And, of course, Latin America’s been fighting for its independence ever since it nominally became independent from the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in the early 19th century. But in actual fact, and, of course, particularly during the 20th century, the U.S. has exercised a great deal of influence over the governments and their policies in the country, and, of course, during the Cold War, backing some very brutal right-wing dictatorships throughout the region.

So after the Cold War, there was a process of democratization that was actually to some extent promoted by the U.S., but promoted by the U.S. with a certain idea in mind, which was to control the democratization that was taking place. And, of course, the U.S. has mastered the art of so-called democracy promotion throughout the world, where it gets very involved in internal politics and has a great deal of influence on the outcome of elections, and it felt that it would be able to control political outcomes in Latin America.

And that began to unravel in the late ’90s, when the neoliberal policies, the policies of austerity and deregulation and free markets that were being pushed by the U.S., were, you know, causing a great deal of suffering throughout the region, and the peoples of Latin America really began to rebel. And this rebellion took place in the polling places throughout the region, in elections, starting with Venezuela, which was the first bad example, really, of that region, the first government to explicitly be opposed to the neoliberal agenda pushed by the U.S. The U.S. attempted, of course, to carry out a coup against Venezuela in 2002. That plan didn’t work out as they had expected. Chávez came back. And then, following that, of course, we entered the post-9/11 context, where the war on terrorism and the shift of the U.S.’s strategic focus went to the Middle East, and, of course, Central Asia, at the expense, from the U.S. foreign policy point of view, of Latin America. Latin America, therefore, it was put on the backburner.

And that’s where we began to see the dominoes fall, after Venezuela. You had Argentina, and then Brazil, and then Uruguay, and then Bolivia, and then Ecuador, up into Central America was Nicaragua, and so on. And so these were profound political changes. These—the political landscape of the region really took on a completely different color, going from being governments that promoted neoliberalism to governments that sought to buck the neoliberal trend and that turned very sharply left. And the U.S. couldn’t do much about it.

JAY: Now, CELAC, this community of Latin American and Caribbean states, in their mission statement, if I understand it correctly, they talk about a new financial architecture for Latin America and breaking from IMF and the World Bank and such. So what’s their vision for that, and how realistic is that? I mean, most of the countries of Latin America, whether they’ve made some breaks with the IMF, they’re still certainly—you know, have all their bondholders and all their web of links with the major global financial institutions. And certainly the biggest economy in Latin America, Brazil, while more independent than it used to be, is completely integrated in this whole global financial system. So how real is this new architecture? And what might it look like?

MAIN: Well, it is difficult to say, because you have different projects that are already being pushed by various countries in the region. And, of course, one big one in terms of new financial architecture is the Banco del Sur, the South bank, an idea that originated in Venezuela but that’s been taken up by a number of other countries, including Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and also Uruguay.

Brazil is—the government of Brazil, at least, is supportive of the South bank, but the parliament isn’t, so it hasn’t passed there. But at the same time, you’re absolutely right. Brazil, for instance, has talked about recapitalizing the IMF, but is also pushing for reforms within the IMF so that, of course, a larger quota of developing countries—or, rather, developing countries have a larger quota of power within the institution. And this also goes for the World Bank.

So you have various projects that are at play. And I think, you know, there are countries like Venezuela and Ecuador that are focused principally on these alternative projects, and then other countries, like Brazil, that are sort of on the fence and are doing a little bit of both. And then, of course, you have countries individually in Central America and Mexico that aren’t following along at all in terms of, you know, a completely alternative financial architecture.

JAY: At any rate, it seems like there certainly is a new phase of relations between Latin America and the United States, and not least of which is the growing power of China. How much does that affect the politics?

MAIN: Well, enormously. I mean—and particularly in South America it has allowed a number of these governments to have even more independent foreign policies. You know, more and more of their trade is with China. China hasn’t replaced the U.S. for any of these countries as a trading partner, but it’s coming close, and it’s expected that it will in the case of some of these countries. And what’s interesting with China is that it’s providing a huge amount of credit. Of course, China has a great deal of international reserves. It’s been using these international reserves to make many investments in Latin America and many big loans. And what’s different with the U.S. is that to a large extent these loans and this investment come with very few strings attached. So I think there is a preference for these countries to seek Chinese capital, in that it gives them a greater margin of maneuver in terms of their own domestic and foreign policies.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Alex.

MAIN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

In his work at CEPR, as Director of International Policy, Alexander Main focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and regularly engages with U.S. policy makers and civil society groups to inform the public debate. He is frequently interviewed by media in the U.S. and Latin American and his analyses on U.S. policy in the Americas have been published in a variety of domestic and international media outlets including Foreign Policy, NACLA and the Monde diplomatique. Prior to CEPR, Alexander spent more than six years in Latin America working as an international relations analyst. He has a degree in history and political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France.