The inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in December 2011 marked a significant step toward consolidating a system of regional integration that will operate as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). With an impressive gathering of 33 heads of state in Caracas, including Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez front and center, they formalized the creation of CELAC and declared their intention to forge an authentically Latin American agenda under its auspices. Notably present was President Raúl Castro of Cuba, while neither the United States nor Canada were invited to attend.
CELAC aspires to deepen the existing level of intra-regional communication, articulation, and cooperation, including at the subregional level. As Chávez put it, CELAC will be the “house” where all of the region’s entities, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Central American Common Market (MCCA), can meet and consolidate their positions. For its part, Brazil saw in CELAC a “third ring” of integration that was forming above the existing regional integration schemes. High on CELAC’s agenda are the creation of a new regional financial architecture; a more rational use of energy with improved energy access for those countries that lack adequate means; enhancement of transportation infrastructure that can permit geographical integration; the definitive eradication of hunger and poverty through better food and nutritional security; universal access to education and health care; water and sanitation projects; and more comprehensive guarantees for the human rights of migrants through greater interstate cooperation.
As Chávez gleefully read the international greetings from China and Russia, one could only imagine U.S. State Department officials scratching their heads, wondering how this all happened in their own backyard. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega called the regional initiative a “death sentence” for the Monroe Doctrine, and others even alluded to the beginning of the end for the OAS. But most curious of all was the support of countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Chile for the initiative, with Chile’s conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, assuming the position of president pro tempore for the coming year. Chile will preside until January 2013, when CELAC heads of state meet again in Santiago de Chile and Cuba will assume the rotating presidency.
Cuba’s participation in regional political forums has emerged as a key issue, one that is emblematic of U.S. hegemony in the OAS. Reintegrating Cuba into the OAS, which expelled the rebel island in 1962 at U.S. insistence, is now a consensus position among all OAS members, save for the United States and Canada, reflecting a growing independence from Washington’s foreign policy matrix. The Latin American countries had already secured Cuba’s invitation to rejoin the OAS in 2009, but Cuba declined the invitation, citing disproportionate U.S. influence in the organization, which Che Guevara once called the “U.S. Ministry of Colonies.” In marked contrast, Cuba has enthusiastically cast its lot with CELAC, where a resolution was adopted in Caracas opposing the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
The ink was barely dry on the new entity’s founding document before OAS secretary-general José Miguel Insulza was downplaying the potential role of CELAC, calling it a “regional consultative body” that could enhance the coordination of its member states but could never adequately substitute for the OAS in hemispheric affairs. The truth is, however, that any eventual success of CELAC will be at the expense of the OAS, which has been frequently criticized for kowtowing to Washington.
CELAC certainly did not materialize out of thin air. Its evolution out of the Group of Rio symbolizes a tradition of regional political cooperation that in the mid-1980s opposed U.S. interventionism in Central America. In December 2008, the group unanimously welcomed Cuba into its ranks as a first step toward formalizing the project that culminated three years later in Caracas with the formation of CELAC and an expanded agenda. Ironically, the process was further nudged along by U.S. unilateralism through Washington’s support for elections under the regime installed by the 2009 coup in Honduras that deposed the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya. Washington’s use of the OAS to further its agenda both in Honduras and Haiti helped raise the ire in the region and fuel the consolidation of CELAC.
When neoliberalism first began to melt down in the region at the turn of the century, the systemic tendency toward crises of political legitimacy and ungovernability helped power a political turn to the left. The architects of the Washington Consensus clearly overestimated the staying power of neoliberal legitimacy just as they undervalued the capacity of popular resistance across the Americas. A regionwide upsurge of social movement protest produced a new correlation of forces for social transformation riding atop a tumultuous set of regional sentiments such as Venezuelan revolutionary Bolivarianism and a resurgence of indigenous militancy that in the Andes culminated in the seismic political transition to a plurinational Bolivia.
Out of this motion, more explicit demands for integration based on cooperation and solidarity in confronting foreign designs on the region have emerged. The outlines of this new tendency could be seen in the widespread opposition that formed around hegemonic schemes of integration, such as the George H.W. Bush administration’s Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Powerful new intersectoral social movements arose out of the neoliberal restructuring of the 1990s to rally against the FTAA all across the region. These movements resolutely rejected Washington’s attempt to “NAFTA-size” the hemisphere by imposing a new a legal framework for economic annexation under the ideological cover of free trade and greater access to the heavily protected North American market. At stake were the long-term development prospects of a region that possesses a rich set of natural resource assets, including massive hydrocarbon reserves, about 60% of the planet’s sweet water, and some 80% of its biodiversity.
Social movement resistance eventually yielded a string of leftist and center-left electoral victories in key countries like Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina that put all of the elements in place to eventually stop the FTAA in its tracks. This stinging blow to Washington’s economic strategy for the region was achieved by 2005, forcing the United States to shift its strategy toward bilateral and subregional free trade agreements that were eventually signed in Chile, Central America, and most recently in Peru and Colombia. Even where these agreements were successfully imposed, including in countries ruled by some of the most reactionary regimes of the region, they spawned powerful grassroots resistance. The whole experience has resulted in continued social movement presence and greater awareness throughout the Americas of the risks involved in any asymmetrical trade arrangement with foreign hegemonic powers, be it with the United States or Europe.
Just as the shift to the left resurrected emancipatory visions for millions of Latin American peoples, it likewise ignited demands for a different logic governing Latin America’s insertion into the global order. Popular demands for greater equality, solidarity, and social justice defy easy translation into concrete practice. But out of the growing number of “No to” demands, such as No to NAFTA, No to FTAA, No to CAFTA, No to free trade agreements with the European Union, and so on, the more complicated process of creating a new and progressive vision of integration for the region eventually emerged where consolidated popular opposition to neoliberalism was the strongest. Anti-neoliberal demands for the renationalization of strategic public sector activities and for economic policies aimed at achieving a fairer redistribution of wealth eventually coalesced under the auspices of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).
This alternative integration initiative originated in the cooperation accords created between Venezuela and Cuba in 2004. Clearly the most consolidated of alternative integration projects to date, ALBA was both concrete and visionary in its distinct social class character and dedication to responding to popular interests. The logic of ALBA consisted of fusing Bolivarian principles for regional unity with Cuban-style revolutionary internationalism. Beyond its progressive vision, it was grounded in the strong material base of Venezuela’s oil wealth and the highly skilled human resources of Cuba and posed a militant response to the arrested development of both countries on account of the neoliberal regional order governed by a transnational capitalist class and protected by imperial politics.
With its founding document invoking the legacy of Bolívar and Martí, ALBA was created to break with the neoliberal order and form the embryonic logic of an alternative system of regional integration. Genuine integration was now envisioned to serve as an instrument of solidarity and alliance building that is inclusive and consciously engaged in social participation. ALBA represented a complete rupture with classical economistic visions of integration that saw trade as its only raison d’être. Rather, it viewed integration as the strategic means to embark on a post-neoliberal and emancipatory path.
ALBA sought greater regional sovereignty and functional complementarities through the maximization of “cooperative advantages” and more systemic and sustainable development. If it is true that a major obstacle to the success of regional integration consists of intra-regional conflicts of the sort routinely experienced in the European Union, the ASEAN countries, and MERCOSUR/UNASUR, ALBA seeks to avoid this through structured mechanisms of cooperation laced with a strong social justice orientation. Existing asymmetries are actively contested in ALBA through compensatory mechanisms and cooperation. Generous financing and professional human resources are made available to address pent-up social needs such as those involving health, nutrition and education, with emphasis on making financial concessions to the poorest member states. The objective is to build economic complementarity, seeking systemic competitiveness in the global economy and to make significant contributions to planetary sustainability that remains under persistent threat from transnational capital.
In the alternative-integration logic of ALBA, the expansion of active and participatory democracy is strongly promoted as is the struggle against social exclusion, the protection of natural resources, and the reconsolidation of the public sector and public goods. Moreover, it seeks to reaffirm Latin American identity and to reconceptualize development as a process where the point of departure is the social welfare of its peoples. Taken together, these goals represent a concrete contribution to the construction of a post-capitalist future that is democratic and participatory.
In geopolitical terms, ALBA has encouraged ties between Latin American member states and countries in other regions of the world, such as Russia, China, and Iran. Creating more diverse political alliances and deepening the amount of South-South cooperation can only benefit the region’s long-term development. For their part, the United States and the EU will certainly do all that is possible to sabotage these ties, since they threaten the consolidation of the transnational capitalist order that the fortunes of the economic superpowers rely upon.
In contrast to the lethargic pace of other regional cooperation entities, the ALBA countries wasted little time in putting their aspirations into full gear by generating multiple initiatives. The first major innovation was put forward by Bolivia when it joined ALBA. This involved the people’s trade agreements (TCPs), which stressed the necessity of creating an alternative to the free trade agreements (FTAs) of the NAFTA kind. The TCPs seek complementarities and stress respect for public enterprises and state sovereignty in development.
Subsequent initiatives included mechanisms such as the Caribbean Petroleum Alliance (PetroCaribe) that establishes energy cooperation between Venezuela, Cuba and various CARICOM countries; the Petro-Food (Petro-Alimentos) Fund and the Gran-National Agro-Food Company designed to encourage greater food security; the Gran-National Energy, Petroleum and Gas Company aimed at enhancing regional energy security; the ALBA Cultural Fund; the ALBA Bank; the Monetary Council and Clearinghouse of the SUCRE (Unified System of Regional Compensation), including the Reserve and Trade Convergence Fund. Additional agreements led to the creation of the Gran-National ALBA Education Project; the People’s University of ALBA-TCP (UNIALBA) Network; the Ministerial Council of the Women of ALBA-TCP; the ALBA Remittances Initiative; and the Health Regulatory System (ALBAMED); among others.1
The structure of ALBA-TCP operates by way of a Political Council, a Social Council, an Economic Council, and a Social Movements Council, the latter of which is one of the most important and innovative aspects that operates at the same level as the Council of Ministers. This has produced progress by shifting away from a system of parallel social summits with little or no impact, and toward the full incorporation of organized social movements into the process of regional integration. In this way, alternative integration goes beyond being just an abstract and technical aspect of formal governance and instead creates direct participatory channels for popular organizations. The idea is to transcend the syndrome of social movements merely participating in electing a constituted power. Instead, social movements are given a more permanent and critical role, and simultaneously become a subject to which the integration process remains accountable.
ALBA was the first major push of a new generation of innovative Latin American proposals such as the Southern Fund (Fondo del Sur) that uses regional monetary reserves to provide temporary assistance free of IMF-style conditionality in cases such as contagious monetary crises. This constitutes a self-defense mechanism in the face of unpredictable attacks by speculative transnational capital. Countries like Venezuela and Argentina have put into practice a system of exchanging goods and services based on solidarity and complementarity between needs and availability. With the growing instability of the U.S. dollar and the euro, and the extended financial crisis of the United States and EU, Venezuela and other petroleum exporter countries have resorted to a wider variety of currencies to do business. It is out of this context that the ALBA proposal to create a Unified System of Regional Compensation (SUCRE) awoke broader interest in the region. The idea was to advance the process of monetary integration and the creation of a common currency with the ultimate end of substituting the dollar as the currency of regional commerce.
It should therefore be of little surprise that the ALBA countries helped to spearhead the formation of CELAC. Chávez’s skillful management of foreign policy in cementing his alliance with Argentina helped nudge UNASUR toward building the CELAC project just as his conciliatory overtures to neighboring Colombia achieved a hard reset to what had been confrontational, nearly to the point of a break in relations. In this sense, the declining health of the Venezuelan president poses additional challenges to the overall integration scenario.
Whether CELAC can be pulled into a decidedly progressive posture that can meet the demands of the region’s popular sectors largely still remains to be seen. The countries constituting the Pacific Alliance within CELAC (Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile, with Costa Rica and Panama as observers) may very well work in concert to impede progress, especially since proposals have to be agreed upon by consensus. What is clear is that Latin American and Caribbean countries cannot individually break away from long-standing relations of dependency in the financial, political, military, and even cultural realms. A “Latin American consensus” that can replace the discredited Washington Consensus is the ultimate prize that could ideally emerge. The final outcome will depend on the level of political mobilization that organized popular movements can mount throughout the region, in what amounts to an insurgent campaign for recovering economic and political sovereignty.
The struggle for “another possible integration” depends on the effective political mobilization of popular forces throughout the region and its capacity for harnessing the political opportunities that have arisen out of the neoliberal debacle. On the positive side, the CELAC agreement alludes to the “will to promote the active participation of civil society, especially that of social movements and organizations that constitute a fundamental part of social inclusion in regional integration.”2 There is ample evidence, however, that the various states party to the agreement have used brutal means to repress popular demands. Big questions therefore remain about how CELAC will play out amidst the divergent political orientations of member states and the currently existing schemes of regional integration. Will CELAC eventually prove to be a viable forum for expressing Latin American interests in the larger global order? Will the influence of the OAS wane in the context of a vibrant CELAC? Can CELAC help promote greater regional independence through closer relations with other global cooperation blocs such as the BRICS countries?
There is already sufficient experience to conclude that the struggle for alternative forms of integration in Latin America will offer important lessons for peoples of other continents in search of a more equitable, just, and democratic order. In a global neoliberal context in which integration has for too long placed the financial and ecological costs of capitalist expansion squarely on the backs of working people and those communities least situated to withstand the burden, the consolidation of alternative forms of regional integration like CELAC is a necessary step forward.
Ximena de la Barra is a writer and international consultant on development issues with emphasis on the critique of neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America. R.A. Dello Buono is Professor of Sociology at Manhattan College in New York City. De la Barra and Dello Buono are co-authors of Latin America After the Neoliberal Debacle: Another Region Is Possible (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).
1. Executive Council of ALBA-TCP, ALBA-TCP: Building an Inter-Polar World, 2004–10 Summits, Caracas, available at alba-tcp.org.
2. Plan de Acción, Caracas, 2012, available at mmrree.gob.ec.
Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”