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The Future of Inter-American Relations, with Canada and the U.S. Barely Holding On

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“[It is] important to keep before ourselves and the Latin American peoples at all times the reality of the thesis that we are a great power; that we are by and large much less in need of them than they are in need of us; that we are entirely prepared to leave to themselves those who evince no particular desire for the forms of collaboration that we have to offer […]”

Latin America as Viewed from the U.S.

In 1950, the highly regarded U.S. diplomat at the time, George F. Kennan, spoke the words above referring to John Quincy Adams’ 1821 speech concerning U.S.-Latin American relations: “[Latin American governments] are not likely to promote the spirit of freedom or other by their example […] I had little expectation of any beneficial result to this country from any future connection with them, political or commercial”. While Adams’ dichotomy of Latin America was one strand of the United States’ perception of the region, it was far from the entire story. As Jorge I Dominguez pointed out in his 1999 study “The Future of Inter-American Relations,” there has been a clear evolution in Inter-American relations since then and that the dynamics have undoubtedly changed since the relationship has had time to mature. Each Latin American country has shifted positions according to its relative interests. While Adams and Kennan are to be found in the more realist standpoint in the political spectrum regarding inter-state integration, policy-making dynamics also have altered giving room for new political approaches. As U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton confirmed during her latest Latin American tour, the region has changed its disposition of carrying out international relations. Now, it cannot be said that realism has been replaced by liberalism, but rather that such interests have been overshadowed by the preeminence of ideology and politics that can be analyzed from a post-modern view. Thus it can be asserted that the latest manifestations of Latin American interests can be found in the creation of relatively new regimes and multilateral institutions, such as Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) and Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas (ALBA).

Latin America Takes a Deep Draught of Multilateralism

At the same time, the recent XXII Rio Group Summit in Cancún, Mexico discussed the possibility of creating a new organization without the cooperation of its northern and most highly developed members, the United States and Canada. In what could turn out to be a seminal act, the idea of the asymmetry in political and economic power between Latin American countries and the United States has been diminished by regimes that express a desire to end such a view and move forward. The underlying “asymmetry” idea behind the 1960’s ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) approach that conquered most Latin American thought is nowadays often irrelevant. This concept was initially conceived as being entirely trade-related; however, it since has been extrapolated to meet other instances besides economic ones: the political. Inter-American relations’ schema has changed in the sense that they no longer are seen as an obstacle that can equally relate to bigger countries in the hemisphere. Nevertheless, the aforementioned notion of equality does not lack the capacity to take the initiative. Specifically, bloc negotiations have helped mitigate the imbalance of power between the United States and the individual Latin-American countries. Furthermore, this has materialized in the form of regimes that put forth different strategies of integration. Besides this being an obvious Latin American reaction, there also are political and economic interests and colorations at stake here that are inspiring the creation of new organizations that by definition are excluding the United States and Canada by default, if not by intent. However, there are definitely challenges ahead for these latest initiatives that slice the definition ever closer to the bone.

Inter-Latin American Integration

Since the conclusion of the earliest independence movements in the Latin American region, efforts to achieve Latin American integration have been frequently attempted. Some of such endeavors were undertaken by Venezuelan “Libertador,” Simón Bolívar. During the beginning of the nineteen century, he sent special diplomatic missions to initiate confederation treaties among the recently declared independent Latin American countries. Mutual assistance pacts were linked and joint actions to reject any attempt by Spain, or any other country, to re-colonize them were the main proposals behind such agreements (Montaruli 197). At the time, Bolívar did not approve of an invitation to the United States to come to the region to participate in the meetings of Latin American leaders in order to discuss such issues. However, even though the Bolivarian project was unsuccessful as it was originally conceived, it rooted both the concept of Latin American unity and the possibility of consolidating a bloc of nations that could represent the region, especially in negotiating processes which eventually could embrace the United States. But, at the same time, there was a clear indication that the U.S. was never meant to be a part of these integration processes; rather, it was all along expected to be willing to accept the role of being a North American counterpart to its southern neighbors, not an integral factor in the new institutions being shaped by these gateways.

From the OAS to UNASUR and ALBA

There have been many Inter-American integration processes, yet it could be agreed that the most inclusive one to date is the Organization of American States (OAS), with the 35 members it portrays, as its charter affirms, the nature of the “historic mission of America.” However, other regimes recently have emerged that do not only specifically exclude the United States and Canada from their membership ranks but also try to counterbalance their decisions.

For example, UNASUR, as Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in a 2009 interview with Newsweek, rests on the fact that member countries “have immense resources, […] huge reserves of gas and oil” and thus are able to solve common problems. This alludes to the fact that the relation dynamics among the United States and Latin American countries are, in fact shifting. Ultimately, the state that provides the resources sets the agenda. Therefore, if UNASUR members have “immense resources,” it means that they should have the implicit power to decide upon decision-making processes—a big difference from just debating the topics set as part of fixed agendas. Furthermore, the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty affirms that its goal is to “achieve a multipolar, balanced and just world, in which the sovereign equality of States [prevails].”

Accordingly, it can be said that UNASUR was created during a specific juncture when South American governments felt sufficiently empowered to do so. Furthermore, the idea behind UNASUR is favoring economic and social developments but not necessarily in unison with the United States. As Canadian professor Paul Kellogg of the University of Athabasca states, looking from outside the traditional zone of U.S. hegemony, “If there is to be an alternative to U.S. hegemony in the region that can challenge capitalism as well as neo-liberalism, it will be in relation to the ALBA initiative, not that of the UNASUR” (189).

A Good Look at ALBA

The acronym ALBA stands for Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, but it also means “dawn” in Spanish. This 2004 agreement has been definitely (and accurately) linked to the left-wing governments in Latin America, especially Caracas’. It is also known as an agreement that places politics over economics and undoubtedly challenges the status quo of Inter-American relations. According to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, ALBA is an alternative regional organization that calls for real integration rather than the traditional disintegration that he claims has been the only predictable outcome from all the efforts to create political organizations or free trade agreements within the Americas thus far. Unlike the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA in Spanish) Chávez believes that ALBA represents the dawn of agreements that propose free trade as an end rather than as a means to achieve social betterment. He also believes that ALBA symbolizes a second round of independence for the people of the Americas, referring exclusively to Latin America and the Caribbean. One of ALBA’s main pillars is an ideological critique of neo-liberalism and the alleged U.S. imperialism behind it, as it embodies the Bolivarian belief of having a “Great Nation” that starts in Mexico and ends in Argentina without mentioning anything north of the Río Grande. Barring this, ALBA has greater ambitions such as a common currency (SUCRE), infrastructure development (particularly in the transport area), and, most importantly, a joint electric, natural gas and oil company, among others. This has as an outcome what many Latin American countries have long expected: better and fairer negotiation processes as a regional bloc with other commercial blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU). Furthermore, this new arrangement allows Latin American countries, which wish to do so, to express both their nonconformity towards past American integration regimes and their capability of forming a new, much more successful one.

The 2010 Rio Summit’s most important outcome: the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States

Most recently, the spotlight has been on the latest Rio Group Summit in Cancún. According to a Telesur report, 32 nations were present and unanimously accepted the creation of a new regional organization that aims to bring together all Latin American and Caribbean countries to constitute a unified voice in multilateral forums. The most important and revolutionary aspect of this organization will be, as it is evident, the hugely important absence of both the United States and Canada, which could be construed as a means to weaken the traditionally dominant regional role of the U.S. The effort to enhance south-south cooperation will officially begin in 2011 at the next Rio Group Summit in Caracas. In the meantime, while the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLAC) is still in process of consolidating, the Rio Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Summit are both scheduled to continue to operate. Also, it was decided that the surviving organization would include both the Rio Group and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Mexican President Felipe Calderón affirmed that the decision to constitute the Community of CLAC directly responds to the necessity of having a regional space that can bring all states together. Similarly, Chávez asserted in the Summit that “the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are trying to retake the path of our own republics and we are taking the path taken by Simon Bolivar.” This is reminiscent of the first steps taken to achieve an integrative process in Latin America excluding the U.S. and Canada. However, even though there have been continuous efforts to achieve an inclusive Latin American organization, as mentioned before, there are still many challenges ahead.

Inter-American or Inter-Latin American

The question that inevitably emerges is the fate of the OAS. The truth is, it probably will not be threatened in its existing form, as CLAC is intended to work parallel to the OAS rather than in opposition. However, there are many factors to take into account regarding this issue, the first one being that the specific purposes, principles and prospects of the CLAC are still not very clear. Accordingly, another question that comes to mind is whether removing the presence of the U.S and Canada, when it comes to an American integration, is a determining factor to achieving more freedom, allowing for a second independence as Chávez has called for, or setting the groundwork for a more legitimate foci of power. Yet, what is clear is that rejecting the presence of the United States and the OAS as legitimate powers cannot be explained without including ideology factors. Therefore, perhaps the viability of CLAC should not be in question, but what should be is if it is a mere political organization, and thus is destined to stagnation, or if it is bound to have a broader perspective.

In a COHA interview with Eduardo Vergara, the co-director of Asuntos del Sur, he suggested that the nature of CLAC has yet to be analyzed and entirely understood due to the limited information available regarding this new mechanism. However, Vergara affirms that multilateral regimes, specifically in Latin America, have difficulty functioning if countries continue to act as “islands” in a sea of bureaucratic entities. He goes on to explain that the communication is very poor among these countries and, thus, the creation of another multilateral organization will be futile if this situation is allowed to persist. Furthermore, he asserts that if the OAS is challenged directly there will no longer be a space or a forum where all American states have the same vote. Still, Vergara is skeptical about the objective that is being pursued beyond the notion of excluding the United States and Canada. The conclusion is that it still may be too soon to know the CLAC’s raison d’être.

Future Challenges in the Region’s Integration Processes

While it is difficult to predict the future form and substance of the inter-American movement in the near future, some challenges within the process already are ascertainable. First of all, it is necessary to emphasize that, as the German political theorist Carl Schmitt asserted, the more polarizing a topic is, the more political it becomes. So, due to the polarizing nature of this topic, it can be concluded that it is extremely political in its content. From this perspective, it can be stated with some conviction that the inter-American integration process as a political issue is, by nature, largely unpredictable. It remains to be seen if the current regional integration processes will be able to succeed without the support of bigger economies such as the U.S. and Canada, and if there are reasons for its existence besides ideological and political motives. What can also be questioned is whether these processes have a future that can be assured regardless of the future of each political juncture to be found in each Latin American country. For instance, will Venezuela withdraw from ALBA without Chávez? Or will Chile withdraw from UNASUR without Bachelet? These are questions that denote the volatility of these regional entities and bring about concerns of whether these organizations have an actual reason to exist on their own or whether they are only decorative figures trying to defy an “imperialistic” status quo. Consequently, what ultimately might be said is that these regimes can only be regarded as political precedents whose future begins and ends there. However, they also represent a call for change that cannot be easily disregarded. Moreover, what is definitely true is that Latin America, contrary to what U.S. diplomat Kennan declared, has stopped seeing the United States as an unbeatable “great power” and has started to believe that if a Latin American bloc solidifies, it can come to outweigh it. Although this is still unresolved, it can be concluded that CLAC has the potential to become one of the several Latin American organizations that member countries prefer to keep rather than shed because it is politically and economically less costly.

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