CELAC summit in Havana: The challenge of building our own agenda and common destiny

By Aram Aharonian, first published in Alainet (América Latina en Movimiento), Jan 26, 2014

The upcoming CELAC summit of Presidents (Havana, Jan. 28-29) poses the question as to whether the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) will be able to combine all the overlapping endeavours in the region, giving them a homogeneous direction, taking into account their similitude and differences, their changes and adaptations, in a scenario where initiatives with a life-span of half a century, such as the Andean Community (CAN), live alongside others such as CELAC itself, with scarcely two years of existence.

At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, Latin America and the Caribbean are facing the world with an intensity of inter-State relations superior to that reached in any moment of two hundred years of independence, yet the death of the Bolivarian leader Hugo Chávez (added to the previous disappearance of the Argentinian ex-President Nestor Kirchner), seems to have left the regional process of integration without its principal driving force.

Beyond (or staying short of) proclamations on the legacy of the Liberators, the regional system of integration is hardly enjoying its best moment, with the unraveling of CAN, the success of the Paraguayan right in frustrating hopes that the pro tempore presidency in the hands -- for the first time - of Venezuela could lead the way to a renovation of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the enormous difficulties of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in reaching an agreement on a new general secretary, and the conservative offensive with integration formats of dependence such as the Pacific Alliance, as examples.

It is certain nevertheless that the launching of CELAC attests to a profound change in the region, one that allows for a search for our own agenda and providing a direction for the future, without copying other models of integration. The economy of the 33 countries of CELAC constitutes the third largest and most powerful economy in the world, with 6,06 trillion US dollars, as their GDP grew by 3,1% in 2012.

In the last decade the region witnessed a widening of objectives, beyond the merely commercial to proposals involving culture, production, society and the environment.  Mercosur, ALADI, CAN, and SICA reveal this new reality, while UNASUR and CELAC involve a proposal on another level that includes those cited above. Only ALBA proposes a distinct commercial model, based on solidarity, reciprocity and transfer, but its outline was proposed with the idea of being combined with other processes of integration in the region.

Even though the regional processes of integration involve a strong and constant presence of the intergovernmental component, and of a decisive impact of presidential figures when the time comes to define policies, with the rule (not always effective) of consensus, weak institutional structures that appear to be affected, not so much by ideological differences, but rather by bureaucratic inertia, distanced from real needs, appear to be blocking the potential of these processes.

In order to realize these projects that transcend national and sub-regional possibilities, it is absolutely necessary to affirm the project of CELAC, looking for common ground, coordinating the efforts of different sub-regional bodies and renovating the somewhat erratic institutional architecture that has evolved in Latin America and the Caribbean over fifty years.

It is a question of established spaces, that compete in a permanent interplay of differentiation and complementation, but involve common work by all in the establishment of new relations and identities -- Andean, Central American, Caribbean, South American --, all superior to national identities and involved in the project of a united subcontinent, with democracy, peace and equality.

Latin America and the Caribbean, the third major producer of electric energy and the site of the greatest biological diversity of the planet, has almost half of the tropical forests of the world, 23% of the forested area, over 30% of all available fresh water, and 40% of renewable hydroelectric resources.

In the region, countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia have recuperated control of strategic sectors, and the income from these is dedicated to areas such as education, health and food supplies.

What is to happen in Havana

The central document to be signed at the summit to be celebrated in the Pabexpo Building, exhibition centre of the Palace of Conventions in Havana, on January 28 and 29th, will build on the previous agreement of 73 articles signed in Santiago de Chile in January of 2013, which established the course for the political, economic, social and cultural integration of the region, over a period of time.

Over the past year, under the Presidency of Cuba, a number of sector meetings at the ministerial level have taken place, with agendas centred on the priorities of the region, in addition to establishing closer relations with states and regional blocs in other continents, such as Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the Council of Cooperation of the Arab countries of the Gulf.

Among the important meetings of 2013 there was one with the Ministers of Culture, which took place in Paramaribo, Surinam, last March, and the first forum of Ministers of Education, in Havana in April.  The struggle against illiteracy, the training of teaching personnel, the quality of basic education, attention to pre-school children, indigenous and people of African descent occupied an important space in the debates.

The Ecuadorian capital, Quito, was the scene of an encounter on the environment and sustainable development, that same month, and recently was host to the Finance Ministers, who conciliated the proposals that will be presented by heads of state in Havana, with measures intended to foresee the impact of the international and financial crisis on the economies of the region, as well as ideas for a regional architecture in harmony with the particular needs of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Moreover, there were sector meetings on questions of the eradication of poverty, health, culture, reduction of illiteracy, nuclear disarmament, migration, cooperation, science and technology, risk management and response to natural disasters, energy, family agriculture, youth employment and tariff preferences.

Seeking common positions to promote social plans against hunger and poverty, with a focus on food sovereignty and integration with a social basis of justice, equality and equity, are among the most important themes of the Havana Summit.  Other themes are decolonization and the defence of the region, in addition to overcoming conflicts that subsist between several countries.

In addition, the States will present their action plans for alleviating and resolving the continent’s social debts.  A year ago in the Santiago de Chile Summit the heads of State engaged to promote food security and to support international initiatives such as the global Zero Hunger Challenge and Latin America and the Caribbean without Hunger 2025

The hard task of construction

To build CELAC as a community covering distinct sub-regions and countries -- Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America -- and, as a necessary actor in a world configured in blocs, seeking to harmonize the distinct projects and diverse approaches, both with respect to internal models of the nations involved as well as their degree and form of insertion in the international economy, is a historic task that will be plagued with hurdles, and where it will be necessary to appeal to strong doses of political will, as well as creativity, imagination and perseverance.

The decision to create a common Latin American-Caribbean space in order to launch a substantive increase in interchange and commerce among the countries involved, outline common policies that can result in better infrastructure, give incentive to productive policies -- technological and industrial -- to be both shared and complementary, as well as common educational, social, environmental and cultural plans, will involve a necessary demonstration to the effect that this is not a utopia, but a way that confirms that it will be possible to begin to develop public regional policies.

The landscape of this Latin American and Caribbean reinvention is marked by the decline of a Europe in a persistent state of crisis, the abrupt collapse of the credibility of the United States, the surprising Chinese political and economic changes and the survival of a world economic system that generates inequalities and inequities.

This reinvention implies obligatorily a new redefinition of its place in the world, in which the area will abandon its place as the "back yard" of the United States, to assume a new international role that has among its fundamental tools, the building of forums and regional entities without the presence of Washington -- Mercosur, Unasur, Alba and CELAC -- and the diversification of economic, commercial and technological relations with nations that, in other regions of the planet, provide geopolitical counterweight to Washington, such as China, Russia and Iran.

At the present time, the destiny of Latin America is in the balance between the decision of each government to sign Free Trade Agreements with the United States and Europe, or that of prioritizing the processes of regional integration.

Carlos Chacho Alvarez, general secretary of ALADI, warns that there are many strong interests that are betting on fragmentation, on the status quo, on propagandizing and fomenting projects that, rather than promoting union, tend towards division or confrontation, thus weakening the possibility of greater convergence and integration, in clear reference to the remake of the failed FTAA: the Pacific Alliance.

China, for example, has become the greatest exporting power in the world, with great competitiveness, and the second greatest importing power on the planet, with an extraordinary demand for primary agricultural and mineral products.

European, Chinese and United States' policies exert pressure for the deindustrialization of Latin American and Caribbean economies, due to the low prices of merchandise with value added, as the pressure for primary resources has de-emphasized light industrial investment and stimulated mining investments in all the countries in the region.

Rethinking (the organisms of) integration

The reality of this second decade of the XXI century is very different from the epoch of the foundation of the Andean Community of Nations or of Mercosur.  The kind of government in power in many countries of the region is the opposite of those that were in power when these bodies were established, which opens new possibilities for an integration project that would not be dominated by the Market-God or by the mega-conglomerate transnational corporations.

The sinking of ALCA [FTAA] in 2005 confirms this change of integration projects for the region, but at the same time indicates that the route towards an ample, inclusive and profound union is long and leaves much work to achieve.

Today, within the different spaces of integration there exists consensus concerning the necessity of reinstitutionalizing them, in accord with the needs of the groups and of the region towards a productive integration, but also towards a political integration. A survey document undertaken by a group that is involved in the debate on strategic thinking and which has circulated among the foreign ministries, points out:

-- It is necessary to strengthen coordination at the Presidential level with respect to the definition of parameters, goals, objectives, plans, policies and general programmes for integration. In many areas of integration the decisions are in the hands of bureaucrats and diplomats who are often divorced from the political thinking of their presidents.

-- The present institutional frameworks of the different bodies, that impede an ample participation of different actors who should be involved in the process, present an obstacle to any progress in the way to a profound, ample and multidimensional integration.

To date the free movement of merchandise has been guaranteed.  What is needed, and how long will it take, for social, labour and civil rights to be universalized, and for each Latin American citizen to be able to live, move, study, work and live in any country of the common territory?

-- There must be a guarantee for new kinds of democracy, such as those that are being built and reinvented in our region, in order to guarantee democratic participation within integration. What can be the role of a communitarian parliament in the process of public deliberation and how can representative democracy co-exist with direct democracy?

-- If there are no strategies of community development that combine economic complementarity, local systems of production, productive chains that integrate the solidarity economy, knowledge, and scientific and technological innovation, then we will be condemned to be territories of commercial transactions of transnational enterprises with few economic sectors.

For example, Mercosur has a flow of commerce that it basically transnational.  In fact 67% of the trade of Mercosur is in the automotive sector, being a sector where there is an intensive transfer of capital to the mother companies (in 2011 6,8 millions of dollars were transferred to Europe and the U.S.)

 -- The protection of national economies and the coordination of regional policies in the face of the reality of the world economic crisis, are indispensible.  What are the obstacles for the establishment of viable economic and financial instruments for development (the so-called new financial architecture), such as the Banco del Sur, a development bank, a common reserve fund, or trade using local currencies?

-- What is required and what are the time limits to enable the region to establish a territory free of hunger, illiteracy, indigence and extreme poverty?

Hopefully the Havana Summit may provide some answers.

Aram Aharonian is a Uruguayan-Venezuelan journalist and professor, director of the Question magazine, founder of Telesur, director of the Observatorio Latinoamericano en Comunicación y Democracia (ULAC). Translated by Jordan Bishop.