The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was established to give a unitary voice to the continent but has instead become a mirror of its divisions. Once largely shared values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and rejection of war are now often ignored or become divisive issues. CELAC can find a new elan only if there is consensus on both common values and interests, including preferred international partners, and the political will to stand up for them.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in its Spanish acronym) was created in 2011 to give a unitary voice to the region in its relations with key global partners. The organization was also meant to increase Latin America and the Caribbean’s international weight and autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and the US-led Organization of the American States (OAS). CELAC was partly, but not exclusively, the result of the political convergence among the left-leaning administrations of the time. Born as a tool for unity, CELAC soon became a mirror of Latin American diversity and fragmentation. In this respect, CELAC has followed an established pattern of division and limited effectiveness common to a majority of Latin American regional organizations.
CELAC’s own design has a number of limitations which hamper the achievement of its goals. It has a scant institutional structure, largely relying on a rotating presidency whose political weight and agenda heavily influence the organization. As a political forum, it has no economic dimension. Its members are divided on many key issues, including the development model, relations with the United States, foreign policy objectives, human rights, the understanding of democracy, and the rule of law. CELAC lacks all the essential conditions for regional political convergence, such as common positions vis-à-vis key global powers, regional leadership, an economic and development model, and shared values. Furthermore, CELAC cannot make commitments on behalf of its members. Hence, its attractiveness for other international organizations or foreign governments remains limited. In essence, CELAC is a forum for discussion with no clear coordination or decision-making mechanism.
CELAC, like the continent that it represents, faces a significant crisis of values and the will to stand up for them. Democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the rejection of war used to be shared principles across Latin America and were enshrined in the constitutive act of CELAC. Today, they often remain overlooked or even divide the continent.
A Four-Fold Crisis: Democracy, Human Rights, Rule of Law, and Anti-Aggression
Democracy is strained in several parts of the continent. Venezuela is the most obvious case, but Nicaragua follows suit. Cuba is still a dictatorship. The quality of democracy remains low in several parts of the continent. So does the credibility and legitimacy of the political class. It is not surprising that support for democracy fell steadily between 2010 (63 percent) and 2018 (48 percent) and remained stable during and after the pandemic, according to Latinobarometer. In 2020, 27 percent of interviewees were indifferent to the form of government they lived under—democratic or authoritarian. Frustration with inequality, discrimination, and poverty may explain this popular disappointment. Less condonable is the ruling class’s casual attitude towards the protection of democracy.
In 2001, the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City adopted a strong commitment to democracy, which eventually led to the signing of the inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 1 of the charter establishes that “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” Article 3 clarifies that “essential elements” of representative democracy include respect for human rights, the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government. Several Latin American countries have forgotten these commitments; others remain unwilling to take real action to protect the principles.
Before the last Summit of the Americas in July 2022, serious diplomatic skirmishes arose from the United States’ stand on democracy. Responding to the US intention not to invite the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, several Latin American governments threatened not to attend the summit. Sacrificing a cornerstone of continental principles for partisan camaraderie or ill-understood continental solidarity does not facilitate regional governance. Even less so if this behavior goes against regional commitments such as the inter-American Democratic Charter, which states in Article 19 that unconstitutional disruptions to the democratic order are an “insurmountable obstacle” to participation in the workings of the OAS. This is also explicitly stated in the Quebec declaration with specific reference to the Summit of the Americas mechanism. The US position against the participation of undemocratic countries was juridically justified (if perhaps politically unwise). Latin American states that threatened to boycott the summit were indefensible, as they clearly went against the commitments that they had made to democracy in the Americas.
The protection of human rights, a value highly cherished in the Latin American official discourse, is also under strain. Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, loudly denounced the rising number of threats and attempts to undermine human rights institutions across Latin America and the Caribbean. More worrisome, these attacks against human rights come mostly from governments and others in positions of power. Bachelet urged measures to halt and remedy “grave” human rights violations in Venezuela. UN experts criticized the arbitrary imprisonment of people in Nicaragua and Cuba who exercise their political rights. Yet fellow Latin American countries do not seem interested in activating any mechanism to sanction even the most blatant culprits.
Some Latin American countries fail to condemn international human rights violations and have even intensified their relations with acknowledged perpetrators such as China, Russia, and Iran. While investments and trade links with China benefit Latin America (at least in the short-term), the perils of support, neutrality, and acquiescence to Beijing’s values and political posture should not be underestimated. It is not enough to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine but do nothing in practice—or worse, to suggest that Ukraine is co-responsible for the war as President Lula of Brazil did. Similarly, it is not enough for Brazil to express solidarity with Iranian women and then allow Iran’s battleships to moor in one’s own ports.
The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are also under question in Latin America, often due to partisan political disputes. In Mexico, President Lopez Obrador’s proposal to change electoral rules and institutions has prompted such a clash between the executive and the judiciary that the Spanish daily El País has defined Mexico “a democracy in danger.” The clashes between former President Bolsonaro and the supreme electoral court as well as Justice Alexandre de Moraes’ interventionist role in political questions in Brazil contribute to institutional uncertainty in the region’s largest democracy. Left-leaning presidents Arce of Bolivia, Fernández of Argentina, López Obrador of Mexico, and Petro of Colombia signed a letter of support to former president of Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was sentenced by Argentine courts for corruption. This initiative not only questions the independence and legitimacy of the judiciary but violates the principle of non-intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.
Finally, the anti-war and non-aggression principle divides Latin America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was almost unanimously condemned by the United Nations General Assembly. Yet Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and El Salvador abstained, and Venezuela criticized the resolution (Venezuela could not vote because it had not paid its UN contributions). The OAS approved a similar resolution with a large majority. Yet Brazil, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines abstained. In the wake of Russia’s gross human rights violations during its invasion of Ukraine, the UN adopted a further resolution to suspend (not to expel) Russia from the Human Rights Council. Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua voted against it. Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico abstained. Not to mention President Lula’s unfortunate words about the situation in Ukraine: “If one doesn’t want to, two can’t fight.” He later offered himself as a broker for peace. Two questions remain: Does a community of values exist today in Latin America and the Caribbean? And is there a community willing to stand up for those values?
A Possible Way Forward for CELAC
CELAC is faced with the hard task of reconciling these differences and giving one voice to the region. What is the way ahead? One possibility is to decouple the political and the technical agenda, focusing on shared interests rather than values. Possible issues on a functional agenda may include climate change and the protection of the environment, digitalization, support for entrepreneurship and small and medium size enterprises, education and vocational training, and infrastructure. These topics are relatively uncontroversial. However, two caveats exist: finance and prioritization. First, CELAC does not have an economic dimension to raise the resources necessary to implement effective measures in these areas. Raising them through coordinated national strategies would be a sensitive political issue, as would choosing which international partners to cooperate with. Second, choosing priorities for technical cooperation is in itself a political act. It is unclear whether there is enough consensus for it.
Perhaps a more effective but also more demanding path to relaunch CELAC should focus on what shared values and shared interests exist today in Latin America. This should be the first task of the organization as a regional political forum. A continent in steady decline can only find new elan from a shared vision on key political positioning. And world views largely depend on values, which act as a filter to select interests and priorities. The currently fashionable active non-alignment policy might be an option in the short run. It proposes sheer opportunism for Latin American countries in global affairs based on the belief that today alliances are flexible and political and economic loyalties are driven more by pragmatism than values. But even non-alignment cannot be universal—it must be selective. At some point, Latin America and the Caribbean and CELAC have to decide which values they defend, how these inform their long-term interests, and what the region is willing to do to stand up for them.
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Gian Luca Gardini is Chair of History of International Relations at the University of Udine, Italy, and Carlos Saavedra Lamas visiting professor in International Relations at Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons | Casa de Gobierno en Argentina