CELACOn January 28thand 29th, the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in Spanish), took place in Havana, Cuba. It focused on the work carried throughout 2013 on the struggle against poverty, hunger, and inequality. Most presidents and heads of government attended the summit, as well as their Foreign Affairs ministers and diplomatic delegations.

CELAC started as a joint effort of 33 Latin American nations to strengthen integration in the social, economical, cultural, and political spheres, when in 2011 – during the Caracas Summit– two different organizations merged: the Latin American and the Caribbean Summit on Development and Integration, and the 22nd Summit of the Permanent Mechanism for Consultation and Political Coordination of the Rio Group.

But CELAC is just the last link in a large chain of efforts to attempt Latin American integration. In this article I will try to take a look back at previous experiences in the region, in order to critically assess the possibilities and limits of such an organization to succeed in its objectives to bring closer the Latin American countries and their citizens.

These types of mechanisms for cooperation and integration have been a permanent feature in Latin America, ever since the Spanish monarchy ceased to rule over the continent, in the 1800s. Options ranged from Simón Bolívar or José Artigas’s dreams of an American union of states to the Pan-American conferences in the early 20thcentury.

More recently there have been specific efforts coming from within Latin America itself to jump to the “integration bloc” trend. The Organization of Central American States (ODECA), the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC), which later became the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) – inspired by the European integration, the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), or the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), are just some examples on the complexity of alliances in Latin America.

For the last decade, a political realignment has shifted some countries’ priorities towards integration, with mixed results. Mercosur, for example, witnessed important expansions in its duties – such as the creation of a regional parliament – but also sparked controversy after Paraguay’s temporary suspension from the bloc, and a subsequent two-year institutional paralysis. Even the previous commercial agreements have been questioned recently with Argentina violating the terms of tariff reductions for Uruguay and Brazil, fellow Mercosur members. Also, Venezuela entered Mercosur, resolving to leave the CAN due to a conflict of interests.

The political divide in the region has been particularly visible in the rise of two new organizations with different objectives but conveying one uniquely strong message: energy will be put into joint efforts with those with shared ideals.

The first resounding move was the creation of the Union of South American Nations (USAN) in 2008, a hybrid child of two economic blocs – CAN and Mercosur – but with stronger political objectives. This would not have been possible without a regional – some would say progressive consensus, particularly between CAN members Venezuela (at the time), Bolivia and Ecuador, and Brazil and Argentina from Mercosur.

On the other part, Latin America has been shaken by the creation of a very aggressive commercial bloc: the Pacific Alliance. This regional initiative is focusing its attention on trade and investments agreements with the Asian region, and its four member countries – Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico – have governments tending to a centre-right political approach.

With these recent developments in mind, the creation of CELAC can be seen in a different light. More specifically, one can wonder about the chances of success in a forum where such diverse political approaches have to coexist and make joint decisions.

What Can We Realistically Expect From CELAC

At CELAC’s core, one can find many similarities with the European Council. It has an executive organization and an intergovernmental approach to problem solving. It also vaguely takes on the European Commission ’s spirit, particularly with the different working groups and ministerial meetings covering a wide range of areas: education, culture, environment, fight against corruption, education, transport, etc.

But that is where coincidences end. Unlike the Council, CELAC cannot rely on a complementary legislative body to be able to make decisions at the regional level. The decision mechanism is limited to “declarations, decisions, special and joint statements, resolutions, and any other decision instrument previously agreed upon,” by consensus – of course.

The idea of CELAC being able to represent the region’s interests in other international forums is ambitious but problematic. So far it has been explicitly limited to the Rio Group’s previous attributions (mainly with the European Union and the United Nations). But if CELAC wants to go further, what other type of common positions can it actually set when there is such a clear political fracture? And these differences are not only political: they influence the myriad of sub-regional trade and commercial agreements that, Pacific Alliance aside, seem to be making less progress than expected.

It certainly makes quite a statement to create an organization comprising practically all Latin America and the Caribbean, and letting Cuba – traditionally excluded from Inter-American forums – host the summit. But institutional paralysis is right around the corner as there are not stronger incentives to increase the organism’s attributions. Then again, that is not exclusive of the Latin American region.

The prospects for CELAC will have to be properly evaluated after the initial period of its existence, which I consider it is still on going. So far, no major political crisis has tested the organization, as it happened with UNASUR in 2008. And the proclamation of Latin America as a peace zone has yet to be confronted with real events.

What we can sincerely expect from such an organization is a real mechanism tending to standardizing policies and – perhaps over the course of the next few years – a regional consensus that can seriously approach the subject of “community” in more practical terms, and not just in theory.

Original picture from CELAC’s Summit. Source: Official Channel of the Republic of Cuba at CELAC.