Latin America took another historic step forward this week with the creation of a new regional organization of 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries. The United States and Canada were excluded.
The increasing independence of Latin America has been one of the most important geopolitical changes over the last decade, affecting not only the region but the rest of the world as well. For example, Brazil has publicly supported Iran's right to enrich uranium and opposed further sanctions against the country. Latin America, once under the control of the United States, is increasingly emerging as a power bloc with its own interests and agenda.
The Obama Administration's continuation of former President Bush's policies in the region undoubtedly helped spur the creation of this new organization, provisionally named the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Most importantly, the Obama team's ambivalence towards the military coup that overthrew the democratic government of President Mel Zelaya in Honduras last summer provoked deep resentment and distrust throughout the region.
Although the Obama Administration was officially against the coup, numerous actions from day one - including the first White House statement that failed to condemn the coup when it happened - made it clear in the diplomatic world that its real position was something different. The last straw came in November 2009 when the Obama Administration brokered a deal for the return of Zelaya and then joined the dictatorship in reneging on it. Washington then stood against the vast majority of the region in supporting the November elections for a new president under the dictatorship, which had systematically repressed the basic rights and civil liberties necessary to an electoral campaign.
Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. State Department's top official for Latin America, said that the new organization "should not be an effort that would replace the OAS [Organization of American States]."
The differences underlying the need for a new organization were clear in the statements and declarations that took place during the Unity Summit, held in Cancun February 22-23. The summit issued a strong statement backing Argentina in its dispute with the UK over the Malvinas (as they are called in Argentina) or Falkland Islands. The dispute, which dates back to the 19th century and led to a war in 1982, has become more prominent lately as the UK has unilaterally decided to explore for oil offshore the islands. President Lula da Silva of Brazil called for the United Nations to take a more active role in resolving the dispute. And the Summit condemned the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
These and other measures would be difficult or impossible to pass in the OAS. Furthermore, the OAS has long been manipulated by the United States, as from 2000-2004 when it was used to help build support for the coup that overthrew Haiti's elected president. And most recently, the U.S. and Canada blocked the OAS from taking stronger measures against the Honduran dictatorship last year.
Meanwhile, in Washington foreign policy circles, it is getting increasingly more difficult to maintain the worn-out fiction that the United States' differences with the region are a legacy of President Bush's "lack of involvement," or to blame a few leftist trouble-makers like Bolivia, Nicaragua, and of course the dreaded Venezuela. It seems to have gone unnoticed that Brazil has taken the same positions as Venezuela and Bolivia on Iran and other foreign policy issues, and has strongly supported Chávez. Perhaps the leadership of Mexico - a right-wing government that was one of the Bush Administration's few allies in the region - in establishing this new organization will stimulate some re-thinking.
There are structural reasons for this process of increasing independence to continue, even if - and this is not on the horizon - a new government in Washington were to someday move away from its Cold War redux approach to the region. The United States has become increasingly less important as a trading partner for the region, especially since the recent recession as our trade deficit has shrunk. The region also increasingly has other sources of investment capital. The collapse of the IMF's creditors' cartel in the region has also eliminated the most important avenue of Washington's influence.
The new organization is sorely needed. The Honduran coup was a threat to democracy in the entire region, as it encouraged other right-wing militaries and their allies to think that they might drag Latin America back to the days when the local elite, with Washington's help, could overturn the will of the electorate. An organization without the U.S. and Canada will be more capable of defending democracy, as well as economic and social progress in the region when it is under attack. It will also have a positive influence in helping to create a more multi-polar world internationally.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on January 25, 2010.