Brazil deepens push vs. regional organisms with CELAC exit

20th February 2020

By Catalina Bello

Brazil deepens push vs. regional organisms with CELAC exit

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is showing renewed determination to shake up the continent’s political landscape. After a decade in which the Latin American giant was in tune with a regional agenda of creating multilateral coalitions that sidestepped the United States and shared some common progressive themes, Brazil is now the leader of a push in the opposite direction.

</p> <p>The latest move was the decision to suspend Brazil’s participation in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) regional block, days after its latest summit hosted by Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The announcement came as Argentina’s newly-elected center-left coalition was reportedly <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/fernandez-busca-potenciar-la-celac-para-revitalizar-la-unidad-en-la-region-nid2320259">looking to reignite the forum</a> as a friendlier regional hub for those sharing its politics.</p> <p>“CELAC was showing no results in any area, and was offering a stage to non-democratic regimes such as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo said.</p> <p>The move is not the first of its kind by Bolsonaro. Last year, Brazil also left USAN (known as UNASUR in Spanish) using similar arguments, citing the organization’s inaction and <a href="http://www.ansalatina.com/americalatina/noticia/brasil/2019/04/16/gobierno-formaliza-salida-de-unasur_cf73b143-8a71-4f56-9bbc-c524bf852cd1.html">saying</a> it was a forum designed by late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.</p> <h2><strong>The nature of CELAC</strong></h2> <p>A quick look at CELAC’s website might suggest that there is something to those inaction accusations. The forum is described on the site as an “intergovernmental mechanism for dialogue and political agreement, which includes thirty-three permanent members in Latin America and the Caribbean”, with no mention of Brazil’s decision to step down, which would take that figure down to thirty-two.</p> <p>“It was created to coordinate regional politics without the United States’ intervention, but it also had the unspoken goal to collaborate between Brazil and Mexico to support Venezuela”, said Andrés Malamud, political scientist and researcher at the University of Lisbon.</p> <p>CELAC is the successor of the Rio Group and the Summit of Latin America and the Caribbean on Integration and Development (CALC). In July 2010, when left leaning governments where a majority in the region, the CELAC selected as co-chairs of the forum former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, one in each side of the ideological spectrum. After that, the summit was held in Cuba in 2014.</p> <p>The lack of North American presence in the forum meant it had also worked as an opportunity for China to deepen its ties with the region, with the Asian giant using it as a platform to close in on <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chile-china/china-invites-latin-america-to-take-part-in-one-belt-one-road-idUSKBN1FB2CN">new treaties</a> with Latin America.</p> <p>“Its most relevant action is to gather once a year regional chiefs of state so it makes it easier for other countries to develop their foreign affairs by attending the summit. It is considered by the European Union (EU) as its transatlantic counterpart in Latin America, and China mentions it in its strategic documents”, pointed Malamud.</p> <h2><strong>The left losing ground</strong></h2> <p>Nevertheless, despite the fact that the first summits were quite successful, the last ones had chancellors or vice-chancellors assisting instead of presidents, a sign of the waning importance assigned to those meetings. The turning point was the loss of power for those to the left of the political spectrum in the continent, as the right took over in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay (even if the situation in Argentina was reversed with Mauricio Macri’s failed re-election attempt last year).</p> <p>Despite those steps backwards, the progressive camp was hoping for a recovery in recent months. After his 2018 electoral victory in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a center-left figure, took CELAC’s pro-tempore presidency. And following his victory in Argentina, Alberto Fernández showed strong support for López Obrador as the new president of the forum.</p> <p>“The CELAC is the only Latin American organism that has Argentina and Mexico as members. And as they are the only (democratic) countries in the region with left governments, their intention to strengthen the organization is to be expected,” Jorge Garzón, international relations specialist and professor at the Torcuato Di Tella University, said.</p> <p>But López Obrador has been a pragmatic figure since taking office. A good example of this are his negotiations with Donald Trump, to whom he promised to enforce border security more strongly in order to avoid higher tariffs from imposed from Mexico’s largest commercial partner.</p> <h2><strong>A mistrust of multilateralism</strong></h2> <p>Bolsonaro’s exit from the CELAC has not been the first time he has shown skepticism regarding multilateral organizations.</p> <p>The size of Brazil’s economy gives it room for independence on decision-making, in a region that has already shown a lot of historical resistance to international integration.</p> <p>A historical factor in this has been the lack of complementarity among Latin American economies. In the EU, for example, the main trade partners are countries inside the economic block; in Latin America, meanwhile, the most important partners are generally the United States and China. Countries export similar raw materials and do not trade as much between them.</p> <p>Attempts to integrate the region have often fallen short, often ending with the dismantling of projects. USAN (UNASUR), Prosur, ALADI, SELA, ALBA, SICA are all acronyms for regional organizations that had their 15 minutes of fame over the last years. In many of these cases, the loss of influence was due to the clash of ideologies between those who created the organism and other members of it.</p> <p>In the case of USAN, a left-leaning organization that became especially active when governments of the region felt the stability of their democracies was under threat (and which many credited with solving crises in Ecuador, Bolivia, and a Colombia-Venezuela border conflict), the loss of power was much more pronounced than CELAC’s. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru <a href="https://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2018/04/21/el-principio-del-fin-de-unasur-6-paises-suspenden-su-participacion/">left</a> USAN with Brazil, while Brazil has so far been the only one abandoning CELAC for the moment.</p> <h2><strong>Which groups matter most?</strong></h2> <p>The dispute comes amid a broader re-grouping of forces in the region, with center-right forces backing the <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/11/14/alberto-fernandez-diplomacy-isolated-south-america-lima-puebla-group-uruguay-elections">Lima Group</a> and center-left parties joining the <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/11/07/puebla-group-lima-group-latin-america-diplomacy-mexico-brazil-argentina-venezuela-bolivia">Puebla Group</a>. But those groups are not institutionalized, as CELAC is. Instead, they often include former officials or opposition figures, and are not necessarily integrated by official government delegations.</p> <p>Still, according to Garzón, CELAC remains below other multilateral groups in the region in terms of its influence. “CELAC remains the least recognized Latin American regional organism, behind the Organization of American States (OAS), which includes the United States, the Mercosur, and the Andean Community.”</p> <p>“It is a forum (a means through to discuss matters of public interest) and not an International Organization as it is not based on treaty but on presidential statements. It has no legal registration, headquarters, staff or budget”, pointed Malamud. And he added: “The CELAC definitions are not binding. The costs for participating are insignificant and the ones for exclusion are slightly higher”.</p> <p>According to Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, the country will “continue working with all the democracies of the region (bilaterally of in the OAS, Prosur or Mercosur) for an agenda based in freedom, prosperity, security and open integration”.</p> <p>The left push to empower alternative multilateral institutions seems to be going increasingly against the odds.</p> <p>

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Catalina Bello

Catalina Bello is a political scientist from the Torcuato Di Tella University and has a Master in Journalism from the same school. She publishes in Argentina's La Nación daily and worked in the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.