Barely a few weeks ago heads of state of all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries converged in the city of Caracas to launch a new initiative for regional integration, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, better known by its Spanish acronym CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños).
The CELAC is by no means a new type of experiment. Initiatives such as the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Rio Group, and more recently the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) have previously attempted to create a block of regional states with the capacity to solve the Continent's problems.
This time, however, the stakes have been raised. Both the US and Canada have been purposely left out of the new organisation; a move that many of these countries would have steered clear of a few years ago. More problematic for the US, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa expressed the wish, probably shared by others, that the CELAC may eventually replace the OAS. Additionally, while the US and Canada find themselves marooned, a former pariah, Cuba, has been welcomed with open arms. This is the first time Cuba has participated in a Continent-wide forum since 1962, when it was expelled from the OAS in the Eighth Meeting of Consultation in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
By acting independently of the US, the CELAC was destined for a mixed reception. It has been straightforwardly dismissed as another vain and quixotic attempt to achieve integration among countries that are, the story goes, incapable of working together. John Paul Rathbone from the Financial Times rushed to dismiss it in predictable fashion as "a blind and one-legged colossus, with one arm tied behind its back" (5/12/11), while Tim Padgett from Time Magazine was quick to underestimate the capacity for integration among Latin American countries by ironically suggesting that the biggest challenge facing the new body would probably be surviving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is suffering from cancer (2/12/11).
Both opinions, typical of those circulating in cyber space, represent the familiar pattern of downplaying any sort of regional cooperation, pointing the finger at countries of the region for their violent and unruly societies and lack of respect for human rights, as if these problems were endemic to the region. The truth, however, is quite different. While the US and Europe find themselves bailing out their banks and economies, and enforcing pointless austerity measures in the hope that the markets will correct themselves following the Milton Friedman paradigm, the CELAC countries constitute a formidable block with a population of 550 million and emerging economies growing at approximately 6% in 2010 (UNCTAD). Journalists and politicians may believe that the CELAC is destined to fail, but their opinions represent nothing but a cacophony of neo-colonial fallacies disguising a real fear that for once Latin American and Caribbean countries may begin to make decisions unanimously and independently of the "friendly advice" of foreign powers.
These pundits of course blatantly disregard the extent to which Latin American and Caribbean countries have been able to work together in a sustained manner in the past. Even though it is true that from the Congress of Panama in 1826 divisions between some of these countries seemed insurmountable, the reality is that the US was the main reason why integration never materialised. Not only did they deprive Mexico of half of its territory in the 1830s and 1840s with their first imperialist wars, but they also intervened in the Cuban war of independence in 1898, and subsequently made of Puerto Rico a de-facto US colony.
Soon afterwards the US attempted to cut a deal with Colombia so that they could build a transoceanic canal in the Isthmus of Panama and when the Colombian Government refused to kneel, they resorted to their shiny new gunships and created a new nation, Panama, in 1903. They then forced upon the Panamanians the Hay-Buneau-Varilla Treaty (also known as the Treaty that no Panamanian signed) by which they granted themselves the right to build the canal and to exploit it for decades to come. Not satisfied with this, the US then occupied Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua during the Big Stick years and, when military intervention and occupation started to seem problematic, they proceeded to bring down the democratic governments of the region with CIA-backed coups (Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Salvador Allende in Chile, etc.) and by establishing puppet dictators, who would commit some of the most horrendous violations of human rights in the Continent's history.
Probably the powers that be, and that includes well-established newspapers and news channels, cannot bear the fact that, as Chavez argued, there is an opportunity for Latin American and Caribbean countries to be united in their differences and to demand respect. More to the point, Latin American and Caribbean people have perhaps reached the point at which integration is finally a real possibility. It is a chance for these 33 countries to make a stand together and to demand political and economic independence.