The 2016 summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) began on January 26 with the meeting of foreign ministers and chancellors of the Latin American nations at the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Mitad del Mundo, Quito, Ecuador.
CELAC, a regional body involving all nations in the Americas except for the United States and Canada, was officially created in Caracas in 2011 under the leadership of then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
The group was designed as a direct counter to the US-dominated Organisation of American States (OAS). It aims to promote Latin American unity, eradicate structural poverty, resist the influence of neoliberal policies and end the interference of foreign imperial powers in the region's internal affairs.
Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino opened the summit with a statement on the goals of CELAC in eradicating poverty, fighting climate change, creating an alternative economic and financial model and ongoing integration of Latin American states.
A January 27 meeting featured representatives from all 33 CELAC member states.
'Liberating' Latin America
Left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales called on CELAC to continue its mission of “liberating” Latin America from imperialism, and foreign corporate and financial domination.
“When we reclaimed the government of Bolivia 10 years ago,” Morales said, referring to the election of the Movement Towards Socialism government in 2006 on the back of huge anti-neoliberal protests that overthrew two presidents, “Bolivia was one of the poorest nations in the region, divided by the interests of big oil and energy companies.”
“We went from a colonial state to a 'plurinational state' [based on recognising the nations of the indigenous majority], where the US Embassy and the IMF no longer ruled. We have introduced democracy with the help of the people.
“We have recovered our natural resources and reduced poverty from the 34% that neoliberalism left us with in 2006, to 17% today.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thanked CELAC for the part it has played in the country's ongoing peace process between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, aimed at ending decades of civil war.
While Morales called for opposition to neoliberalism, the conservative Santos instead proposed implementing what he called “intelligent austerity” or “austerity with a heart”. He said this would protect the services that benefitted the poorest while implementing neoliberal fiscal and monetary policies that target inflation.
Morales, however, said: “The heritage of Latin America is peace, but we cannot achieve peace without social justice. And that will only be possible through the expulsion of multinationals from the continent.”
He also emphasised the importance of the fight for gender equality and women's rights, citing the progress that has been made in Bolivia where women make up 50% both chambers of the national assembly.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called on CELAC to promote integration that promotes economic development. In her speech, she cited corporate tax reform and the introduction of free education as some of her government's achievements.
Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro opened his intervention by recalling: “200 years prior, Latin America had a unified army, a unified people and a unified goal of achieving liberation. The creation of CELAC has assisted in creating a community of equals between Latin America and the Caribbean, bringing together leaders and groups across the spectrum of ideologies.”
Maduro described the highly problematic economic and political situation in Venezuela. He cited a 70% cut in public revenues due to the collapse of oil prices, an inflation rate which now exceeds 100% and Venezuela's ongoing reliance on imports.
Despite this, the country has continued its fight against poverty, with structural poverty falling from more than 50% in 1998 — when Chavez was first elected on a pro-poor platform — to about 25% last year. At the same time, the level of extreme poverty has been cut to 4.7%.
At the same time, 62% of public revenue has been consistently allocated towards social spending — education, housing, healthcare, infrastructure and the social missions. Above all, the country has been able to democratise its distribution of natural wealth to the benefit of the majority.
Maduro proposed that CELAC create unified measures to combat the economic problems caused by the sharp drop in commodity prices.
He also expressed solidarity with the peace process in Colombia and Argentina's bid to reclaim sovereignty over the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) from Britain. He repeated the demand long made by Latin American nations for the US to end its criminal embargo against Cuba.
Maduro suggested CELAC could help fulfil its role of pushing greater integration by helping mediate and resolve the ongoing political crisis in Haiti.
Cuban Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel expressed his nation's deep appreciation for the support and solidarity it has received from Latin America in its struggle against US imperialism. In turn, he pledged Cuba's unconditional support to the sister republic of Venezuela, another victim of US psychological and economic warfare.
Evoking the spirit of the 163rd anniversary of the birth of Cuban national liberation hero Jose Marti, Diaz-Canel also expressed Cuba's support for Ecuador's fight against multinationals like Chevron, solidarity with the Brazilian government of Dilma Rouseff — who is facing a potential judicial coup d'etat — and for the independence and self-determination of the US colony of Puerto Rico.
Haiti's representative Rene Renauld called on CELAC to send a delegation to the country to resolve the ongoing political crisis. The crisis has been brought on by protests and accusations of large-scale fraud and corruption surrounding its presidential election, the first round of which was held in October. The second round of elections was suspended on January 26 amid mass protests.
Renauld said the Organisation of the American States (OAS) was sending its own representative.
Maduro and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa welcomed CELAC's involvement in resolving Haiti's conflict, but both voiced concerns regarding Haiti accepting an OAS delegation. Maduro insisted on sending a mission of two-to-three delegates of Latin American states.
Correa called the OAS an out-dated tool of domination of Latin American states by US imperialism — and called for its complete replacement with CELAC.
There were also significant interventions by leaders of small—island nations of the Caribbean. Prime Minister of St. Vincent's and Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves spoke of the importance of socialist ideas and pursuing sustainable development, specifically targeting climate change and its effect on small island nations.
Correa, as pro-tempore head of CELAC, closed the meeting of the heads of state by saying the group will continue its fight against foreign attacks on the continent, such as the continuous blockade of Cuba and ongoing interference in Venezuela.
Correa also said the continent needs to continue fighting for justice, freedom and sovereignty, especially in the face of new economic challenges such as the sharp drop in oil prices. He raised the example of Ecuador, which depends highly on revenues from oil and petroleum exports, lacks an effective monetary policy and is adversely affected by the appreciation of the US dollar, which is also the country's currency.
At the end of the summit, Correa passed the pro-tempore presidency to President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic, who will hold the position until the CELAC summit next year.
The most notable absence from the summit was that of Mauricio Macri, the recently elected right-wing president of Argentina, who cited “health reasons” for his absence. It remains to be seen whether his support for neoliberalism and hostility to pro-integration left-wing will result in a longer term hostility to CELAC.
'Forum of the people'
The “People's Forum for CELAC 2016”, organised by a network of Ecuadorian groups and political parties standing in solidarity with the socialist and progressive governments in the region, took place at the same time as the summit.
During the gathering at the Casa Cultural de Ecuador, representatives of 34 different groups debated the most important ways of responding to the resurgence of right-wing forces in countries such as Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela and others.
Paola Pabon, the Ecuadorian political secretary of the movement, told the forum: “Integration is what is drawing CELAC towards the dream of liberation and the creation of 'Patria Grande', that Simon Bolivar, Manuelita, Sandino, Hugo Chavez and our President Rafael Correa have strived to achieve."
In particular, the forum expressed its solidarity with the government and social movements of Venezuela, where US-backed counter-revolutionary forces won control of the country's National Assembly in December. The forum also condemned the neoliberal policies of Macri, and the repression and arrest of political activists by Argentine authorities.
Since its creation, CELAC has evolved around the topics and themes that seemed most important to Latin America. Being the only region-wide group that pushes integration against traditional US domination, and promotes building an alternative socio-economic model, it has become a crucial space for left-wing Latin American governments and social movements to debate the way forward.
Yet this year's summit also demonstrated many difficulties and challenges that could impede that process. The electoral victories by pro-US, right-wing forces in Venezuela and Argentina are likely to slow down the pace of change right across the region — and further embolden local oligarchies and corporate elites.
This was already evident during the summit itself, as representatives of right-wing governments in Colombia, Mexico and Argentina all expressed their desire to create a more favourable environment for business and private interests in the region. At the same time though, these heads of governments proclaim their support for integration and the project of a united Latin America. This could be seen as an attempt to divert the attention and the purpose of the institution towards the strengthening the domestic economic and financial elites in their respective countries.
It also seems apparent that the revolutionary and social movements, particularly in Argentina and Venezuela, should not seek simply to reverse the electoral losses the left has suffered in those countries. Indeed, we have seen the emergence of new movements and spaces for political action in both countries in the past two months.
In Venezuela, the national communal parliament has been set up as the way to organise the grassroots movements' resistance to austerity legislation likely to be passed by the National Assembly. There is also the start a grassroots fight back against attempts to privatise the “Gran Mission Vivienda”, which built 1 million housing units for the nation's poor.
In Argentina, unions, human rights groups and various social movements have begun to organise protests against the sackings of tens of thousands of public workers, the 300% rise in utility prices, censorship of public media and progressive journalists, and the jailing of Milagro Sala.
In the end, the fate of Latin America and the dream of a united "Patria Grande" will not be decided during yearly meetings of presidents in a secluded conference hall.
It will be decided by the masses in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, Plaza de Palacio Nacional in Mexico City and many other places that have become iconic for the gathering of people believing that a better world is possible.