Latin America Unity Summit Gathers Leaders but Little Substance

| Dec. 5, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Minyanville

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez finally played host this weekend to one of the dreams of his Bolivarian revolution, a unification of Latin American states—without influence from Washington.  “A giant is born,” announced the president in his typically theatrical style. “Only unity will set us free.”

The first summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) began Friday in Caracas, with Chávez playing host to 33 representatives from the region, pointedly lacking any voices from the US or Canada.

The leaders crossed Latin America’s divide between the hard left—such as Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Chávez himself—and its more moderate, and even more right-leaning, leaders—such as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Chile’s Sebastian Piñera and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who has worked hard over the last year to warm relations between his country's neighbor Venezuela.

“United in our differences, we must demand respect,” Chávez told the gathered leaders. “No more interference. We've had enough.”

Speeches were made by the various leaders and representatives, with Chávez often interrupting with his own anecdotes and bringing his own inimitable style to the hosting of an international summit. The Venezuelan maverick discussed lunch options and joked with Uruguay’s President José Mujica when he put on an oversized Venezuelan military jacket to protect himself from the overzealous air conditioning.

The event gave the Venezuelan president a chance to show off his recovery from cancer, though his speeches were much weaker than he is capable of and he appeared especially fatigued on the second day.

The idea behind the grouping is to be an antidote to the Organization of American States (OAS), which many in the region claim is dominated by Washington. However, the more moderate Latin American states are wary of distancing themselves from what, ultimately, is the real alliance in the region, seconded by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), dominated by Brazil.

“[CELAC] lacks a secretariat, a building, a funding structure, or even rules on how to reach its anyway non-binding decisions,” writes John Paul Rathbone in the Financial Times. “Rather than tackling such meat and potato issues, which are presumably central to any functioning multilateral body, the meeting ended instead with a fiesta and a bland communiqué about the desire for more regional cooperation.”

The two-day spectacle did not descend into an anti-imperialist rant, though it came close, and supporters will be disappointed in the lack of attention it received from the world’s press and the lack of any strong and substantial declarations at its end.

This is in part down to the wide gulf in politics between neighboring nations in the region, though they share a common desire for at least some headway in Latin American unity. “Latin American integration is an elusive if not quixotic goal,” writes Tim Padgett for Time. “The region stretches farther than Africa, and its nations' interests are just as balkanized.”

Criticism at home was rife, with a few small protests in the streets of Caracas as well as words from opposition politicians, looking to raise their profiles as elections loom in October 2012. This wasn’t missed by Chávez himself, who showed off the big-name visiting leaders both at the site and at his Miraflores presidential palace in the days beforehand.

Washington did not offer any comment on the events, though will no doubt have kept a close eye on them. China’s President Hu Jintao congratulated Chávez on the formation of CELAC, which encompasses just under 600 million people and has a GDP of around $6 trillion.

Expropriation Payout

Venezuela’s anti-Western sentiments were also on show last week as authorities in the country finally agreed to pay Mexican cement manufacturer Cemex (CX) $600 million for a 2008 expropriation of the company’s local assets and the country’s cement industry.

Cemex said that it and the Venezuelans were happy with the resolution; however, the figure is less than half of the $1.3 billion that the company had initially sought.

More agreements are expected—or hoped for—between Venezuelan authorities and other companies that have experienced expropriation, including ExxonMobil (XOM) and ConocoPhillips (COP). More than 400 companies have had assets seized in Venezuela this year alone.