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Ray Walser: New Latin organization equates communists with democrats and muddles issues

Published: Sunday, Dec. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center with hands folded, listens at a meeting by Latin American and Caribbean foreign ministers, prior to forming a new regional bloc.   (Associated Press) Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center with hands folded, listens at a meeting by Latin American and Caribbean foreign ministers, prior to forming a new regional bloc. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Have the U.S. and Canada been deliberately snubbed by their neighbors to the south? That's how the international media characterized the exclusion of both nations from the launch of a new regional organization or bloc — the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Latin American leaders gathered in Caracas, Venezuela, with host president Hugo Chavez earlier this month to christen CELAC and trumpet the importance of this all Latin American-Caribbean gathering. Reading some accounts, one got the impression that a new, unified colossus had arisen in what was once confidently labeled "our backyard."

Yet few commentators have bothered to examine the striking disparity among CELAC's constituent parts — ranging from a confident, rising, global power in Brazil to a perennial failed state and ward of the international community in Haiti.

What does democratic, liberty-loving Chile and repressed, communist Cuba have in common other than speaking Spanish?

For that matter, what can the Westminster democracies of the Caribbean really learn from the increasing authoritarianism of strong-man leaders such as Hugo Chavez or Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega?

So what will be the lasting impact of the new bloc? CELAC adds a new but not necessarily effective layer of organization in the Western Hemisphere. Without a serious follow-up with resources and organization, CELAC will likely remain another acronym in search of raison d'etre.

At least three negatives arise from CELAC's formation.

First is the moral equivalence that allows Cuba's aging dictator, Gen. Raul Castro, to negotiate with genuine Latin American democrats. CELAC helps legitimate the communist regime as it stumbles toward a post-Castro transition. Without steady pressure from the region's democracies or oxygen for Cuba's internal democratic opposition, that transition will leave Cuba in the hands of the asphyxiating apparatiks of the Cuban Communist Party.

Second, CELAC promotes the false assumption that the region will be better off with a regional body that replaces the Organization of American States and shuts the door on the meddlesome democracy promotion and human rights concerns of the U.S. and Canada. Any such body will certainly dilute the region's commitment to the full spectrum of rights associated with representative democracy, individual liberty, and economic freedom.

Finally, some within CELAC will follow Chavez and the Castros as they attempt to promote an ideological, anti-American agenda and undermine U.S. interests in the region. In the name of combating American "imperialism" and "hegemony," they will seek to nudge Latin America away from the U.S. and the West and in the direction of China, Russia and Iran and the multi-polar world they believe enhances their power and international influence.

The fading of American leadership in the region is palpable. The Obama administration has largely remained on the sidelines when dealing with Latin America. The rebuff by CELAC has hardly elicited a shrug in the White House or any spirited defense of the ideas, interests and values Americans cherish.

With the next Summit of the Americas slated for Cartagena, Colombia in less than four months, one can only wonder if Obama will use it to try to reverse this disturbing trend.

Ray Walser is a senior policy analyst in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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