CELAC - How did that happen?

News from Cuba | Wednesday, 30 January 2013

CELAC, that is, and its current president. How did they come to be?

The military dictatorships of Latin America lasted through the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, the dominant tendency on the continent became the so-called free trade, prescribed by the Washington Consensus. All the nations subscribed to it as directed, except for one: Cuba. The socialist bloc had collapsed, and Cuba was going through the Special

Period, making do with a greater opening to tourism but little else.

By 1994, President Clinton was so sure that the peoples -at least their governments- would succumb to the allure of privatization, deregulation, and the shrinking of the state that he proposed a grand Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The peoples, however, remembered how "free" trade had come through the barrels of fascist guns, and recalled that neoliberalism had concentrated wealth in the hands of the few while increasing poverty for the many. They would pass on the offer.

Argentina, which had gone into free fall by indexing the peso to the dollar and borrowing greater and greater amounts of money to support parity, was more than dubious. Brazil, a large country of increasing economic presence in the region, bordering on all but two of the South American countries, was not disposed to hand the continent over to US bankers and corporations. Their opposition stopped FTAA, except for a few small countries that were corralled separately into DR-CAFTA, a mini-version of FTAA for Central America and the Dominican Republic.

Cuba had no real friends among its neighbors through the 90s, and what opposition there was to the blockade was moderated by the realities of continental hegemony. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Helms-Burton law, anticipating the surrender of the Cuban government and people and their joining the fold.

Major change came when the Venezuelans voted for Hugo Chavez, who took office at the cusp of the century. A coup soon followed, but the people faced off the soldiers and brought back their president, and that example convinced people elsewhere that they could win elections and defend their results: Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Kirchners in Argentina, Lula in Brazil, Mujica in Uruguay. Even Paraguay changed its Stroessnerian image. Elections in Mexico almost put the FDR in power for the first time.

The new governments made their economies grow while improving the lives of the people. They were successful. Among the new leaders, some had first- or second-hand experience of the repression of the dictatorships. They brought Cuba back into their circle, while Venezuelan oil let Cuban buses and factories work again.

The Bush years, with their with-us-or-against- us approach, their threats, and their fantastic war machinery, no doubt impressed the peoples of the continent, but not favorably. Torture was not at all welcome in the South. And, why did the US insist in placing more military bases around the region?

Cuba, with help from Venezuela, sent medical personnel around the continent, and literacy workers and teachers. The neighbors not only did not fear Cuba, they thanked it for its help. Cuba and Venezuela made a difference with programs like Operation Miracle. In 2004 they had launched ALBA, which, remarkably, soon expanded to South and Central America, even to countries that belonged to DR-CAFTA, and to three Caribbean island nations. The peoples saw that if they defended their natural resources and worked with each other they could move ahead faster. The South American nations merged into one large group, UNASUR, and, with that, the concept of CELAC became inevitable. Why not all the countries of the region, except for the developed North? Even countries that still believed in neoliberalism concluded that unity could work for them, too, and, after all, there were new markets now among the neighbors that had not been reached before.

The North, meanwhile, was tied up in wars and planning for more. With the coming of the Great recession the US and EU economies offered mainly their prosperous past, as unemployment grew and markets and production contracted. The old order no longer made sense.

CELAC was founded in December 2011. A year and a month later, the first summit of the region's leaders took place. Cuba was not simply accepted, it was welcomed. The second presidency, following that of Chile, went to Cuba, where the next meeting will be held. All of the heads of state will meet again in Havana; all except for two. Of those two, only one still defends the blockade, the one that maintains it.

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