It might be remarked in passing that there was one little detail about the published photographs of the heads which would have struck Guyanese in particular, and that was their dress. At another famous meeting in Cancún, Mexico in 1981, when 23 leaders from the developed and developing nations came together in the company of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (who was attired for her formal photo in a regal purple dress), the leaders were in general clad more or less informally for the era. However, there were two – Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Forbes Burnham of Guyana – sporting short-sleeved shirt-jac suits.
This time around, against an almost identical sea-and-sand backdrop, nearly all the Latin leaders were decked out in what we would recognize as long-sleeved shirt-jacs. So here it is, the shirt-jac has fallen into disrepute in Guyana, and is being adopted for certain occasions (almost certainly under a different name and via a different route) by the Latin American heads. Burnham must be smirking in his grave.
As is usual at these fora there was plenty talk of unity, but little evidence of agreement – except on the sartorial issues mentioned above, of course, some other fairly non-contentious issues, and ostensibly on the Falklands Islands. Even where the last-mentioned was concerned, however, a few anglophone nations may have had at least private reservations about the final declaration recognizing Argentina’s claim to sovereignty over the islands. Unfortunately this country, which, for reasons outlined in Friday’s editorial, should not have touched any such declaration with a bargepole, does not appear to have been one of them.
It was Grenada’s Foreign Minister Peter David who told the BBC – admittedly when the summit was over – that rather than support for Argentina, the Latin and Caribbean states favoured UN arbitration on the Falklands issue. Where the matter of sovereignty is concerned, that interpretation of the final statement may be hard to sustain, and if Mr David’s view was shared by any of the other Caricom states, it is to be regretted that they did not insist it be taken into account during the discussions, rather than allowing themselves to be steamrolled by their continental neighbours. Of course, President Chávez in full flight on the subject of colonialism in the hemisphere (including the matter of the “Dutch control” of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire “in the nose of Venezuela”) is not a force easily deflected.
The summit had agreed the new grouping would exclude the United States and Canada, but beyond that there was no accord on whether it would represent an alternative to the OAS. On that subject, the states split along the expected fault-line, with the left oriented nations led by the garrulous Mr Chávez seeing it as a replacement, and Caricom and others insisting it was not an attempt to “replace existing regional arrangements,” to use Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit’s words. Even without the division in views, representing as it does, disagreement on ultimate objectives, there is no reason to suppose that the OAS has to get nervous any time soon. For a whole variety of reasons, the southern continent will always need a forum in which it can negotiate with its northern counterpart, and in any case, as Chilean President-elect Sebastián Piñera said, the OAS is “a permanent organization that has its own functions.”
At a practical level, as Oppenheimer points out in his column today (see page 22A), there is no appetite for setting up another bureaucracy, which would be a costly exercise. As thing stand, he said, some states are in any case behind on their OAS and UN payments, and the proposal seems to be that each country playing host will chair the meeting and will provide the staff for it. Anything as impermanent as that in terms of structure could hardly be a threat to the OAS.
Also excluded from the meeting was Honduras, and in fact, there was no discussion on the matter of its status because it was thought the issue would be too divisive. Clearly there are several states which will recognize the government of President Lobo Porfirio in due course, although inevitably Venezuela leads the group opposed to him. This too is a fissure which could open into a rift at some future point if the more conservative states want to bring Honduras into the fold.
If Honduras was absent, Cuba was very much present, as opposed to its situation in relation to the OAS, where it is still not welcome. The leaders seemed to have had no qualms about inviting Cuba to the talks, but at the same time they avoided raising the anomaly of its political system. The words of their final declaration that their countries’ key objectives included “democracy and democratic values, the validity of institutions and the rule of law, the commitment to the respect and enforcement of all human rights for all…” therefore, had a certain ring of cynicism about them. This was the week too when one of Cuba’s estimated 200 political prisoners died following a hunger strike over prison conditions. If the leaders were prepared to ignore human rights violations and one-party rule in Cuba, their declaration did support the lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United States on that island.
In other words, the assembled heads for the time being seem to have created a forum for avoiding differences, rather than settling them – not necessarily a good sign in terms of an organization’s meaningfulness and importance in the longer term.
The new organization’s declaration also encompassed international economic affairs, but in terms of individual economic systems, there is a wide divergence of practice in the hemisphere, which is not easily bridged. As it was, it was the subject of trade sanctions which triggered the group’s most serious confrontation between two leaders who happen to have notoriously short fuses. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia at a dinner for the participants was the one who started it by complaining to his Venezuelan counterpart about the partial trade sanctions imposed by Caracas on his country which were affecting its economy. He received a response about the Colombian paramilitaries, following which President Chávez rose to leave. It was then Mr Uribe told him “Be a man. Stay here; sometimes you insult from a distance, but when we’re face to face, we don’t talk.”
“Go to hell,” retorted Mr Chávez. It was at this point that the flustered leaders intervened to save their warm and fuzzy encounter, and a ‘Group of Friends’ was set up to help solve the difficulties between the two states, although President Morales of Bolivia almost relit the fuse by suggesting that President Uribe was a US agent. After the summit was over, the Venezuelan head appeared to soften a little on the matter of trade sanctions, and from this country’s point of view had something interesting to say on the territorial dispute with Colombia and the controversy with Guyana. Prensa Latina on Friday reported him as saying that in both instances the matters were being dealt with through diplomatic channels, and there would be no conflict. In our case we were described as a “sister nation.”
So what is the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (a temporary name) all about? At this stage, it is simply all things to all leaders. As Oppenheimer has rightly observed, for President Calderón, it allows Mexico to re-enter the councils of the Latin American nations from which it had been excluded by Brazil with its geographical categories. Mr Calderón’s really inspired move was conceiving the group as excluding the US and Canada, with which Mexico had been bracketed by Brazil. As for Brazil itself, it now has another forum in which to exert its influence, and another potential pressure group to help it secure a seat on the Security Council. As mentioned above, nations like Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and possibly others, see this as an opportunity to replace the OAS and reduce US influence on the southern continent, while others do not. Some states, including one suspects those in Caricom, had no pre-conceived notions, and are just waiting to see how the organization evolves.
The next meeting is set for 2011 in Venezuela, when we may – or conversely, may not – get a clearer idea of aims, definition and direction.