LATIN America and the Caribbean region seem to have finally emerged out of the long shadow of the United States. The creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in December last year was another clear signal that the region is no longer under the political and economic sway of the US. For more than a century,Washington considered South America as its backyard and freely exercised its power by installing puppet regimes and forcibly removing popular governments. Washington is still desperately trying to stem the popular Left wing tide that is sweeping the region. The “soft coups” in the Honduras in 2009 and in Paraguay recently, are illustrations. In both cases, Left leaning presidents were removed while still in office, to be replaced by politicians indebted to Washington. The coming into being of CELAC was also a signal that on key foreign policy issues facing the international community, the states in the region would strive to put up a united front.

 “STRATEGIC ALLIANCE

In the second week of August, the 33 member CELAC formally established relations with the two leading powers of Asia — India and China. The foreign ministers of Chile,Venezuela and Cuba visited Delhi and Beijing to hold high level talks with their counterparts. Their first stop was in Delhi. After the talks, it was agreed that the CELAC and Indiawould form a “strategic alliance.” There will be an annual meeting between the CELAC presidency and the Indian government. The meetings will be similar to the annual India-EU summits. Both sides have also expressed a strong desire to increase bilateral trade. The bilateral trade is currently estimated to be around 25 billion dollars.

 The Chilean foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno, pointed out that their region’s current annual trade with India constitutes only four per cent. (Chile currently holds the pro-tempore presidency of the CELAC. Cuba will be taking over in January.) This is only one-tenth of the region’s trade with China. The Chilean minister also pointed out that Latin America and the Caribbean have the largest reserves of oil, many other minerals and a large agricultural market. Speaking to the media in Delhi after meeting with the CELAC delegation, the Indian external affairs minister, S M Krishna said that both sides have reacted positively to the idea of working together “on issues relating to the reform of the United Nations, climate change, and the global economic situation, in the interest of developing countries.” Krishna said that India and the CELAC have “a shared understanding on regional developments and threats to international peace and security.”

 The Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, said that among the important agreements signed in Delhi, was the decision to set up a business economic development forum, an agricultural working group and an energy forum. He described the agreements signed between the new regional grouping and India as historic. “It is extraordinary to see how a region like India, one of the great emerging powers, is articulating itself in the historic meeting with Latin America and the Caribbean.”

 URGENCY OF BUILDING A MULTIPOLAR WORLD

During the visit of the three foreign ministers to Beijing, diplomatic links between the CELAC and China were duly formalised. The two sides agreed to further strengthen commercial ties. The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, offered the CELAC five billion dollars in economic assistance and a further ten billion dollars in loans for infrastructural development. The decision to set up a China-CELAC Cooperation Forum was also announced during the visit of the CELAC delegation to Beijing. The forum will do the spadework for developing a working agenda for the deepening of relations.

During his visits to both Delhi and Beijing, the Venezuelan foreign minister emphasised on the importance and urgency of building a multipolar world. He said that a strengthening of relations between the CELAC and the two emerging Asian powers will hasten the shift away from the current unipolar state the world finds itself in. “We’re quickly moving towards the formation of a multipolar world, where China is already undertaking a very relevant role as a principle emerging power,” he said in Beijing. “Latin America and the Caribbean is another emerging force, and both (China and the CELAC) are configuring what is going to be the future world,” he added.

 Maduro said while in Delhi that the CELAC as an organisation faced two important challenges — that of “integrating internally” and “respecting the political and ideological diversity” that exists on the continent. Chile, for instance, has a centre-right government. Cuba and Venezuela are among the growing number of Latin American and Caribbeancountries that have embraced a Left wing ideology. “Ideological diversity in Latin America is a reality,” said Maduro. The CELAC has proved that there is enough room for governments espousing varying ideologies to co-exist. Even before the CELAC came into being, the region had seen other political groupings like Unasur (Union of South American States) which has 12 members and was created in 2008 at a meeting in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital; Mercosur (consisting of key states like Brazil, Argentina and now Venezuela) and ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas).

STRIVING FOR INDEPENDENT FOREIGN & TRADE POLICIES

Mercosur was mainly the initiative of the two big Latin American countries — Brazil and Argentina and is a regional bloc. Venezuela was made a full member of Mercosur following the recent “soft coup” in Paraguay. The US and some right wing parties in the region did not want Venezuela to get membership of the grouping but the coup inParaguay, a Mercosur member state, hastened the process. The former president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo was in favour of full membership for Venezuela. His open support was a factor that led to his ouster from office. President Hugo Chavez said that with Venezuela joining Mercosur, the latter would become the “fifth world power with a regional GDP of over 3.3 billion dollars.” The Venezuelan president also said that his country’s membership will give the grouping “much more life in the South American project of independence and the integral development of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

ALBA membership is so far been confined to states having very close ties to Venezuela and Cuba — like Ecuador and Bolivia. Another important grouping is Petrocaribe in which Caribbean countries can buy oil from Venezuela at preferential rates. This is a big boon for the poor countries in the region which are now even more adversely affected as a result of the global economic downturn. The general aim of all these blocs, including the CELAC, is to evolve independent foreign and trade policies for the region. Till the late nineties, it was Washington which was calling the tune in Latin America, with almost all the countries embracing the mantra of neo-liberalism and free trade.

During an interaction with a small group of senior Left party leaders and intellectuals during his stay in Delhi, Maduro said that the creation of CELAC was a positive move against “hegemonism and imperialism.” He said that even the formation of BRICS is “an expression of multipolarity.” He described the meeting in Delhi as “very positive” and said that it would help to “revitalise South-South relations.” Achieving unity in Latin America was “a dream of Simon Bolivar,” the minister said. Bolivar, who was born in Caracas was the 19th century “liberator” who freed Latin America from the yoke of Spanish colonialism. “Bolivar talked about a Union of Republics that were under Spanish rule,” said Maduro.

AWAY FROM THEEMPIRE’S INFLUENCE

The articulate minister pointed out that Latin America is now in the forefront of building a new alliance that will be able to build “a multipolar world, free from the influence of the empire (the US).” Maduro emphasised that timing was the essence. “We have to move fast. We must be prepared to play our cards so that a multipolar world emerges. Neo-liberalism goes against the raison d’être of humanity,” he averred. The US, he said, also should not be allowed to use “the trump card of war” against the rest of the world as it is doing today.

Maduro had taken time off from his hectic election campaign schedule in Venezuela. He had in fact flown to India straight from an election rally. President Hugo Chavez is up for re-election in October this year. Maduro underlined the importance of the coming elections in his country. He said that the election campaign has been transformed “into a battle of ideas” to protect the gains of the revolution that Venezuela has witnessed since Chavez was first elected to high office in 1999. Since then, according to the minister, his country has been facing a “permanent challenge” from Washington. Maduro says that a victory at the polls for Chavez is crucial not only for Venezuela but for the entire region. “The nation has regained its independence in the last 14 years. Before that Venezuela was treated as an oil company by the US,” observed Maduro.

The Venezuelan foreign minister said that Venezuela is witnessing the making of “socialism for the 21st century.” Cuba was the earliest model that has inspired revolutionaries and progressive people in the region but the goal in Venezuela is to build a new model of socialism. The Venezuelan government, Maduro said, has defined the way to reach benefits to the grassroots level. “It will be socialism with Venezuelan and Bolivarian characteristics,” said the minister. Washington is pouring in money to aid the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, as he seeks to defeat the Bolivarian revolution. “We are being subjected to a permanent media war” orchestrated from the US, said Maduro. “Obama likes to dominate us with a smile. We keep smiling back at him as long as he is only smiling. Mitt Romney, however, is madder than Bush. We are ready to meet any eventuality,” said Maduro.

Yohannan Chemarapally