SANTIAGO, Chile - Arriving in Santiago, Chile to attend the second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Uruguayan President José Mujica recalled, "It has cost us almost 70-80 years to have a meeting together with peoples of the Caribbean and without the boss from the North."
The gathering of 33 Western Hemisphere heads of state extending over January 26-29 was notable not least because an inaugural CELAC-European Union Summit took place prior to the CELAC summit itself but because, additionally, on January 26-27, 400 social organizations held an alternative summit in the city.
CELAC meetings took place in Santiago because Chilean President Sebastián Piñera had served as pro tempore CELAC president during its first year. The first CELAC' summit was in Caracas in November, 2011.
The dramatic highlight of the gatherings occurred on January 28 as Cuban President Raul Castro became CELAC president for the coming year. That was a turn-around because in 1962 the U.S. controlled Organization of American States, true to its cold war origins, expelled Cuba. CELAC excludes the United States and Canada and is widely assumed to have gained credibility at OAS' expense.
CELAC honored Cuba in another way by choosing January 28 as the day for carrying out most summit business. January 28 this year was the 160th anniversary of Cuban national hero Jose Marti's birth. CELAC encapsulates two main themes of Marti's political trajectory: continent-wide integration and independence from big-power domination.
Concluding his 1891 essay "Our America," Marti enthused, "The present generation carries working America on its back. [We] scattered...seeds of the new America from the [Rio] Bravo to [the Straits of] Magellan, the way having been guaranteed by noble forbearers." Yesterday's Rio Bravo is today's Rio Grande.
Many commentators agree that recognition of Cuba at the CELAC Summit is bad news for U. S. efforts to turn the island nation into a pariah state. Cuba's high visibility at the CELAC summit also reflected its contributions toward continental unity, together with Venezuela. From Havana where he is recovering from cancer surgery, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent a letter to the delegates affirming that "CELAC is the most important political, economic, and cultural project of our contemporary history."
CELAC manifested support for integration, regional cooperation, sustainable development, social inclusion, anti-terrorism, and Haiti. It prioritized fight against poverty and drug trafficking, opposed the U.S. blockade of Cuba, and backed Argentinean sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands.
The earlier CELAC - EU Summit involving 60 national delegations and 40 heads of states had already issued a "Declaration of Santiago" covering multilateralism, judicial functioning, commerce, bilateral relations, and investment policies. That summit called for protecting gender rights, fighting climate change, eradicating poverty, and rejecting protectionism.
Yet sessions were held behind closed doors and divergent views showed up in reporters' conversations with participants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, was portrayed as intent upon opening up the Brazilian and Argentinean economies to free trade. With the EU accounting for 43 percent of foreign direct investment in Latin American, delegates focused on gaining relief from financial crises in Europe and popular protests. According to one observer, "The EU strategy is quite clear: ... defend their economic interests and retain control of our natural resources in the name of unity." Paradoxically, a region once regarded as "the U.S. backyard" and notable now for "stability and peace" is being targeted, seemingly, by former colonial masters.
In closing ceremonies, European Counsel President Herman Van Rompuy referred to "very productive conversations on building investments and strengthening our strategic relationship in the future." The CELAC - EU meeting established a Plan of Action and will meet again in 2015 in Belgium.
Elsewhere in Santiago the "Summit of the People's of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe" was concluding. One dominant theme was condemnation of media non-coverage of people's movements. Excerpts from that summit's concluding declaration touch upon other concerns:
"Today, we are witnesses of how wealth from nature, rights, and persons have been commercialized, [a] a product of capitalist logic...Existing relations between the European Union and Latin America and the Caribbean that prioritize investors' privileges and profits over people's rights ... deepen this model that prejudices peoples of both regions." And, "it's necessary to bring to light the growing oppression and discrimination to women in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe...We need to construct the basis of a new model of society..."
Assuming his role as CELAC president for one year, President Raul Castro steered between controversy and need he sees for consensus: "Amongst us there are distinct ways of thinking, even differences, but CELEC has come forth out of 200 years of struggle for independence and is based upon a deep communality of interests. CELAC, therefore, is ... a common vision of the great Latin American and Caribbean homeland that is obligated only to its people."
Photo: Chavez (left), who is in Cuba for medical treatment, sent a message to the CECAC summit, where, on Jan. 28, Cuba's Raul Castro became president of the body for the coming year. Granma/AP