Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during an event with MORENA lawmakers in Mexico City, Mexico, March 2, 2022. Source: Reuters/Edgard Garrido.
In his first speech, Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Viera announced that “Brazil is back” and that—among other things—the new government would seek to strengthen the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The Brazilian Ambassador to Colombia even emphasized the possibility of the two countries working to resurrect the organizations. Latin America’s historically shaky regional institutions have been adrift for some time. Many such initiatives were fueled with Venezuelan oil money and Hugo Chávez’s force of personality, but never fully lost that flavor. Newly inaugurated Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), who championed such organizations in his previous tenure as president, has promised to do so again. If this effort has any chance at succeeding, it should center on shedding the ideological baggage that helped drag them down. Similarly, the Biden administration should accept opportunities to engage with them.
UNASUR once showed promise. It brought together presidents of different political stripes to condemn the 2009 coup in Honduras, played a role in decreasing tensions when Colombia bombed a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador, and facilitated dialogue in Venezuela amidst its ongoing crisis. However, its clearly leftist orientation, combined with the election of conservative presidents, sparked a leadership dispute in 2017 from which it never recovered. In 2018, the Colombian Foreign Minister dismissed UNASUR as something “created by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to fracture the inter-American system and to create a sounding board for his regime.” The same year, half of all member countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay) suspended their memberships. The initiatives of the century’s first decade, largely initiated by Venezuela, faded away. A lack of leadership, combined with traditional fractured hemispheric unity, put UNASUR in the same category as countless failed attempts at regional institutional cooperation.
CELAC is an example of how Cuba’s Cold War autonomy served as an inspiration for the leftist leaders elected in the final years of the twentieth century and beyond. Cuba was a key member of CELAC after years of exclusion from the Organization of American States (OAS), which expelled the country in 1962. Created in 2010, it was intended to replace the Cold War-era Rio Group and provide a counterweight to U.S. policy. CELAC’s stated purpose was to foster integration, but it never advanced much in that direction. It has, however, provided a forum for discussion and it is a platform upon which the region can collectively meet with governments beyond the hemisphere—especially with China and the European Union.
However, like UNASUR, CELAC eventually became paralyzed. After a sparsely attended presidential summit in 2017 and the cancellation of a CELAC-European Union meeting the same year, internal conflict prevented another presidential summit from being held until 2021. In 2020, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro suspended Brazil’s participation in CELAC on the grounds that it was supporting dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Although CELAC’s creation enjoyed broad regional support, with Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela as key advocates, it never fully lost its leftist and anti-U.S. ideological stance.
Whether or not CELAC endures in meaningful form will hinge in large part on whether it can maintain non-ideological support. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), did finally call for a summit, but he still emphasized what it was against (i.e. influence from the United States) versus what it was for—expressing distrust of the OAS and calling for to be it replaced by a group “that is nobody’s lackey.” Lula will visit Buenos Aires on January 23-24 to coincide with the 2023 CELAC summit and to visit Argentine President Alberto Fernández, who is currently serving as president pro tempore of the organization. Unless the organization broadens its message, it is much less likely that future presidents of those three countries will continue to support it.
Given China’s long relationship with CELAC, Fernández invited Chinese premier Xi Jinping to the summit as well. China and CELAC held the first China-CELAC forum in 2015, which has been a way to facilitate its “relational soft power,” and Xi gave a video speech at the 2021 meeting. Fernández also invited the United States, but does not expect an acceptance. This would be the U.S. simply ceding the forum to the Chinese government.
For either CELAC or UNASUR to succeed in the longer term, Lula must help move them away from their ideological roots. Given their histories, this is no easy task, but neither is it impossible. In his opening remarks at the 2021 CELAC summit, AMLO called for it to work with the United States and Canada to “strengthen the internal market in our hemisphere.” Being an autonomous institution need not mean ignoring or antagonizing the United States—which in the past was counterproductive. In a recent speech at the United Nations climate change conference, Lula said he wanted a global order “based in dialogue, multilateralism, and multipolarity.” Such an approach includes the United States, and the Biden administration should welcome a partnership role, even when it does not include membership.
Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015). Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT.