However poor his health condition, Hugo Chávez must have enjoyed a certain measure of satisfaction earlier this month when leaders from across the Western hemisphere gathered in Caracas for the first meeting of the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a hemispheric forum that explicitly does not include the United States or Canada.
The cancer-stricken Venezuelan president had been planning the inaugural CELAC summit for some time, and it marked a huge triumph for his regime. More specifically, it served to (1) enhance Chávez’s perceived legitimacy while demoralizing his democratic opponents; (2) boost the stature of leftist autocrats in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua; (3) elevate the diplomatic standing of Communist Cuba, which was suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) from 1962 to 2009 and refuses to rejoin; (4) drive a wedge between Washington and its traditional allies; and (5) weaken U.S. influence in the region.
The Caracas meeting was, in short, a setback both for the United States and for Latin American democracy.
As journalist Guillermo Martinez explains, “the enemies of the United States now have a new platform to voice their anti-U.S. rhetoric while those who proclaim friendship with Washington give added strength to the radical view merely with their presence.” At the inaugural CELAC summit, Sandinista boss Daniel Ortega, fresh off his fraudulent and illegitimate reelection to the Nicaraguan presidency, proudly boasted that the assembled dignitaries were “sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death.” Not to be outdone in his grandiose rhetoric, Cuban dictator Raúl Castro hailed the creation of CELAC as potentially “the biggest event in 200 years.” He also fiercely denounced the recent NATO military campaign in Libya. (The late Muammar Qaddafi was a longtime friend and ally of the Castro brothers.)
The bad news for Chávez is that his vaunted summit—an outgrowth of the February 2010 Rio Group summit in Cancún—did not produce any substantive diplomatic accords. He had been hoping to establish permanent CELAC institutions and win agreement on an anti-OAS resolution, but his efforts came to naught. In the end, the summit was an exercise in meaningless symbolic posturing, which surely disappointed its host.
Yet simply by joining this Chávez project and sharing a stage with the likes of Ortega and Castro, officials from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and other countries have lent credibility to the forum and embarrassed the Obama administration. Indeed, CELAC highlights Obama’s neglect of Latin America, which has created a leadership vacuum and emboldened Chávez (not to mention Iran). In a speech delivered at Brown University last April, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos lamented that the United States had taken a “passive” and “disengaged” approach to the Western Hemisphere, even as European and Asian countries (such as China and India) were “strengthening their ties to our region.”
The decline of U.S. influence in Latin America was not inevitable, and it can still be reversed. For that to happen, the Obama administration and/or its successor must recognize that “diplomatic engagement” is about much more than just high-level visits and speeches from the U.S. president and the secretary of state. To be successful, it requires constant (and often thankless) behind the scenes work by lower level officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council, along with U.S. ambassadors and embassy personnel.
The Obama administration has aggressively and successfully engaged with other regions of the world. Consider its recent policy achievements in East Asia. After the administration’s flurry of activity last month—which coincided with Obama’s trip to Australia and Indonesia—Council on Foreign Relations scholar Walter Russell Mead said that it represented “as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.”
If only the administration would devote similar energy to Latin America. “It is fashionable for pundits to declare that the world’s center of gravity is shifting east,” writes New America Foundation scholar Parag Khanna. “But that need not be the case. Elevating South America to its rightful place as the third pillar of the West alongside Europe and North America could be the most decisive geostrategic maneuver still to be deployed.” Unfortunately, Obama does not seem interested in attempting such a maneuver, despite the region’s clear economic and strategic importance. (As McKinsey & Co. analysts Ari Kertesz and Bernardo Neves have observed, per capita GDP is three times higher in Latin America than in China, and two-thirds of Latin American consumers belong to the middle class.)
The consequences of U.S. inattention were on full display during the CELAC summit. As I have written previously in this space, Chávez is gradually losing the ideological war over democracy and capitalism in Latin America. The successful Brazilian model is far more popular than the disastrous Venezuelan model. But the Obama administration continues to commit unforced diplomatic errors, and its blunders are helping Chávez claim victories he does not deserve.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.