The second CELAC summit (the Latin-American and Caribbean States Community), recently hosted by the Cuban government, has left a somewhat bitter taste in its wake — at least for anyone who believes in functional democracies on this side of the world. It has also reignited the debate about non-intervention, democracy, and human rights in the Americas.
However, the outcome of this discussion, while yet to be seen, does not look especially promising.
Legitimizing Human Rights Abusers by Association
While the notion of CELAC as a competitor to the Organization of American States (OAS), merely without the United States, is contested by its official sources, their agenda and statements speak loudly enough and require no deciphering. Fortunately, the anti-US government rhetoric that some of its greatest champions — like Venezuela and Cuba — hold as a banner for the organization are not shared consistently among its 33 members, many of whom maintain cozy economic ties with Washington.
The fact that the second summit was held in Havana — which until the summit held the pro tempore presidency of the organization — was a message in and of itself. The member states, whether intentionally or not, ended up endorsing the Cuban government, much to the US State Department’s distaste. The apparent reason for their long faces has to do with legitimizing a government whose civil rights violations are blatant, including during the very summit, and date back to the outbreak of the Cuban revolution.
Attending the summit while paying no attention whatsoever to the imprisoning of political dissidents and protesters or so much as moving an inch in the general direction of trying to meet with the few opposition key players sounds a lot like being guilty by association. And let’s not forget the now standard Cuban practice of demonizing dissidence, restricting even the most basic of civil liberties, near starving the population with food-rationing, and publicly supporting rogue states like North Korea to smuggle weapons through Panama.
A slight exception must be made here for Chilean President Piñera. He did meet with the Ladies in White, who are publicly and vehemently opposed to the Castro Regime. However, not even he raised the issue of minimal civil rights observance of the gracious host at the summit.
The assumed understanding here is that in Latin America, when someone appears in a group picture with an autocratic ruler or a soft-core dictator — no matter how ideologically and pragmatically distant he may be from him — he is basically giving him the thumbs-up with a pat on the back. Although not ideal, political support declarations in Latin America are photography-based, and this is one such instance were the assumption carries weight.
One could argue that it can be morally and politically permissible to dine with the devil if it is essential to the interest or survival of your own country. Principles, sadly, cannot be served to fill an empty dinner table or an empty state account.
However, that is hardly the case for the CELAC meeting; Cuba is not exactly famous for its philanthropy or its charitable donations to the developing world. The conclusion here is that, by not even trying to raise the issue of governance to the attention of the host country, the regional leaders have endorsed and legitimized the tyrant insular regime.
Westphalia: So Much Better than Liberal Democracy
Another summit detail that will most likely catch the eye is the Declaration of Latin America as a “Peace Zone.” It contains a very decided commitment to abandon the use of force as a means to settle disputes in the region; and it reaffirms the principle of nonintervention in domestic affairs of the member states. Thus far, all is well and good, isn’t it?
The great absentee in the declaration is the affirmation of democracy as the ideal form of government.
In principle, all CELAC member-states, who are also members of the OAS, have endorsed democracy — in a context where the Inter-American Democratic Charter figures prominently. However, members have disavowed all the progress achieved at the OAS, and outside of it, for a new conception of coordinated and cooperative capacity-building in regards to democracy in the region.
They have ignored liberal democracy in favor of a Westphalian notion of sovereignty and non-intervention. Way to go, Latin America! Going back to the 17th Century is definitely the right way to build alternate power centers, and build true multilateralism.
Governments with weak democratic institutions characterized by barely complying with the formal requests of the democratic form — namely, elections — tend to display an overzealous approach to sovereignty, and a huge favor towards non-intervention. Conversely, the international community is now slowly building a consensus around the notion of sovereignty as responsibility.
Human Rights Mean Accountability
Concepts such as self-ownership and the prevalence of fundamental human rights have given birth to norms such as collective responsibility for human security: to prevent, react, and rebuild when mass atrocity crimes occur. One could argue that, fortunately, that is not the case for most of Latin America. There are no governments waging genocides on their populations.
However, a robust commitment to democracy in its material and functional sense — fair and transparent elections, separation of powers, government accountability, civil and social rights observance, respect for minorities, and plural parties, to name a few elements — is the best precaution against such atrocities ever occurring.
Cooperation in democratic capacity-building does not mean, in the Latin-American context, reaffirming the right of each of our governments to do as they please within their four walls, so long as they don’t disturb the neighbors. Rather, each needs to be subject to peer review when it comes to democracy and human rights.
For the moment, let’s just hope that the pink tide of collectivist regimes recedes before it drowns us all in cheap oil-motivated, Venezuela-backed regression to Ancien Régime policies of foreign affairs and internal governance. With any luck CELAC will turn out to be the same as most Latin-American integration forums: a labor union for presidents or a chance for a few days of Caribbean relaxation with politically motivated picture taking.