Latin America’s Unfinished Quest

SANTIAGO – The participants came, European guests were greeted, speeches were delivered, toasts made, and, in the end, the annual meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was hailed as a success. But what remained the morning after was the clear sense of a region that is deeply divided, missing a common purpose, and, above all, lacking leadership.

First, the good news: the four main countries on the Pacific Rim – Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile – took important steps to deepen their trade-and-integration agreement. By the end of this year, 90% of all trade within the bloc will be tariff-free. Costa Rica asked to join, and Japan was accepted as an observer. This Pacific Alliance, with nearly 40% of Latin American GDP and $500 billion in annual exports, has the potential to become a driving force for economic growth in the region.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s health kept him from attending, but the heads of state who follow his lead were out in force, and collectively blocked a European request to include in the final statement a guarantee that investment rules will not be changed arbitrarily. Bolivian President Evo Morales used the forum to criticize Chile and reiterate his country’s territorial claims. When, at the end, Cuban President Raúl Castro took over the rotating presidency of CELAC, an institution presumably devoted to extending democracy’s range, not even the most seasoned diplomats could suppress an ironic grin.

CELAC, which pointedly excludes the United States and Canada, was launched in 2010 so that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean could shape their own path toward democratic politics and shared prosperity. They have not.