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Playing the game in Havana

The Cuban regime uses CELAC summit of regional leaders to gain political capital

Looking at the number of bodies devoted to regional integration, Latin America ought to be the most integrated area on the planet. This impression is, however, deceptive as these efforts to vertebrate the American continent tend to end up being diluted in an alphabet soup of organizations: Unasur, Alba, Sela, Mercosur, Can, among others. This mirage appeared once again at last week’s Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting in Havana, attended by virtually all of the region’s leaders. This success in terms of turnout — in stark contrast with the past few Ibero-American Summit meetings — has only led to one tangible outcome, however: the Cuban regime was able to present the event as a show of support for its policies, even though this was not the purpose of the meeting. Otherwise, the conclusions of the CELAC summit were a predictable catalogue of good intentions — to strengthen integration, declaring the region a “peace zone” and solemn words on the fight against poverty — copying the wording used at other gatherings.

This is all completely inevitable. CELAC groups together 33 very different nations, but it was also conceived amid a double contradiction which put its scope in doubt from the start. It was pushed forward in 2011 by Hugo Chávez as a means of neutralizing the Organization of American States (OAS) and marginalizing the United States, but the majority of its members are not prepared to turn their backs on a country which is still an indispensable partner. Then there is the fact that despite the CELAC charter including the defense of democracy and respect for human rights as fundamental founding principles, this has not given its members pause for thought about a situation whereby Cuba, the only dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, has held the organization’s presidency for the past year.

In Havana these paradoxes were laid bare, particularly as the government of Raúl Castro unleashed a predictable wave of repression against dissident groups on the island, with detentions and house arrests being carried out to silence inconvenient voices. Before this panorama, the leaders of countries where democracy is well established remained silent. Only one, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, dared to break ranks and hold an interview with the Ladies in White human rights association, while Costa Rica received an opposition delegation in its Embassy.

With the exception of the enthusiastic Castro supporters from the Bolivarian group of nations, the rest simply played along for the sake of convenience with protocol, which for some included a personal visit to Fidel Castro. None of these leaders see in Cuba an anachronistic regime on its last legs so it is hard to see why they would be so willing to offer Havana an alibi. Isolating Cuba is not a valid option. But neither is playing a sordid game of complicity.

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