During a visit to Montevideo, on his way to the 2011 Ibero-American Summit in Asunción, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera expressed his frustration with the seemingly never-ending run of Latin American regional summits, “so many that they seem a mountain range.” As he put it: “UNASUR summit, Mercosur summit, Iberoamerican summit, OAS summit, we have many institutions, but lack real will to integrate our continent. . . . We have much bureaucracy in the region, and we need a true will to integrate without fear.”
President Piñera’s statement on what some refer to as cumbritis may not be fully accurate-strictly speaking, meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS) are not summits, as they are attended by foreign ministers, not by heads of state, and the bureaucracy of Latin American summits is remarkably light, as they have no permanent staff but are instead run by the host state—but his point is well taken. Many observers would agree that over the past decade we have witnessed what Monica Hirst has called “anarchical regionalism,” or an “oversupply of spaces, schemes, and regional integration entities,” in Pía Rigirozzi’s phrase.
This makes it difficult not just for presidents to attend all or most meetings, but even for the broad public to disentangle the veritable alphabet soup of acronyms by which these various entities are known. The latest, and in some ways the most ambitious, of these is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, in the Spanish acronym), which was launched in Cancún, Mexico, in February 2010.
This serial summitry not only burdens the already-tight schedules of presidents but also, more important, devalues governmental credibility. As such exercises demand, most summits end with a communiqué of sorts, whose long lists of commitments on various topics are mainly breached rather than honored by strict (or even lax) observance. If that is so, why do summits proliferate? And why do otherwise busy leaders keep attending summits whose agendas are at times so thin that some participants abscond before they end?
A standard answer, particularly popular in English media, is that regional summits are mere talk shops concocted by populist leaders who have nothing better to do than to meet at beach resorts and come up with highfalutin statements while their economies go down the drain. This claim bears no relation to the facts: summit inflation has gone hand in hand with strong economic performance. For the first time in two hundred years, global financial crisis has not brought havoc to Latin America. Moreover, CELAC was an initiative of Mexican president Felipe Calderón, a conservative from a signatory of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), who won the 2006 election in Mexico in part because of his strong stand against Hugo Chávez. If that is the case, cui bono?
Many interpretations of regional integration and cooperation in Latin America look at today’s developments through yesterday’s lenses and thus miss the underlying dynamics. Extraregional players must take this into account, or they will fail to link up to the complex changes taking place in the region, let alone benefit from them.
Ambassador Jorge Heine is the CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation) Professor of Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.
This article was originally published by the Latin American Research Review, here, and is republished with permission from the author.