Latin America leaders propose new bloc that excludes US, Canada

As the Rio Summit came to a close Tuesday night, Latin America leaders announced that they would start a new regional bloc that excludes the US and Canada.

Israel Leal/AP
Latin America leaders attending the Rio Group summit pose for the summit's official photo on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, Monday.

Latin America leaders at the two-day Rio Summit in Mexico announced at the end of the meeting on Tuesday night that they will form a new regional bloc that will exclude the United States and Canada.

Billed as an alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), the new group will but more distance between the hemisphere's Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations and the English-speaking nations in the north. A name for the proposed new group has not yet been chosen.

Regional support for the US has steadily declined over the past decade as the war on terror has turned US attention away from its neighbors to the south. Most analysts see this move as part of a gradual shift away from the US and toward growing global trade partners such as China and India.

“[Latin America] realized there is an entire agenda that has nothing to do with the US,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

The annual meeting wrapped up on the Caribbean coast of Mexico Tuesday. Mexican President Felipe Calderón said the new bloc must push regional integration “and promote the regional agenda in global meetings," he said. More details about what the bloc will look like will be discussed at a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela in 2011.

A shift away from the US

Latin America has steadily put more distance between itself and the US, and not just in terms of trade.

A slew of regional blocs have been formed over the years.

There is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) – to name two new ones. They add to a list of existing organizations such as the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and the Andean Community. This, however, would be the first group that includes every country in Latin America and excludes the US.

Mr. Calderon said the new bloc, which will comprise 33 nations, could counter the Organization of the America States (OAS), the main body for inter-American affairs that has been dominated by the US over the decades.

OAS doubts after Honduras crisis

The efficacy of the OAS was questioned this summer, after the group forcefully rejected the military overthrow of leftist Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya and suspended the Central American nation from its group – all to no avail.

Arturo Valenzuela, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Tuesday that a new regional bloc would not necessarily take power away from the OAS. "This should not be an effort that would replace the OAS," Mr. Valenzuela said.

Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, agrees. “There are a lot of issues that make sense within a Latin America organization that do not necessarily involve the US or Canada. There are other issues where the US is key,” he says. “The OAS and a regional organization are not incompatible.”

Unity may prove elusive

Mr. Shifter says he sees the announcement of a new group as an expression of regional solidarity. But even if the group is united in an effort to mature from US dominance, the bloc itself is unlikely to be harmonious. Some of the existing sub-regional bodies have faltered over differences between leaders in the region, who share different ideologies, styles of government, and allies.

One of the most contentious rivalries is between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, whose heated battles have been public and have led some to fear that a conflict between both nations could ensue.

“It raises questions about the notion of unity, when you have two leaders of major governments going at each other,” says Mr. Shifter, of a reported argument between Mr. Chávez and Mr. Uribe behind closed doors at the summit. Yet even then, he says, such a bloc could prove cathartic. “It’s useful given that there are a lot of resentments and frustrations among government leaders. It’s useful to have some space where you let those out.”

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