Did Hugo Chavez derail CELAC summit?

Hugo Chavez's apparently surprise announcement that Venezuela, Chile, and Cuba would lead CELAC left other Latin American and Caribbean nations nonplussed.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is seen on a large TV screen, flanked by paintings of Latin America Independence heros Simon Bolivar, left, and Antonio Jose de Sucre, while speaking at the second working session of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday.

Among the key questions facing any international organization are:

1) Who leads and sets the agenda?
2) How are decisions made?
3) Are decisions binding among all member states?

Those questions were on display at the founding Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, this past week. Let me take them in reverse order.

3) Decisions at CELAC are voluntary and not binding. There are no penalties for countries that go against the resolutions or choose not to participate. This makes CELAC resolutions mostly symbolic for now and dependent on the willingness of every country to participate.

2) How decisions are made was a big debate behind the scenes this week and the Latin American and Caribbean countries could not come to an agreement. A group of countries wanted a majority or two-thirds vote to pass resolutions while others insisted on a consensus model (all countries must agree). Being that the countries could not agree on these rules, decision-making appears to remain consensus-based. All countries must agree on everything. Any country should be able to object and prevent a resolution from happening.

1) On Friday night, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared that CELAC will be led by a Troika of countries: the current president pro tem (summit host) plus the previous and next hosts. Today, that means the Troika is led by Chile (President Sebastián Piñera is now president pro tem and the summit will be in Santiago in 2012) along with Venezuela, the most recent summit host, and Cuba, where the summit will be held in 2013.

How was this Troika organization decided? It's not quite clear. The Troika is written into the "estatuto de procedimientos" of the organization. Though countries agreed to this document, many appeared to be taken off guard by the announcement.

Doesn't CELAC's consensus model mean that all countries agreed to this model? Apparently not. Trinidad and Tobago strenuously objected on Saturday, saying that the English-speaking Caribbean must be represented in the leadership group and asking for it to be expanded to a quartet. Panama asked that CELAC establish a general secretariat. If Trinidad and Tobago and Panama objected and all decisions are consensus based, how did this Troika organization make its way into the document?

Also, it seems hard to believe that Brazil and Mexico would have handed over influence to an organization in which they have no say for the next four years. After Mr. Chavez announced the Troika, the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina left the summit and Brazil's foreign minister became uncharacteristically less enthusiastic about CELAC as a whole. The summit seemed to lose speed the second day and this Troika announcement appears to be part of the reason.

So what powers does the Troika have? The president pro tem has significant unilateral agenda powers, but needs to consult with the other two members of the Troika on a number of issues. The Troika determines whether the region's foreign ministers must meet to discuss a breach in democracy. There are also indications that the Troika, if they agree, can release a statement that speaks for all of CELAC in an emergency with only 12 hours notice. Though CELAC resolutions are non-binding, the ability to release resolutions and call all foreign ministers shows some serious diplomatic power. Additionally, Chavez is already calling for a meeting of the three Troika nations to be held to determine next steps, even though this sort of meeting is not mentioned in the founding documents. You should be able to see why countries like Trinidad and Tobago are upset about being outside the Troika.

Chavez's response to the criticisms: The Troika will meet soon to discuss those proposals about changing itself. It's good to be on the right side of the status quo in an organization that requires unanimity to reform (see veto power and the UN Security Council reform debate for another example of that).

If the Troika remains as is, this time next year, it will change to Chile, Cuba, and Costa Rica (the host of the 2014) and then will shift to Cuba, Costa Rica and whatever country hosts in 2015.

If CELAC has no significant power or influence, then this Troika really doesn't matter much. It will just be another platform for presidential speeches. However, if the CELAC organization begins to show signs of life over the coming year (and it will be the leadership of Chilean President Piñera that will largely determine that), you can bet that discussions over the 2015 host and Troika reform will become hot topics in the region.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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