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A new era of accommodation

US-Latin American relations face a sea change in the coordinates of regional power, diplomacy and cooperation. The space for a fresh balance of interests has become manifest.

Diana Tussie Pia Riggirozzi
8 February 2015
José Miguel Insulza. Demotix/ Zacarias Garcia. All rights reserved.

José Miguel Insulza. Demotix/ Zacarias Garcia. All rights reserved.The normative and geopolitical conditions that for decades secured an extraordinarily influential position for the United States and US-sponsored institutions in inter-American governance have changed. Since the early 2000s, ideological polarisation and different approaches to hemispheric governance have increasingly meant that new regional institutions are reclaiming the region and rebuilding inter-American relations, while forcing the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) into accommodating to the changing conditions and juggling for influence.

The challenge is not merely one of symbolic politics led by left-leaning presidents railing against US domination. US-Latin American relations face a profound change in the coordinates of regional power, diplomacy and cooperation.

For more than a decade now, Latin American left-leaning governments have been reworking spaces and institutions that govern inter-American affairs. Various efforts have been made to create organisations to act as alternatives to Washington-based institutions. The creation of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) in 2004 led by Venezuela and Cuba, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), should all be seen as manifestations of this shift. All three organisations exclude the US and  Canada.

These are potent expressions of the increasingly diversified global engagement of Latin American and Caribbean countries with countries outside the region, particularly China.  They attest to the growing diplomatic importance of alternative regional bodies in fostering new compromises, institutions, funding mechanisms, policies and practices within the region in issues such as security, (political) rights, development, energy, infrastructure and security.

The re-politicisation of the inter-American order has piled on the pressure for Washington and Washington-led institutions. The OAS, once a core institutional disciplinary mechanism, is now fighting to remain relevant as new rules are asserted by CELAC and UNASUR. Diplomacy is being played out at the highest stakes. The sixth Summit of the Americas, a process affiliated with the OAS and held in Colombia in April 2012, displayed the US divergence with the region in terms of policy toward Cuba and anti-drug strategy. The second CELAC Summit, celebrated last February in Havana, was attended by the OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza – the first time an OAS Secretary has set foot in Cuba.

And the OAS is losing grounds on signature issue areas. UNASUR has effectively displaced the OAS as a regime stabiliser and has become the preferred institution for conflict resolution and mediation in the region (Bolivia in 2008, Ecuador in 2010, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, and Venezuela in 2013). It is engaged in innovative forms of ‘niche diplomacy’, representing South America as a whole within the World Health Organisation and vis-à-vis international pharmaceutical corporations.

For its part, CELAC has entangled the US in a process of ‘unsociable sociability’ with regards to  Cuba. The latter gained diplomatic ground  as host to the most recent CELAC Summit, one attended not only by the OAS Secretary General but also by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Cuba is now also likely to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas, hosted by Panama – a condition of other countries´ attendance, despite staunch opposition from US members of Congress. The diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the US is a timely step in this direction, saving the US from the embarrassment of no-shows at the event.

The importance of this diplomatic coexistence is to be understood as a recognition of Cuba as an integrated member of the inter-American system, whether Washington en toute likes it or not. The space for new regional policies and a fresh balance of interests has become manifest, as we indicated when furthering the notion of ‘post-hegemonic regionalism’. Our argument then and now is that differences and disagreements are no longer just a question of ‘take it or leave it, my friend’. Post-hegemonic regionalism opens up a new era of accommodation in more equitable ways than the customary hard-line hegemonic diplomacy had ever accepted.

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