Argentina on Friday took over the pro-tempore presidency of CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños) as the region’s “consensus” candidate, declaring its main mandate is the “quest for agreement.”
Government officials hailed the development, with Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero declaring that “receiving unanimous confidence is a real commitment" from the region.
"This pro-tempore presidency is a great honour and pride for Argentina because we understand the timeline we are in. This is not beginning today from scratch," said Cafiero.
Opposition lawmakers, however, expressed concern over the news, speculating that the move marked a clear foreign policy shift away from the United States and towards governments with questionable human rights records, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Addressing CELAC foreign ministers at a summit in Buenos Aires, President Alberto Fernández declared that the regional bloc "was not born to oppose anyone." Praising Mexico's role in "revitalising" the body, the Peronist leader thanked the group for its confidence and ongoing support in talks with the International Monetary Fund to reach a new financing programme and restructure Argentina's outstanding debt.
CELAC consists of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries but the Buenos Aires conclave only brought together 32 of them after the decision of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro not to send a representative.
The pro-tempore leadership will permit Argentina to return to the role of mediator in the United States’ backyard as has not happened for a while. The main challenge will be settling the open conflicts in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela where, according to the denunciations from the opposition, the democratic institutions have ceased to function correctly while human rights are trampled down every day.
Created just over a decade ago under the influence of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, CELAC has for years been the preferred sphere of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba from which to direct their criticisms of the United States and its “policy of interventionism” in Latin America. Since Canada and the United States do not form part of CELAC, the government of former president Mauricio Macri gave it zero importance, a path now followed by Bolsonaro.
Meanwhile the PRO centre-right opposition party speculated that the government had made "concessions" to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela "to obtain votes or avoid vetoes" and clinch the temporary presidency.
PRO’s International Relations Secretariat underlined "the need for the national government to promote restoration and validity of democracy and human rights in all the countries of the continent."
Prior to the meeting of CELAC foreign ministers, the opposition party remarked that the "claim" to that position "cannot lead to forgetting the requirement to sound the alert over the human rights situation in the three countries of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, where a systematic undermining of the individual rights and liberties of those sister nations has been verified."
"We question the concessions which the national government has made or could make to obtain votes and/or avoid vetoes in the face of the evident abuses by the dictatorships of the aforementioned countries," alerted PRO.
After Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard highlighted the "consensus" among CELAC members to back Argentina’s candidacy, Cafiero underlined in his speech Friday that the aim is "to make the region much fairer," calling on CELAC members to work towards "their peoples overcoming social injustice."
"CELAC was not born to compete against anybody or anything. It was born out of the gut feeling of Latin American and Caribbean peoples as a response to the need for unity without exclusion," affirmed the minister in reference to the Organisation of American States (OAS) and its sanctions against nations like Cuba or Venezuela.
In that sense, he remarked that "CELAC is a forum tailor-made for the region," defining the outlook planned by the Argentine government for the next year: "The quest for agreement is our main mandate and respect for diversity our guideline."
"As for the dialogues we plan to pursue beyond the region, we wish to continue strengthening dialogue with the European Union, China, India, Russia and the African Union, among others," anticipated Cafiero in his speech, with the United States a striking absence from his words.
The EU model
Back in July, reports revealed that the administrations of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Alberto Fernández were hoping to run CELAC along the lines of the European Union.
While Argentina received strong support for its candidacy, the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega did raise objections as a reproach for the recent condemnation of his regime by the United Nations Human Rights Council, now headed by Argentine diplomat Federico Villegas.
Despite this hitch, Cafiero and his team received the support of his Mexican colleague Ebrard who pulled together the votes of Central American governments in favour of the candidacy of Alberto Fernández. Argentina even paid the air tickets for countries to be directly present at the meeting even though their votes could have been cast remotely. The representatives of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Kitts and Nevis arrived in Buenos Aires via an invitation from the Casa Rosada at a total cost of almost US$70,000.
In the view of many analysts, the Argentine position seems to be open defiance of the United States. Buenos Aires’ Ambassador to Washington Jorge Argüello and Strategic Affairs Secretary Gustavo Beliz will be entrusted with working with the officials of the Democratic administration of Joe Biden to find a balance between condemning and soothing the governments accused of being authoritarian, such as the Ortega couple in Nicaragua.
During the meeting of foreign ministers at the Foreign Ministry, Santiago Cafiero outlined 15 areas of action proposed by the government to discuss during Argentina’s pro-tempore presidency: 1) post-COVID economic recovery; 2) regional health co-operation; 3) space cooperation; 4) science, technology and innovation for social inclusion; 5) integral disaster management; 6) education; 7) institutional reinforcement and the CELAC anti-corruption agenda; 8) food security; 9) dialogue with partners beyond the region; 10) the integration of Latin American and Caribbean infrastructure; 11) environmental co-operation; 12) the development and perfection of CELAC operations; 13) improving the situation of women in member countries; 14) digital transformation and co-operation and 15) culture.