By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
The sixth summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), hosted by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) at the National Palace on Saturday, Sept. 18, turned into a daylong shouting match between leftist and conservative leaders, overshadowing any hopes of real regional unity and shining a negative light on AMLO’s already-dubious international diplomacy skills.
No sooner had López Obrador offered his welcoming address to the attending heads of state (the presidents of half of the 32 member nations did not attend), than a clash of political ideologies sent the summit into a scurrilous tailspin, overshadowing AMLO’s would-be message of Latin American integration and the creation of a European Union-style economic bloc.
The fireworks began with Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez telling last-minute surprise guest Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro that he did not recognize his government.
“My presence at this summit, in no sense or circumstance, represents a recognition of the government of Nicolás Maduro,” said Abdo Benítez, a staunch conservative who was sworn in 2018 after winning on a law-and-order, business-friendly platform.
Maduro, a close friend and political ally of AMLO who was “re-elected” for a second term in 2019 amid widespread reports of coercion, fraud and electoral rigging, responded immediately, declaring that his government did not recognize that of Abdo Benítez, whose family has been closely linked to Paraguay’s strong-armed dictator for 35 years (1954 to 1989), Alfredo Stroessner.
The situation escalated even further a few minutes later, when Uruguayan leader Luis Lacalle Pou, another conservative who, much to AMLO’s chagrin, reclaimed the presidency from a leftist government that had amassed mass poverty and unemployment, a huge fiscal deficit and a surging violent crime rate that grew by 46 percent in the last two years due to lax policing and light sentencing, let loose a verbal rampage not only against Venezuela, but also against Cuba and Nicaragua.
“When someone sees that in certain countries there is no real democracy, when the separation of powers is not respected, when repressive apparatus is used to silence protests, they must speak out with concern,” Lacalle Pou said. “That is what is happening in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.”
In response to the Uruguayan president, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel, who just one day earlier had sparked widespread controversy in Mexico as an unprecedented guest speaker at the national Independence Day parade, broke protocol by taking the podium a second turn, this time to rant against Lacalle Pou.
“Listen to your people, who collected more than 700,000 signatures against the law that you imposed to adjust fuel prices, a neoliberal package,” Díaz-Canel said, referring to the Uruguayan government’s recently enacted 500-article Urgent Consideration Law (LUC), which opens the door for the privatization of state-owned companies.
But Lacalle Pou was quick to reply to Díaz-Canal, pointing out that, “at least in Uruguay the opposition can gather signatures and complain, because democracy exists there.”
“That is the great difference with the Cuban regime,” Lacalle Pou said.
The CELAC summit also courted the ire of outside observers, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio taking public issue with AMLO’s opening speech demands that the United States drop its economic embargo against the communist isle.
In a brief but powerful speech back in Washington, Rubio echoed Cuban American sentiments by pointing out that AMLO’s claims that the United States is preventing remittances to Cuba are false, since it the communist government itself that forbids its citizens from receiving U.S. dollars.
“When an American, a Cuban American, sends money to their family in Cuba, the regime takes 10 percent off the top,” Rubio said. “And then they take those dollars you sent and force the Cubans to convert it into a worthless currency. They keep the dollars, and then — guess what — if you want to buy anything, you’ve got to buy it from a government store, and guess what, the government store sells things for? Dollars.”
Rubio also disputed AMLO’s claims that the United States is denying internet service to Cuba, since in fact it is the Cuban government that is suppressing internet usage.
While companies like AT&T and Verizon want to open services in Havana, Rubio said, Díaz-Canel insists on being able to switch off social media networks to block Cubans access to unbiased news and to hide its violent abuse of its own citizenry.
And in a pointed comment against AMLO, Rubio concluded his eight-minute retort to the CELAC summit by saying that those who constantly repeat their endless attacks on the embargo either “don’t know what they are talking about, or they are liars.”
The international organization of Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile (Veppex), based out of Miami, also condemned AMLO for hosting Díaz-Canel and Maduro, who it called “murderers,” declaring López Obrador a “persona non grata” in the United States.
And while the summit was still underway, the government of Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez — who, along with the presidents of Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Panama, boycotted the CELAC meet — issued a statement condemning Maduro’s lack of “democratic principles.”
Even the official agenda of the summit caused raised eyebrows around the globe, focusing on, in addition to calling for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the creation of a pie-in-the-sky joint space program, a proposed regional disaster fund and a collective anti-covid-19 effort, but blatantly ignoring the crucial topic of the current migration crisis across the Americas.
By the same token, AMLO’s attempt to promote the CELAC as an alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), which he has openly condemned for excluding Cuba and for reprimanding Maduro, also fell flat, due in large part to the curtailed attendance of the summit.
But despite the disastrous outcome of the conference, Mexican Foreign Relations (SRE) Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who was in charge of organizing the event and who is currently courting AMLO’s blessing as his party’s official candidate for the 2024 presidency, tried to highlight the positive side of the summit.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the day, Ebrard called the summit a “success,” since several resolutions were unanimously adopted, including the condemnation of the Cuban blockade, a program to share access to covid vaccines and the tentative creation of a regional disaster fund.
“Let us not be put off by our differences,” Ebrard said. “Despite the differences that exist — which are admittedly serious and important — the meeting took place and several substantive decisions were adopted.”