The 2021 CELAC Summit. (AP)

The 2021 CELAC Summit. (AP)

Argentina Hosts 7th CELAC Summit amid New Presidential Landscape 

By Chase Harrison

With Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and a White House delegation in attendance, the Latin American body meets on January 24.

This article was originally published on January 19, 2023, and has since been updated.

On January 24, Latin America’s leaders will descend upon Buenos Aires for the seventh iteration of the CELAC Leaders’ Summit. CELAC, or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, is a multilateral group of 33 countries from across the Western Hemisphere that excludes Canada and the United States. This year’s round comes at a time when regional integration is a major focus for many of the hemisphere’s leaders, including newly inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He heads to Argentina to lead Brazil rejoining of the group following a two-year absence. And, though the group was originally founded to sidestep U.S. influence, Washington will be present this time around; U.S. Special Presidential Advisor for the Americas Chris Dodd will attend. AS/COA Online explores CELAC’s evolution and this year’s Summit in Buenos Aires.

CELAC’s shifting relevance

Founded in 2011, CELAC was intended to be an alternative multilateral forum for Latin American countries. Inaugural leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, envisioned the group as a counterweight to the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), which they viewed as dominated by the United States. CELAC, unlike the OAS, allows Cuba to be a member. Its stated goals are to promote regional integration and cooperation. CELAC represents 600 million people.

But over a decade in, questions exist about whether the body has been able to produce tangible results in a crowded field of overlapping regional organizations. As the region’s first “Pink Tide” of leftist leaders ebbed, CELAC struggled, with spotty attendance at or cancellations of forums, and no leaders’ summits between 2017 and 2021.

In 2020, the region’s largest economy, Brazil, suspended its participation. Then, in 2021, at the CELAC Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou criticized the participation of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As such, questions over membership have overshadowed discussion of how to execute the group’s agenda.

But the tide has turned once again. Though observers have pointed out differences among the newly elected crop of leaders, the fact that they largely trend left could breathe new life into CELAC, particularly as presidents such as Lula, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, and Chile’s Gabriel Boric make calls for regional integration. In the past two years, CELAC has taken steps such as providing a forum for the creation of a Latin American and Caribbean space agency, announcing a plan for “self-sufficiency in health matters,” and, most recently, condemned the January 8 insurrection in Brasília.

CELAC’s global reach

CELAC was launched with the goal of giving Latin America a platform to grow ties with other countries and regions, such as China, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union.

Of these, the body’s relationship with China has been notable, given that Beijing is the top trading partner of many of Latin America’s largest economies, including Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru. There have been three ministerial-level China-CELAC Forums, the last of which was in 2021. Amid questions over China supplanting U.S. economic ties to Latin America, these forums provide a space for Beijing to advance its regional initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. The next CELAC-China forum will take place in 2024.

There have been two EU-CELAC forums, held in 2012 and 2015. A third summit is planned for 2023, ending an eight-year hiatus.

This Summit’s guest list

With Argentina’s Alberto Fernández holding the pro tempore CELAC presidency, Buenos Aires is the host city of the January 24 event. A number of Latin America’s leaders, including Brazil’s Lula, Bolivia’s Luis Arce, Colombia’s Petro, and Chile’s Boric, will be present in Buenos Aires. But the event won’t just see a fresh set of Latin American faces; it brings what a decade ago might have been a surprise presence on the guest list: a White House delegation.  

Ahead of the Summit, Fernández described CELAC as a “multilateral” forum and announced that he had invited both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. No U.S. president has ever attended a CELAC Leaders’ Summit, but a spokesperson for the Argentine presidency said that, during the 2022 Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles, Fernández urged Biden for the White House to become involved in the body. Dodd will join, leading a group of National Security and State Department officials.

Xi, meanwhile, is expected to give a video address, just as he did at the last CELAC Leaders’ Summit.

But CELAC will have some no-shows. The Summit will not see the participation of Ecuador’s Guillermo Lasso, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro, or Mexico’s López Obrador.

López Obrador’s absence is notable, considering that Mexico held the presidency before Argentina did and hosted the last CELAC Leaders’ Summit, in 2021. Moreover, the Mexican leader has, alongside Lula and Petro, been vocal about the prospect of regional integration. As recently as January 9, while hosting the North American Leaders’ Summit, López Obrador called on Biden not to ignore Latin America and spoke of “strengthening our fraternal relationship in the American continent.” While hosting the last CELAC summit, he suggested that Latin America create an economic community akin to the EU’s precursor. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will go in his stead.

Maduro was slated to attend the event—and to meet with Lula the day before. But on January 23, he announced he would no longer make the trip to Buenos Aires. Maduro said his cancellation was in response to protests against his presence by several Argentine politicians, including former President Mauricio Macri and former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who called for the leader to be detained upon arrival. Maduro also faces mounting protests at home over the state of the economy. Venezuela will instead be represented by Foreign Minister Yván Gil Pinto

At the Summit, attendees will select which country will helm the organization in 2023. The elected country will immediately assume leadership.