SANTIAGO, Chile -- Cuban leader Raúl Castro was sworn is as president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States on Monday even though his regime is clearly at odds with the organization’s stated aims — the promotion of democracy, free trade and free speech.
The irony of Castro’s appointment was not lost on human rights campaigners, who say his government has suppressed its people for decades.
“I think it’s a disaster, a very serious mistake and a setback for the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the New York-based Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, a not-for-profit non-governmental organization.
“It sends a message from the governments of the region that they couldn’t care less about the poor human rights record and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” he told The Miami Herald.
Castro assumed the CELAC presidency at a brief ceremony in the during its summit where Latin American and European leaders have been meeting over the past three days.
“It’s a great honour for me,” the 81-year-old said. “We accept it [the presidency] with a commitment to work for peace, justice, and understanding between all our peoples. We will act in full compliance with international law and the United Nations’ charter.”
Cuba will lead CELAC until early 2014, when Ecuador will take over. The organization was founded in Caracas in 2011 as a brainchild of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. It groups 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean but excludes the United States and Canada. Many people see it as Chávez’s challenge to the Organization of American States, which is based in Washington and includes the United States and Canada among its members.
Chávez did not attend the summit. He has not been seen in public since undergoing surgery for cancer in Cuba last month. Vice President Nicolás Maduro led the Venezuelan delegation and read a 12-page letter, signed in red ink, that he said was written by Chávez.
The letter made only passing reference to the president’s health, which the Venezuelans say is improving. A government spokesman told reporters at the summit on Saturday that Chávez had overcome a serious respiratory infection but still had “a certain degree of difficulty in breathing.”
Outgoing CELAC President Sebastián Piñera of Chile paid homage to Chávez’s “vision, tenacity and strength” and said the region’s leaders were praying for his speedy recovery. “We’re all hoping he can win this battle, perhaps the hardest battle of his life,” Piñera said.
At the end of the summit, the leaders approved a 48-point “Santiago Declaration” in which they reaffirmed their commitment “to the universality and indivisibility of human rights as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
They criticized the U.S. Helms-Burton Act, reiterating their opposition to what they described as its “extra-territorial provisions.” The act, passed in 1996, reinforces the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Critics of CELAC say that if it really believes in the importance of human rights and democracy it should take a tougher stance against Cuba, where the Castros have been in power for 54 years. They also accuse the organization of hypocrisy for inviting Cuba to the summit while effectively excluding Paraguay on the basis of its dubious democratic credentials.
The Chileans say the Paraguayans could have attended if they had wanted to, but diplomatic sources say that in private they were told to stay away. Paraguay has been suspended from at least two other regional bodies since last June, when President Fernando Lugo was controversially impeached by the senate and replaced by his Vice President Federico Franco.
“The decision to effectively exclude Paraguay is quite revealing of the double standards of the region,” HRW’s Vivanco said.
During his three-day visit to Chile, Castro faced a number of small protests, led by members of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the largest and most conservative party in the Chilean government. It accuses Castro of harboring at least four Chileans wanted in connection with the assassination of Jaime Guzmán, a founder of the UDI and its guiding light. Guzmán, a Chilean senator, was shot dead in Santiago in 1991. The UDI has been asking the Cubans for information about the suspects for years, so far without response.
Piñera raised the issue with Castro during a bilateral meeting on Saturday.
“President Raúl Castro promised to study the evidence and cooperate as fully as possible,” the Chilean leader said.
Several CELAC countries reached bilateral agreements with their European counterparts during the summit, and Piñera hailed important progress in education, science, technology and energy.
But it remains to be seen how effective CELAC will be in resolving regional disputes and promoting the region’s interests in the rest of the world.
“CELAC’s raison d’etre is to get together once a year without the United States and Canada, with no budget, no treaty, no headquarters and no personnel,” Vivanco said. “And now it’s led by the de facto leader of Cuba? It’s hard to take seriously.”