SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – While President Daniel Ortega’s enthusiasm for regional integration has raised some expectations that he could be an effective president pro tempore of the Central American Integration System (SICA) next year, the Nicaraguan leader is already showing signs that he might instead confuse the situation by tangling the institutional process in his own political ideology.
After being handed the ceremonial post during the SICA presidential summit in Honduras on Dec. 5, it took Ortega all of 10 seconds to start talking about the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Venezuelaninspired integration and cooperation initiative among five leftleaning Latin American countries.
Though both Nicaragua and Honduras belong to the socialist club, integration experts warn it would be a mistake for Ortega to mix his own political ideology with the longestablished institutional process of Central American integration, especially when the other countries in the region have clearly stated they have no interest in joining ALBA.
Ortega, however, is pushing the issue. “We need to go further than integration, toward a unification of the Central American region and from there toward a unification of Latin America and the Caribbean. We are already advancing in this direction with initiatives such as ALBA, where Central American countries are participating,” Ortega told his Central American colleagues during the summit.
Ortega said he views regional integration as part of a new “alternative model” of development based on the principles of solidarity, justice and Latin American unity.
Yet in explaining his vision for an alternative model, Ortega has described a system built on the pillars of Venezuelan cooperation, namely ALBA and the PetroCaribe oil agreement that Venezuela has with other Latin American nations.
“This is the model we are defending,” Ortega said during a speech in October, “The alternative model we are working on, in which ALBA and PetroCaribe are already a reality.”
In his summit speech earlier this month in Honduras, Ortega implied that this new model of integration would replace the old model that was “imposed on us” and “which had us bound by our hands and feet.”
Now, Ortega said, Central America is starting to “take off its gag and make decisions to unbound our hands and feet to be free!”
Integration experts, however, are scratching their heads over ALBA and how it fits into the already established process of Central American integration.
“We see ALBA as a political initiative, but I don’t know of any concrete results of ALBA; it has no formal institutionality,” said Uruguayan diplomat Agustín Espinosa, a specialist in South American integration issues. “It seems to be more of a mechanism for cooperation and dialogue between countries with a common political vision. We see it as a project between a few countries, an initiative within the new paradigm of integration.”
Rony Abiú, of the Central American Support Program for Regional Integration (PAIRCA), said he doesn’t think ALBA will necessarily clash with the formal Central American integration process, which is institutionally defined and well advanced.
Ortega, however, seems to view integration within the paradigm of ALBA.
“Our experience in ALBA is what makes us want to continue in relations that we are creating with other countries in the world, both bilaterally and regionally,” Nicaragua’s viceminister of foreign relations, Manuel Coronel Kauz, told The Nica Times earlier this month during an interview in Honduras.
“In ALBA, we have found an element of solidarity that doesn’t normally exist in relations with other countries. This has an enormous effect on relations because it creates great confidence.”
Kauz said that the Sandinista government hopes that El Salvador will be the next Central American country to join ALBA in 2009, assuming the frontrunning leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) wins the president elections in March.
Though Kauz said that Nicaragua understands that ALBA and SICA are “distinct processes,” he explained that ALBA has an expansionist strategy to accumulate enough member countries in the hemisphere to form its own alternative Organization of American States (OAS), only without the participation of the United States.
“ALBA,” Kauz said, “has two projects: One project is to create a platform of solidarity between the countries of ALBA; and the other is to expand the group of countries so that we can create our own OAS, our own organization, and not be in an organization where the empire is managing all the decisions. What we want is to be our own leaders.”
While it remains to be seen just how hard Ortega will push the ALBA agenda upon his colleagues as president pro tempore of SICA – a six-month honorary post that will begin officially next January during a summit in Managua – both Costa Rica and Guatemala have already said no thanks.
“We have been categorical. We are in PetroCaribe but not in ALBA,” Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom told The Nica Times during the summit in Honduras.