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December 7, 2006

ALBA: VENEZUELA'S ANSWER TO FREE TRADE
By Diego Azzi and David Harris

 

Summary
The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) represents the first attempt at regional integration that is not based primarily on trade liberalization but on a new vision of social welfare and equity. Alternatives are often either theoretical to the point of impracticality, or so micro that scaling up presents huge challenges; ALBA is both large-scale and, to an increasing degree, taking concrete shape. While many aspects of the project are still unrealized or only in the process of realization, and despite some apparent contradictions between theory and practice, ALBA is an important case study.

The fact that ALBA is spearheaded by Presidents Chávez, Castro and, more recently, Morales, of Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia respectively, the hemisphere´s 3 biggest bogeymen for neoliberal imperialism, only makes the tale that much more interesting. When US President George Bush turns up in Latin America to promote the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), he is routinely cold-shouldered; Chávez on ALBA is greeted like a rock star.

Venezuela´s Answer to "Free Trade": The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), by David Harris and Diego Azzi, provides a detailed account, and a critical assessment, of the ALBA project to date.

Work so far has involved an exchange of cheap Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors and healthcare expertise. This includes `Operation Miracle´, which aims to provide free eye operations, plus transportation and accommodation, to 600,000 citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean each year. Bolivia´s recent entry in ALBA agreements saw it gain doctors and teachers, technical assistance for managing its hydrocarbon extraction sector, and a market for its soy beans, while its contribution is mainly in the form of its natural gas reserves.

Harris and Azzi provide a summary historical background to the US economic and political hegemony over the region and compare the ALBA project with other regional integration efforts, namely the South American Community of Nations (CSN), Mercosur, and the FTAA and bilateral Free trade Agreements between the US and various countries in the region. These other efforts either directly support the neoliberal model that perpetuates US regional hegemony, or at best do not question it. ALBA, by contrast, flies in the face of the Washington Consensus. The authors also point out that ALBA, unlike other regional groupings, has so far played virtually no role in international fora such as the WTO or G20.

Working from the little documentation available, Harris and Azzi attempt to paint a picture of what the ALBA project may eventually look like. A handful of concrete proposals are made explicit. These include participatory budgeting at the local level, revoking referenda and public declarations of income for all elected posts, public participation mechanisms, and a set of regional talking shops for elected office-holders. But the projected scope of ALBA is huge, covering 19 issue areas: 1. Oil and Energy; 2. Communication and Transportation; 3. Military; 4. External Debt; 5. Economy and Finance; 6. Light and Basic Industries; 7. Natural Resources; 8. Land, Food Sovereignty and Land Reform; 9. Education; 10. University; 11. Scientific and Technological Development; 12. Mass Media; 13. Health; 14. Gender; 15. Migrations-Identity; 16. Habitation; 17. Protagonist and Participatory Democracy; 18. Indigenous Movement; 19. Workers Movement. This is a clearly a much more comprehensive vision of international cooperation than your average trade agreement. Proposals for the realization of these areas of work run from a Cooperative Bank of the South complete with credit card, to a regional TV and radio network, Telesur to continental oil and gas pipelines.

The authors point to a striking disjuncture between ALBA as it is visualized and ALBA as it has been practiced so far. The rhetoric is firmly grounded in popular participation and the expectation that ALBA initiatives will `come from the people´. But most of what has happened has been put in place by agreements signed by heads of government, with little sign of any involvement of the masses. The authors spend some time tracking the initially wary but increasingly friendly attitude of social movements in the region.

The paper provides a detailed scan of the position of each of the major ALBA countries in turn, plus Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. While Argentina and Brazil are beginning to get involved in ALBA activities, the prospects for Mexico seem to have dimmed with the stealing of the presidential election from Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Brazil´s position is both important, as the largest economy in the region and would-be UN Security Council permanent member, and seriously conflicted. On the one hand, the anti- poverty policies of the Lula government ought to dovetail easily into the ALBA framework. But the flagship state corporation Petrobras enjoys immense prestige at home while operating in neighbouring countries in a way that differs little from other transnational oil companies. The paper also gives a quick compare-and-contrast tour of regional groupings elsewhere in the world.

The concluding section notes that while civil society in many countries round the world is getting excited about ALBA, the exercise also runs great risks. The authors concentrate on the threats within the major ALBA countries. But a quick word count reveals the dark shadow that looms over the entire project: the main text contains 83 instances of the words `Venezuela/Venezuelan´, 77 of `Bolivia-Bolivian´ and 49 of `Cuba/Cuban´. But `US´ occurs 74 times. And they don´t look like ever becoming a member.

Download the full report
<http://www.focusweb.org/alba-venezuela-s-answer-to-free-trade-the-
bolivarian-alternative-for-the-ame.html>

 

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