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ALBA: Venezuela’s answer to free trade

Focus on the Global South | December 2006

By Diego Azzi and David Harris

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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

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

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 source: Focus