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Regional cooperation or ‘free trade’?

Liberation News | August 30, 2012

Regional cooperation or ‘free trade’?
The path for the development of Latin America

When President Obama was first elected, many in Latin America hoped to see a change from the imperialist and neoliberal policies of the United States carried out under the Bush administration. It was this spirit that motivated Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, in his first meeting with President Obama, to give him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”

Instead of a reversal of Bush’s policies, however, the Democratic administration merely struck a softer tone, while trying to achieve the same strategic objectives. It has in fact employed many of the same tactics—coups, demonstrations of military power and free trade agreements—with the goal of weakening anti-imperialist currents in Latin America and maintaining the region as “America’s backyard.”

Colombia Free Trade Agreement

In October 2009, the U.S. formally entered into an agreement with the Colombian government to allow U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia. Most recently, Obama visited Colombia to oversee the enforcement of the free trade agreement that went into effect on May 15.
Three million small-scale farmers in Colombia, including many of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, produce around 40 percent of the country’s food supply.

According to a report compiled by several human rights groups, Colombia is expected to import two-thirds of its food as a consequence of the FTA. The income of 1.8 million Colombian farmers will drop by 16 percent.
Furthermore, the deal will affect the poorest farmers the most, with those already making minimum wage expected to lose between 48 percent and 70 percent of their income.

This will accelerate the existing trend of forcible and economic displacement in Colombia’s countryside, which has affected 5 million peasants in the last 12 years. These millions have been forced to join the ranks of the country’s urban poor, or turn to coca cultivation.

Colombian economists say that with the deal, they will export significantly less and import more, exporting only $191 million in goods and services, while importing around $571 million from the United States. As we have seen with free trade agreements in Mexico and Haiti, small-scale production will be the hardest hit, with larger national industries pushed into cutthroat competition with U.S. corporate giants.

Ché Guevara once summarized “free trade” between the imperialist and underdeveloped countries as a “free fox among free chickens.” It is no surprise that the FTA has generated mass protest and criticism from Colombian workers’ organizations and people’s movements, and was opposed by U.S. labor federations as well.

While the U.S. and Colombian governments issued a “labor action plan” in 2011 supposedly to protect Colombian trade unionists, dozens have already been assassinated since it went into effect. Their pretty words notwithstanding, the Colombia FTA not only shields the Colombian ruling class but offers a reward for its decades-long war on activists and unionists.

The Bolivarian Alliance: another way

The Colombia FTA comes as a compensation for the failed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have included all Latin American countries in trade agreements with the United States. The cornerstone of Bush’s Latin America policy, the FTAA was initially approved at the 2001 Summit of the Americas. All countries present had voted for the plan with the heroic exceptions of Venezuela and Cuba. Cuba was not invited because of pressure from the United States.

Over the next few years, the FTAA fell apart, as millions took to the streets across Latin America to oppose neoliberalism and elect more left-wing and anti-imperialist governments.

In this context, Venezuela and Cuba initiated the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which came into existence on Dec. 14, 2004. ALBA today is made up of eight member states: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Nicaragua. Suriname and Saint Lucia were admitted to ALBA as guest countries and Haiti may also join.

The apologists for neoliberal policies argue that the development of countries like Colombia requires further integration with the global capitalist economy and the United States in particular. In this economic arrangement, the poorer countries must shape their economies and policies based on their “comparative advantages” (for instance, cheap labor or a cash crop), which can attract investment from the rich countries. In this way, they can attract the “hard currencies” of the imperialist countries—Western Europe, Japan and especially the United States. This then allows for the purchase of costlier commodities, as well as high-technology industrial goods.

ALBA shows another way. While it is not entirely immune to the pressures and prices of the imperialist-dominated global economy, ALBA allows poorer countries to trade directly, without relying on U.S. dollars. Cuba, for instance, receives oil and natural gas from Venezuela and Bolivia in exchange for Cuba setting up health care and educational programs throughout those countries. These campaigns have largely eradicated illiteracy, while greatly enhancing access to health care for the poorest communities. These regions have also seen 32 percent reductions of infant mortality rates.

As another example of how ALBA aims to work, several years ago Venezuela struck a deal with Caribbean countries that offered cut-price oil in exchange for essential foodstuffs. This sort of arrangement runs against the dictates of imperialism and the profit-seeking logic of capitalist trade relations.

The first steps have already been taken for a Bank of the ALBA to provide credit and capital to member countries, without the traditional predatory and parasitic debt regulations imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. ALBA has also created an independent regional trade currency, SUCRE, which allows member states to avoid U.S. dollars.

ALBA: Independence and cooperation

While Cuba is the only socialist country in ALBA, the alliance is a model based on economic and social cooperation based on respect for national sovereignty and self-determination. ALBA pledges to promote an anti-imperialist policy in the region and the world and recently signed a document in support of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and full independence. ALBA condemned destabilization and intervention in Syria and has given the Argentinian government full support in its diplomatic dispute with the United Kingdom over the Malvinas Islands.

It is clear why ALBA presents a threat to the imperialist powers. While coups and military interventions reveal the violent nature of imperialist rule, the lopsided economic relations constitute the day-to-day domination over the underdeveloped world.

 source: Liberation News