Alternativa Latinoamericana
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Alberta, Noviembre/November 2009
ALTERNATIVA Latinoamericana
Alternative Forms of Trade and
Halifax, Nova Scotia recently played host to
a unique symposium that offered participants the
opportunity to hear directly from visiting front-line
representatives and grassroots leaders,
academics and diplomats from Cuba, Venezuela,
Bolivia and El Salvador about the achievements
and challenges of new models of integration and
cooperation in the region. A symposium of this
magnitude on alternatives to the capitalist, neo-
liberal model is unique in Canada, and most
notably in the Maritimes. Saint Mary's University,
one of the co-sponsors of the event, is to be
commended for its critical approach to
nt studies; and for providing the
opportunity for the public to explore alternative
models of participation, trade, economies,
healthcare, education and the media. SMU
helped to bridge an often overlooked gap of the
connection between academic research/debate/
exchange and the broader community where
universities reside. Other co-sponsors included
the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Public
Service Alliance of Canada, Nova Scotia Cuba
Association, LATIN@S Canada, and Just Us
Coffee Roasters Cooperative.
The concept of the symposium was to bring
together some of the leaders of progressive
social, political and economic change in Latin
America to talk about the positive achievements
that are driving a new model of integration in the
region. Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia are all key
participants in the Bolivarian Alliance for the
Americas (ALBA), also known as the people's
trade agreement. ALBA is based on a series of
non-reciprocal agreements that are rooted in the
principles of solidarity, complementarity, and
recognition of the various kinds of asymmetries in
the region.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the
symposium was the opportunity to debunk, de-
mystify, deconstruct and debate commonly-held
assumptions about the new participatory and
integrated models developing in Latin America
with the leadership of some of the countries
present at the symposium. Most North Americans
form their worldview of Latin America through the
lens of the mainstream, corporate, English-
language media (a handful of companies) or the
CBC. The mainstream, corporate North American
[and European] media have shown a distorted
and biased view against the governments of
Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia (and others), with
little attempt to examine factual data that shows
important levels of progress in the region. Actual
data obtained from research shows a different
picture than what is being reported.
The connection to Nova Scotia should be
obvious ­ Nova Scotia's history is tied to north-
south trade with the Caribbean and beyond. Nova
Scotia, and broader Canadian society, has a
long-standing history of solidarity with Cuba, in
particular, but also with other countries in Latin
America and the Caribbean. Not to mention the
hordes of Canadians that flood southern beaches
in the frigid winter. But most importantly, Canada
is part of the Americas, and could be an
instrumental player in helping to promote a multi-
polar world more in keeping with Canadian
values, than the current divisive and imperialist
policy of the Conservative minority government.
Cuba's Internationalism
The opening night was a celebration of the
50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and
Cuba's internationalism. The symposium opened
with a dedication to the people of Honduras. This
was a recurring theme throughout the
symposium, as speaker after speaker exposed
the hypocrisy and condemned the illegal actions
of the current de facto government. After a
keynote address by Isaac Saney tracing Cuba's
history of internationalism, a panel of
representatives from Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela,
the Caribbean region and El Salvador responded
with a brief analysis of Cuba's impact in their own
countries and in the region. Panelists Edgar
Torrez (Bolivian Ambassador to Canada), Juan
Carlos Coronado (Charges D'affaires,
Venezuelan Embassy in Canada), Marta Lilian
Coto (FMLN Deputy for El Salvador to the Central
American Parliament) and Norman Girvan
(University of the West Indies) all acknowledged
the Cuban people's contributions to healthcare
and education, but also the inspiration and spirit
of resistance that Cuba represents throughout
the region.
Norman Girvan gave an emotional response
"la deuda es impagable" (the debt [to Cuba] is
unrepayable) as he outlined the numerous
selfless acts committed by Cubans in the defence
of human rights and the promotion of self-
determination. Teresita Vicente (Cuban
Ambassador to Canada) ended the session by
thanking Canada in particular, but all Latin
American brothers and sisters for their
unwavering support for Cuba's right to self-
determination over the years, and for believing in
the Cuban people.
ALBA: The Power of an Idea
Saturday's sessions began with a powerful
presentation on ALBA by Norman Girvan. Girvan
pointed to a number of forces that have combined
to bring about positive change for the majority of
people in the region who have been marginalized
for centuries. These forces include the increasing
strength and power of social movements and
participatory democracy; the failure of neo-
liberalism; the rise of regional integration and the
institutionalization of integration; the importance
of sovereignty; and, the regional leadership of
Brazil and Venezuela.
"The ALBA mission is to construct an
alternative (to neoliberal) model of integration
among peoples and countries that is people-
oriented; and based on solidarity,
complementarity, and differential treatment of
countries in recognition of various kinds of
asymmetries (size, level of development, financial
resources, energy resources, and human capital
capabilities)" (Norman Girvan: http://
smu0310909/ ).
Girvan connected the growing strength of
the ALBA relationship and the backlash from the
right-wing who are losing their grip on power. The
most apparent manifestation of this is the coup
d'etat in Honduras. Girvan stressed that the
current peaceful resistence movement in
Honduras -- a coalition of popular organizations
grouping campesinos, poor communities,
Garifunas (Afro-Hondurans), indigenous groups
and women`s organizations ­ is responsible for
preventing the illegitimacy of the de facto
government from taking hold. Girvan concluded
with questions about the role of integrated social
movements in the region in decision-making
regarding ALBA funds, and the need for greater
transparency and accountability.
Dalhousie University scholar John Kirk, and
University of Havana Phd candidate and
representative of Latin@s Canada, Nchamah
Miller, continued the discussion on Cuba. Kirk
demonstrated that far from being the isolated
country portrayed in the media, Cuba is a country
that is profoundly respected across the world. He
focused on the extent of Cuba's medical
internationalism and the significant impact it has
had and is having on the region. He emphasized
that this was a model for the international
relations for other countries. Miller outlined the
transcendental importance of the Cuban
Revolution for Latin America. She pointed out that
the Cuban Revolution represented not only a
break with the island's and the region's history of
imperial domination, but reinvigoration of Latin
American traditions and thinking. As new
emancipatory movements sweep and re-shape
Latin America, Cuba has been a potent source of
symbolic and concrete inspiration, as witnessed
the previous evening of the symposium.
Julio Chavez, the former mayor of the first
socialist city in Venezuela, and current member of
the Lara state legislature for the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela (PSUV), described a
constitutional five-phased process for
implementing popular power in the municipality of
Pedro Leon Torres in the state of Lara (capital
city is Carora). These five stages are 1) re-writing
the municipal constitution via citizens assemblies;
2) a 100% participatory budget process that
turned decision-making over to the citizens
through a series of open assemblies; 3) the
creation of more than 500 communal councils in
the municipality where groups of between 200-
400 families organize to prioritize community
problems, and then carry out the works to
address those problems; 4) the creation of the
socialist commune; and 5) the constituent
Chavez then spent some time comparing
social and economic statistics between 1998 (first
significant change in government) and 2008.
Venezuela dedicates 15% of GDP to improving
and increasing the delivery of social programs
such as education, healthcare, housing, food
security; and, has increased the minimum wage,
decreased inflation, decreased unemployment,
and eradicated illiteracy since President Hugo
Chavez was first elected in 1998.
Alex Borda and Edgar Torrez described the
recent history of devastation caused by structural
adjustment policies and experimentation by
international lending agencies and the country's
small economic elite. Again, we see a different
conjuncture of forces culminating in sweeping
social change led by a coalition of numerous
organizations, political parties, indigenous
peoples, etc. Torrez in particular focused on
important advances for the central role of
indigenous peoples in Bolivia, and the
redistribution of wealth and opportunity, the
democratic process, the approval of a new
constitution, and important achievements in
education and social welfare.
El Salvador
Marta Lilian Coto, a historic figure in the
FMLN and leader of the Women's Commission, as
well as FMLN deputy to Central American
Parliament (PARLACEN), traced the path of the
grassroots left in El Salvador, which today
includes a coalition of interests like the FMLN,
workers organizations, churches, community
media, small businesses, academics, students,
etc. Coto stressed the importance of the recent
electoral victories of the FMLN, and outlined
some of their objectives in the coming four years.
Although not an ALBA member country, FMLN-
run municipalities have agreements with ALBA
Petroleos to supply low-cost oil to local gas
stations. In exchange, a percentage of earnings
must be spent on social programs in the
municipality. This has allowed a number of
important improvements in sanitation, water,
transportation and infrastructure in urban and
remote areas.
Implications for Canada
So where does Canada fit in? Canada's
foreign policy has historically tended to be multi-
polar in nature, so there is a natural fit with
ALBA's principles. Surely no-one continues to
believe that the current neo-liberal model is
sustainable, and that free markets and so-called
free trade are the only answers to resolving
issues of assymetry, inequality, environmental
devastation and disempowerment. The Latin
American countries Canada is curren
tly focusing
its energies on through free trade agreements
(Peru and Colombia) both have smaller
economies than Venezuela and Brazil.
Coincidentally, they continue to suffer from a
1980's structural adjustment hangover, and that,
coupled with their continued right-wing
orientation, currently makes them, along with
Canada, an anacronysm.
As a self-determining sovereign nation,
Canada expects others to respect its sovereignty
and must do the same in return for other nations
whose citizens have a different vision of what kind
of economic system, or political system they want.
ALBA, while experimental and developmental in
nature, offers an alternative model of trade and
exchange, based on principles that fit with our
own -- those of equality, fairness, democracy,
cooperation and solidarity. Our national
government is mired in the past, with foreign
policies driven by profit above all, rather than
policies of human solidarity as exemplified by
ALBA and the new Latin America of the 21st
century. We, as a country, are being left behind.
The Power of an Idea:
ALBA takes hold in Halifax
By Jay Hartling
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