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The rise of a southern axis

How a socialist alliance outlived a free trade agreement and helped cement Hugo Chavez's status as the new leader of the Latin American left.

But perhaps the most important symbolism at the ALBA summit was the role of Chavez himself.

The Venezuelan president sat at the center of the stage beside Raul Castro. He gave the longest speech. And he told stories about those first meetings with Fidel Castro in December 1994, joking that he was “intimidated.”

“Thank you, my commander, for making me your son,” Chavez said.

Since Chavez was elected in 1998, trade between Cuba and Venezuela has grown from $30 million a year to $7 billion in 2008, according to Cuba’s state media. Castro’s protege has become his standard-bearer. His long efforts to spread socialism in Latin America have now been formalized with ALBA.

Drawing inspiration from the pan-Latin unification visions of Cuba’s Marti and South American liberator Simon Bolivar, the ALBA pact began in 2004 with Cuba and Venezuela as the only two member states. Since then, following electoral victories by leftist leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, the alliance has grown to nine countries. Honduras, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have all joined, and Haiti, Uruguay and Iran have observer status.

Bankrolled by Venezuela’s lucrative oil exports, ALBA also promotes cooperation on health, social and environmental issues. The alliance staked out a common position on climate change in advance of the Copenhagen talks, and announced a new campaign in the region to improve the lives of the disabled.

Politically, ALBA has become a kind of litmus test for Latin American leaders in recent years, a way to gauge how far they’re willing to lean toward Chavez and away from Washington.

With member states like Venezuela and Bolivia expanding ties with Iran — a designated ALBA “observer” and the only non-Latin American country affiliated with the group — U.S. officials have eyed its growth warily. Leaders at Havana’s ALBA summit bristled at U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent warning that Latin American governments should "think twice" about building ties with Iran.

“Bolivia will have relations with everyone — with Iran, with Venezuela, with Cuba!” said Bolivian president Evo Morales, buoyed by his re-election win earlier this month. “If the U.S. wants to have good diplomatic relations, they need to drop their condescending, paternalist attitude. Those days are over. We won’t allow anyone … to tell us who we can have relations with!”

Over and over during the summit, U.S. plans to use Colombian military bases for expanded anti-narcotics operations was cast by ALBA leaders as a sinister imperial plot, drawing especially hostile statements from Morales.

“If the empire continues with its military aggressions, I’m sure that Latin America will be a second Vietnam for the United States,” he predicted. “We’ll defend ourselves in Latin America and defeat the gringos … just like in Vietnam.”

The next ALBA meeting is schedule for April in Caracas.