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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.

A motorcycle moves past a mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro in Caracas, Sept. 2, 2006. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — The socialist ALBA summit that ended here Monday can trace its origins to two events that occurred in the same week, exactly 15 years ago, on opposite sides of the Florida Straits.

One took place in Miami. There, in December 1994, leaders from 34 countries met for the first Summit of the Americas. European communism had collapsed a few years earlier, and trade barriers were falling around the world. Eager to hasten that process in the region, U.S. officials laid out plans for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA.

Cuba was the only country in the region not present at those meetings. Its leader, Fidel Castro, had stayed home in Havana, and a few days later, he received a visit from a former Venezuelan army paratrooper who had been released from jail after a failed coup attempt against his own government. His name was Hugo Chavez.

Fifteen years later, the FTAA has stalled, its pro-business agenda frustrated by street protests and repeated failures to achieve consensus on key trade issues. What seemed almost inevitable in 1994 — the forward march of free trade — now appears more politically remote in the region than ever, as a wave of left-leaning leaders have come to power railing against the perils of neoliberalism

“We’ve buried the FTAA,” said Chavez, in his 10th year as Venezuela’s president, during his speech here Monday.

Indeed, the fastest-growing alliance in Latin America today is the socialist ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los pueblos de Nuestra America), which Chavez and Castro formulated as an alternative to the FTAA. In Spanish, the word “alba” means “dawn,” and its reference to “Nuestra America” (“Our America”) borrows a phrase from 19th-century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, lest there be any confusion about where to draw the north-south divide.

The Havana summit was timed to coincide with the alliance’s five-year anniversary, but also recalled those two fateful events in Miami and Havana 15 years ago. Beyond the pledges of cooperation and the strident anti-U.S. rhetoric, it was an occasion loaded with symbolism.

Seated on a dais before a vast auditorium of Latin American youth — including many students from ALBA nations granted scholarships by the Cuban government — was a left-wing lineage spanning six decades of revolutionary politics, from Raul Castro to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to Bolivian president and indigenous leader Evo Morales.

Fidel Castro wasn’t there in person, of course; he hasn’t appeared in public since 2006. But the retired commandante en jefe (commander in chief) was a dominant presence in the room, evoked in every speech. The ALBA leaders said they met privately with Castro during their stay, and pronounced him in good health. During his own speech, Chavez read a letter from the man he calls his “political father.”

“You, just as I, share concepts that evolved throughout millenniums but which have a lot in common with old and recent history, in the sense that society's division into masters and slaves, exploiters and the exploited, oppressors and the oppressed was always unpleasant and hateful,” Castro wrote. “In our times, it is the source of the deepest shame and the main cause of human suffering and unhappiness.”

Castro’s letter included several barbs at Obama, saying his “friendly smile and an African American face” were a disguise for U.S. imperial ambitions in the region. Having initially praised Obama for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Castro said the U.S. president’s decision to accept the award after sending additional troops to Afghanistan was “a cynical act.”