The rise of a southern axis

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.”

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.