Friday, June 26, 2009

Can Latin America's "ALBA" Deliver?

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America, or ALBA according to its Spanish acronym, is a little known secret to many citizens of the United States. But throughout our hemisphere the Venezuelan-led project is gaining momentum and raising new questions about the future of trade and development in Latin America.

ALBA began in 2004 between Venezuela and Cuba when the two countries began exchanging petroleum for medical assistance. Cuba has sent more than 14,000 physicians free of charge to poorest sectors of Venezuela. In return, Venezuela at one time was sending ships to Cuba with 90,000 barrels of oil a day. In the last five years, the alliance has grown to include a total of nine members spanning South America and the Caribbean. Wednesday, ALBA made regional headlines adding Ecuador, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda as its newest member countries.

The major difference between traditional US- led free trade agreements, and ALBA is that the later explicitly works toward a version of regional economic integration that is based on a vision of social development and mutual economic aid. ALBA has a stated mission of "solidarity, cooperation, complementation, and justice." US trade initiatives are primarily concerned with market access and liberalization.

The alliance functions as a counter-weight to the free-trade negotiations initiated by the US in Latin America. The final declaration of the last ALBA summit makes no secret of the member's mistrust toward the US influence in the region.

"[We recognize] the strengthening of the ALBA and its consolidation as a political, economic, and social alliance in defense of the independence, sovereignty, self-determination, and identity of member countries and the interests and aspirations of the peoples of the South, in the face of attempts at political and economic domination,"

While the political position of ALBA has been well defined, there is very little information about the success or failure of specific projects within the alliance on delivering basic needs and creating economic opportunities for people within member countries. Ultimately, the impact on poor people in one of the vastly unequal regions of the world should be the most important aspect of any trade agreement here. Otherwise, ALBA would essentially be no different from the US agreements it seeks to replace. There will most certainly be political costs for nations who join ALBA in their relationship with the United States. Is membership in the new alliance worth those costs or is ALBA nothing more than an example of inflamed rhetoric?

There have been some positive developments, most notably Cuba's "Operation Miracle Program" which, has provided eye care to hundreds of thousands of poor people throughout Latin America. If the alliance does measurably improve the lives of people within membership countries, ALBA should no longer remain in the shadows of political debate and the development community in the United States should take notice.

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