Bolivarian Trade Alternative to
FTAA for the Americas
(Alternativa Bolivariana por las Américas in Spanish)
by Carolina Cositore
Z Magazine, February 2006
There is a shift in the prevailing winds
coming from the South, above all in South America and the Caribbean.
The transformations in progress can be difficult to understand
because they are different in each country-the revolution in Venezuela
is not the same as the changes in Argentina, which are not the
same as that in Brazil, Uruguay, or Bolivia.
Changes are also occurring at different
levels, with grassroots demands for more participation and control
over what governs their lives interacting with new types of leaders
or party structures that attempt to respond through their own
particular culture and perspective. These leaders and infrastructures
must also respond to the "keepers"-the WTO, IMF, and
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas (Alternativa Bolivariana por las Américas
in Spanish), is emblematic of the transformation occurring in
Latin America and it offers a way for the U.S. to get a handle
on "what these people want." The brainchild of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez, it is an alternative to the U.S.- backed
Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) treaty that is deservedly dying
a slow death as it does not mean free or fair trade.
Rather, it would be a death sentence
for agriculture. For many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,
agriculture is more than fundamental to the survival of those
nations, it is a way of life and culture, determining ways of
relating with nature, as well as providing food security. Real
free trade in agriculture means eliminating U.S. subsidies and
corralling other practices that have the equivalent effect on
food exports-something the U.S. is loath to do.
Another sensitive topic in the FTAA is
that of intellectual property, most particularly the 13 giant
drug transnationals that control 80 percent of the patents, as
well as the 5 agrochemical corporations that control the global
seed market. The FTAA would give an advantage to the mammoth (U.S.)
transnationals and leave the South without its advantages of genetic
diversity and the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people.
It would do this because, without patents on pharmaceutical products,
domestic markets have been able to offer generic medicines at
prices much below those offered by companies with patents.
In response, the World Trade Organization
now requires that medicines be patented.
Countries such as India and Egypt, which
have acceded to this demand for intellectual property rights,
have seen the giant pharmaceutical corporations first eliminate
competition and then raise prices out of the reach of ordinary
folk. Since the patent system does not recognize the knowledge
and resources of local people, the transnationals can appropriate
natural products used free or at low cost for centuries and sell
them back at exorbitant prices. This also has the important effect
of reducing genetic variety of many of the principal food crops
by using exclusively genetically manipulated seeds as well as
agrochemicals, thus drastically reducing auto-adaptation and regeneration
of ecological systems.
Another area of contention is the essential
services that many people (not in the U.S.) consider rights. Such
necessary services as health care, education, drinking water,
transportation, mail, as well as labor legislation and consumer
protection, would pass to private hands under FTAA. Those countries
that have privatized such basics have had transnationals enter
and transform citizens into consumers, very many of whom can then
no longer afford the services at all.
Although Venezuelan President Chavez (and
other Latin American leaders) recognize the importance of more
trade and support to development in the hemisphere, he is no dummy,
and seeing the road to FTAA paved with more poverty, unemployment,
and sparse development, he has proposed an alternative that would
encourage trade negotiations in sub-regional blocs to support
growth, balance asymmetries, and promote economic and social development.
ALBA is symbolic of the growing cooperation
between nations, not limited to the economic. One important example
is the strengthening of cooperative ties in different sectors
in MERCOSUR (the Southern Common Market) that encompasses Argentina,
Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay-soon to add oil-rich Venezuela,
plus Chile and Bolivia, as associate members.
To balance asymmetries among countries
and to construct ALBA, Venezuela proposes Compensatory Funds or
Structural Convergence Funds to significantly reduce the lopsidedness
between nations and productive sectors. ALBA proposes that the
nations in the region jointly identify the criteria to be used
to judge disequilibrium and give a clear definition of what is
a "smaller economy"-using such measures as population,
resources, production, composition of exports, level of industrial
development, per capita income, and levels of poverty.
With those criteria recognized, resources
would be directed to intra-national sectors to improve efficiency
and transparency. In contrast to the FTAA, ALBA proposes that
elimination of poverty and social marginality take precedence,
including human, labor, and gender rights, as well as defense
of the environment and integration.
Thus far under ALBA Venezuela has signed
contracts with Caribbean countries to supply oil under very favorable
conditions of payment and, in some cases (such as Cuba), part
of the oil payment has been literacy teachers and medical teams
for the Venezuelan poor. Another important ALBA program, co-sponsored
with Cuba, is Operation Miracle, permitting thousands of poor
people-initially just from Venezuela, but now from Guatemala,
Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama-to come to Cuba for eye surgery for
cataracts and other severe ocular diseases. The program now has
surgical centers in Bolivia and Venezuela as well.
These certainly don't sound like programs
and treaties that have come before. This is because ALBA embodies
a new kind of unity based on positive values.
Carolina Cositore (Sitrin) is a translator
and journalist in Havana, Cuba where she has lived since 1998.
A life-long progressive, she is a mother of five, grandmother
of six, and has been a teacher and social worker.