Perhaps one of the most important figures of twenty-first century Latin America is Simon Bolivar. You will see his name graffitied on walls from Quito to Caracas, hear his name preached by figures ranging from Castro to Kirchner and, if you’re lucky, you might just see the Venezuelan president digging up his body. As weird as it is, the most mentioned name in Latin America for the past fifteen years has not been Chavez or Lula or Morales, but rather a man who has been deceased for over 180 years.
Any South American will tell you that Bolivar is most famous for kicking the Spanish out of Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama; a Napoleon of the battlefield. He is then less famous for unifying said countries under one flag; the red, gold and blue of Gran Colombia, but it a move which made him not just a great war time leader, but a great statesman as well. History, however, will tell you that this project was a huge failure. With so many different races, cultures and economies, the state was doomed to fail. Historians would say Latin Americans were simply not ready for it and certainly weren’t willing to fight for it. This battle, they agreed, would belong to another generation.
Enter the late Hugo Chavez. With his exuberant personality, red beret and severe distaste of ‘Yanqui’ imperialism, it didn’t take long for people to liken his foreign policy, and that of other leftist leaders, with the Bolivarian dream of ‘el Libertador’. Well Chavez is dead now, but his brain child – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – lives on, as was seen last week as his self-elected successor Rafael Correa took the lead in the 12th Alba Summit in Guayquil, Ecuador.
Alba has never been a significant player anywhere at all. It does little to define internal and external economic policy and with very little structure to implement common policy it’s is about as relevant as the Lib Dems. It is, in effect, a group of countries united by one thing: a distinct distaste of American influence in the region. It is little surprise, therefore, that the group is made up of ‘pink’ socialists.
With the death of their leader last year, critics soon began to proclaim that the Bolivarian dream was beginning to wane. With the very social movements who bought the leaders into power increasingly discontented, decreasing victory margins by its main leaders and lack of a clear leader, it is little surprise that speculation arose in such a way.
But the 12th Alba Summit seemed remarkably positive. As each of the eight delegations, and observer states from sympathetic allies including Argentina, Suriname and, um, Iran and Syria, turned up, there was talk of creating “a powerful economic zone” and they gleefully denounced the perfectly timed US spying scandal which saw a rare denunciation from almost every Latin American state. At the end Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, claimed:
“I am convinced that this meeting of presidents will see the resumption of our mission to defend the people, our resources and our ideals.”
So what the hell is going on? ALBA does very little other than bitch about America, talk about how great Bolivar was and come up with plans they never follow through with. What if, and this is a big if, what if the countries involved were getting something in return for this attempt at integration?
The truth is that without Venezuela, Alba would be about as useful as bacon in Baghdad. In exchange for allowing Venezuelan ideals and politics to infiltrate these countries, the nations can expect in return generous supplies of oil, aid and influence via the Bolivarian hegemon. Of course, the idea of small, less economically developed countries leaching off one oil-excreting, regional giant might seem like a bad place for “a powerful economic zone” to grow from, but is unlikely Alba plans to do this alone.
Venezuela is collapsing. Like the prodigal son, it has spent a lot of its money in less than sensible ways. With its economic growth expected to sink to a mere 0.7% next year from 5.6% this year, its years of funding inefficient social programs, nationalising industries and backing vanity projects are about to catch up with it. Please, do not take this as me condemning outright Chavez (his impact on creating a more independent Latin America is symbolic and important), but let’s say that it could have been done much better. Like a thousand times better. That said, the country still has a punch to pack.
With Venezuela sneaking into Mercosur last year, the most significant – but still grossly ineffective – Latin American regional organisation now has a real chance to join with ALBA whether it is through a merger, similar to that of Mercosur and the Andean Community, or individual membership of ALBA nations into the group.
It is, however, unlikely that a Venezuela acting as a Trojan horse will be effective, with the ideals of “21st Socialism” directly conflicting with Mercosur’s free trade principles. Venezuela may welcome the lack of interior boundaries (as will Brazil and Argentina who will use the nation as a dumping ground for consumer goods), but will grow frustrated with the far-from-ALBAesque relationship with the USA. That said, these ‘free trade’ principles have been in a steep-decline and merely allowing Venezuela a seat on the panel could push them over the edge.
In fact, Mercosur isn’t the only other regional organisation Alba must compete/work with. There’s the Andean Community customs union, the free-trade, economically conservative Pacific Alliance, the Caribbean based CARICOM etc. Keeping up?
With so many over-lapping economic and political agreements, it is hard to see any united Bolivarian dream occurring. What would it even look like? The European Union? The United States? Westerners like to look at Latin America as one in the same, but the amount of disagreements between countries can sometimes make European Union bickering look like an argument over who gets the last slice of cake. When was the last time France bombed Germany in a similar vein to Colombia’s bombing of Ecuador in 2008? How would the EU fair if its regular conferences were a mix of despots and the elected such is CELAC?
Alba will continue to live on, perhaps cooperating with a couple of other groups at the same time. Its use as a go-to forum might decrease as the realities of Venezuela become clearer or, as is becoming a norm at summits, the leaches will be encouraged to further develop their resource extraction to give a little bit back. For now though Alba remains primarily as a centre for Venezuela and friends to have a little grumble, make a few inflammatory comments and continue to dream the impossible dream.