The ALBA Bloc: An Alternative Project for Latin America? (ARI)

The ALBA Bloc: An Alternative Project for Latin America? (ARI)

Theme: The Venezuelan/Cuban proposal for the so–called ALBA (the Spanish acronym for Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which also includes Bolivia, Nicaragua and Dominica, is an alternative project designed to promote integration in Latin America and the Caribbean. This ARI looks at the initiative’s origin, evolution and concrete proposals.

Summary: The 7th summit of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), held on 26 January 2008 in Caracas, triggered much concern with its announcement of plans to create a military alliance between the organisation’s five member states. The proposal for integration was defined as ‘an effort to build the overall Latin American project, with a correlation of favourable political forces on the continent that will allow them to consolidate as a political and economic alternative’. Is this an accurate definition and is the ALBA actually an alternative integration project that is politically, economically and strategically viable, or is it simply a political counterproposal to the Free Trade Area of the Americas advocated by the US? ALBA’s discourse seems to have taken hold in the region, but its proposal for integration, including the military alliance, is not viable. Still, what ALBA has done in practice through mechanisms like Petrocaribe shows a viability and impact that are in fact much greater than major international players attribute to it.

Analysis: The 6th ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) summit, held on 26 January 2008 in Caracas, triggered much concern with its announcement of plans to create a military alliance between the organisation’s five member states. Also worrying was the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s accusation that the government of Colombia was preparing a ‘military provocation’ against Venezuela. This came at a time when relations and trust between the two countries were at the lowest levels ever. The organisation also announced the creation of its own bank, Banco del ALBA, and Dominica’s incorporation to the integration scheme.

The attendance of 11 Presidents from the 16 member states of Petrocaribe at its 4th Summit, held on 21 December 2007 in Cuba, indicates the strong Venezuelan leadership in relation to ALBA. The 5th ALBA summit in Venezuela, on 29 April 2007, assessed the programmes and projects approved in the first Strategic Plan and the cooperation and integration activities carried out in 2006. This led to ALBA being officially described as ‘an effort to build the overall Latin American project, with a correlation of favourable political forces on the continent that will allow them to consolidate as a political and economic alternative’. Is this an accurate definition and is the ALBA actually an alternative integration project that is politically, economically and strategically viable, or is it simply a political counterproposal to the Free Trade Area of the Americas advocated by the US?

President Chávez suggests the idea of the State as a ‘producer’, based on the formula of ‘more State and less market’. Is this viable with today’s globalisation, in which the main players are not only States but also private entities such as media conglomerates, financial organisations and multinational corporations, which are behind the large flows of capital? Even now the argument in Latin America between neo–liberals and Keynesians –or free marketeers vs. interventionists– revives the old clash between development–oriented economists and structuralists in the 1960s, and between liberals and planners in the 1930s. The well known dilemma of ‘market or State’ does not help clarify things much, either.

The political, economic, social and cultural debate stemming from globalisation and its social effects is fuelled by the ‘concentration vs. equality’ dilemma. The theoretical clash on development centred on these issues in the second half of the 20th century. Today it seems to have been overtaken by the emergence of new problems such as improving living standards in conditions of freedom, democracy, sustainable development, climate change and the importance of citizen participation.

The economic reforms undertaken in the region have led to inequality and a lack of opportunities, both among poor and vulnerable people as well as indigenous communities, women, the young and the elderly. At the same time, the concentration of wealth in certain sectors of the political and business elites, mainly linked to multinational corporations, has fuelled corruption and created even greater inequality. This has increased the unequal distribution of wealth and privileges, which at the same time hinders institutional changes that would end privileges of certain social, political and business classes. All of this has generated significant discontent and disillusionment with politics. To some extent it is to blame for the problems of governance that affect the region and has made it easier for a new breed of politicians to emerge, many of them clearly anti–globalisation, anti–US and anti–free trade. Still, it cannot be ignored that the US continues to be the main investor and the most dynamic recipient of exports for most of the countries in the region and that some of them, such as Venezuela, are major trading partners.

Table 1. Latin America: main trading partners by sub–region

MERCOSURAndean Community of NationsCentral American Common MarketCARICOMMexicoChile
Latin America and the CaribbeanUSUSUSUSNAFTA (US, Canada and M exico)
EUEUCA Common MarketLatin America and the CaribbeanEUEU

Note: in the cases of MERCOSUR and CARICOM, trade with Latin America and the Caribbean includes trade within the region.

Fuente: Sieca, ‘Estado de Situación de la Integración Económica Centroamericana’, 2007,; CEPAL, ‘Panorama de la Inserción Internacional de América Latina y el Caribe, 2004. Tendencias 2005’, 2005,; Secretaría de la Comunidad Andina, ‘El Comercio Exterior de los Países Andinos en el año 2006’, 2007,; Dirección de Promoción de Exportaciones de Chile,; OMC,; Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales, ‘La política de comercio exterior y promoción de inversiones: resultados y perspectivas’, 2006,

Trade agreements or treaties with the US are an important aspect of the overseas agendas of the countries of the region. Washington has devised a kind of commercial diplomacy with a strong ideological component stressing unilateral action following the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal. Lively debate has swept the region in relation to free trade accords that prompted serious conflicts in some sub–regional integration entities, such as Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Andean Community of Nations in April 2006 and the decision by Uruguay and Paraguay to start talks with the US on possible trade treaties due to the asymmetries in MERCOSUR and the limited benefits they obtain from belonging to that bloc. Venezuela has threatened to pull out of MERCOSUR because of a trade focus that Chavez says ignores social issues. And Costa Rica has gone so far as to suffer a parliamentary and governmental paralysis because of pre– and post–referendum debate on the free trade accord between Central America, the Dominican Republic and the US. While this accord was based on the policy of trade, not aid, ALBA is anchored more on the idea of a barter system rather than free trade.

In this context, the processes of integration in Latin America are mired in doubt, as shown in the region’s growing fragmentation. Rather than a rise of the left, as some observers suggest, what is occurring is a resurgence of populism in some leaders and of fragility in democratic systems. Everything points to problems in terms of weak mechanisms for political agreement, fights over leadership and differing versions of regional integration. Latin America has achieved a functional democracy without at the same time improving its democratic governability. Economic integration becomes a point of contention between the regional blocs because of trade disputes and different perceptions of how to link up with the international system, even more so these days with the possibility of a global economic vision.

The Launching of ALBA
The Peoples’ Trade Treaty was signed in Havana on 30 April 2006 by Venezuela and Bolivia –the two countries of Latin America with the largest energy reserves– and Cuba, giving an excessive ideological slant to political and economic relations in Latin America. It was also the seed of ALBA, a regional integration proposal made in December 2001 in Isla Margarita by the government of Venezuela in response to the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal that arose at the summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994. ALBA offers an alternative to free trade accords, on the basis of three principles: (1) opposition to free–market economic reforms; (2) not limiting the regulatory action of the State in favour of economic liberalisation; (3) harmonising relations between the State and the market.

Chávez is of the opinion that, although the countries of Latin America agree on the fundamentals of regional integration, they lack an adequate strategy for implementing it. He says it is also necessary for integration projects to ‘stop serving imperialism and national oligarchies’ and become a tool for economic development among social sectors of the peoples of Latin America.

Even though it is ideologically charged, ALBA merits analysis. Since it was announced in 2001, it has taken shape in the programmes of the Venezuelan government, especially through links with the strategies spelled out in the National Development Plan for 2001–07, which seeks a balance in five areas: social, economic, political, territorial and international. This is how the Chávez government is pursuing a kind of endogenous development, both national and regional.

Another feature of ALBA is its focus on and handling of social, cultural, historical, economic and environmental issues. These are the ones over which ALBA is at odds with the Central American free trade accord. ALBA makes a nine–point proposal based on criteria that are more sensitive and socially oriented in terms of the relationship between the State, society and the environment. The proposal is based on respect for human rights, workers, gender and biodiversity. It places a special emphasis on a differential treatment for the poorest countries by creating a Structural Convergence Fund as a tool for reducing regional asymmetries.

The efforts stemming from ALBA take concrete shape in two strategies. The first is to create a television station, TVSUR, the goal of which is to become a multi–state company, initially between the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba, but with the possibility of taking on new members later. The second strategy is aimed at using oil as a foreign policy tool by associating it with the process of consolidating ALBA, Petrocaribe, Petroandina, Petrosur and the concepts of major national projects (proyectos gran–nacionales, or PG) and companies (empresas gran–nacionales, or EG). The signing of the Caracas Energy Accord in 2001, and more recently the creation of Petrocaribe in 2005, along with the initiative to create a South American Energy Cone –presented at the MERCOSUR summit in June 2005– and Venezuela’s leading role at the First South American Energy Summit in April 2007 in Isla Margarita have laid the foundations for the creation of new scenarios for regional cooperation and integration.

Petrocaribe has become ALBA’s conduit for implementing energy policy. Clear evidence of this is a scale for financing oil sales on the basis of crude prices. If oil prices exceed US$50 a barrel, for instance, 40% of this is financed, the payment period is extended to 25 years and the interest rate is reduced to 1%; and if it is a short term payment, the period is extended from 30 to 90 days.

The Bank of the South (Banco del Sur) was founded on 9 December 2007 by six South American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela). The idea was to devise an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, with ‘financial sovereignty’ to control resources and above all set terms for loans in South America. The plan is for the member countries to come up with a total of US$800 million, but it has not been decided how much each will contribute and where the money will come from. Finally, the ALBA Bank was created on 26 January 2008, with initial reserves of US$1 billion and the authorisation for this sum to double. Its goal is to encourage economic and social integration by easing inequality and promoting a more even distribution of investments, while urging Latin American countries not to depend on the US economy or place its reserves in it.

ALBA’s Shortcomings
The ALBA proposal has its shortcomings. One of the main ones is that the same criticism that was made of the Central American free trade accord –to the effect that there was a lack of consultation and consensus between the different social agents involved in the region– could also be levelled against ALBA. It has not summoned the players involved in the initiative to discuss the proposal. Furthermore, the nature of the plan, with its strong unilateral slant, is perhaps another weakness. It comes from Venezuela, which did not consult in a significant way with any of its trading partners in the region. The initiative seems more ideological than trade–oriented.

Another criticism levelled against ALBA is that it reflects a major clash between Venezuela and the US, creating a climate of tension and confrontation in which the countries of the region are forced to take sides. This led the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ Da Silva to state that trade relations are not the place to defend ideologies and that Hugo Chávez should recall that his country sells 85% of its oil to the US.

It should also be pointed out that ALBA might be perceived as contradictory, rather than complementary as some suggest, to other integration proposals. This applies especially to the South American Union of Nations (UNASUR), a Brazilian diplomatic initiative. It first arose under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and was formalised by President ‘Lula’ Da Silva at the 3rd meeting of South American Presidents in Cuzco, Peru, in December 2004. Then, it took on the name South American Community of Nations. All signs are that ALBA and UNASUR give expression to struggles for leadership in the region. This situation was revealed at the 3rd UNASUR Presidential Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, on 27 January 2008 when the draft charter founding UNASUR was not approved by all the members.

Put briefly, ALBA seeks a new integration model through mechanisms that promote economic and social development, fight poverty and social exclusion and raise the living standards of the Latin American people. Its principles fall within the concept of endogenous development –development from within, as encouraged in Latin America in the 1960s–. Its pillars are cultural and social aspects and cognitive and human capital, with a strong nationalist and anti–US slant.

Looking to the Future
The last ALBA summit served as the setting for Chávez to voice strong criticism of the governments of the US and Colombia. He said Washington was creating conditions to generate conflict in Latin America. This prompted the Venezuelan leader to suggest a defensive military alliance against US plans. The proposal drew reactions from members of ALBA and observer nations. Ecuador, one of those with observer status, said in an early reaction that it did not back the initiative. Nicaragua said any proposal involving its armed forces must first be analysed by its National Assembly, so President Daniel Ortega’s support for Chávez’s military plan would have no legal basis or concrete value.

Meanwhile, the last Petrocaribe summit, held in Cuba in late 2007, showed that Venezuela’s policy of bartering and soft loans is gaining support in the region. Honduras joined the organisation, and the new government of Guatemala said it wanted to. A plan was devised to allow countries to pay for Venezuelan oil with local products and services. This reaffirmed Chávez’s strategy of trying to turn debt into mechanisms of integration, following the successful example of recent years with Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay.

The same can be said of the agreement to create a joint venture company –Petroandina– on 18 June 2005 at the 16th Andean Presidential Council, made up then of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. Petroandina began operating with US$1.5 billion in Venezuelan capital and 51% Bolivian share capital in the framework of ALBA. The idea was to develop four major projects: (1) installation of petrochemical plants; (2) a plant to separate liquid from gas; (3) the creation of 35 service stations in eight regions of the country; and (4) a subsidiary to certify gas and oil reserves. Political and legal disputes arose because of non–compliance with contracts and indemnities to multinational companies from various countries, including Spain and Brazil –the latter with the state–run company Petrobras, the main oil company operating in Bolivia–.

As for 21st–century socialism as an ideological proposal from Chávez, it makes no sense to take this concept devised by Heinz Dieterich too seriously on a theoretical level. But it is worthwhile to assess its political function, in which it has important similarities with socialist ideas of the 20th century, particularly the role of the State, the role of the party in society and the State, and the cult of personality, among others. Chávez is building his own political project not only by drawing inspiration from this kind of socialism, but also –according to Susanne Gratius– from the Argentine Peronism of the l940s and from Fidel Castro. So Cuba and Venezuela have forged a complementary alliance in which Castro contributes the political ideas and part of the logistics.

These characteristics, added to the oil boom and the consolidation of Chávez’s power –despite the setback he suffered in the referendum on constitutional reforms on 2 December 2007– have allowed him to exercise independent regional leadership that has gradually won him allies for his ALBA project among governments and presidential candidates.

In the context of globalisation, autocracy is impossible. The governance problems in the region clearly show the need for a State with far greater capabilities. This opens a new debate between returning to a ‘producer’ State –engaged in activities from energy to agriculture, banking and other areas– or strengthening the ‘regulating’ State –with the capacity for taxing the main agents operating on the market, with economic stability and sustained growth and economic and social policies focused on boosting and developing the middle classes, as in the cases of Chile, Brazil and Mexico–.

Conclusions: The predominant discourse at ALBA, strictly derived from Venezuela and Cuba, seems to favour more autocracy and strictly endogenous forms of development as opposed to other methods. The viability of development in the context of globalisation seems to be linked to a greater extent to the major international markets, which drive economic development with effective social policies that help ease poverty, inequity and inequality in a democratic context. ALBA’s discourse seems to have hit home in the region. But its proposal for integration –including its military project– is not viable. However, its effective actions through mechanisms such as Petrocaribe display a viability and impact that are greater than those attributed to it by the main international players.

To sum up, new factors in Latin America are opening a new political cycle in the region, characterised by a significant polarisation and different kinds of leadership, as in the cases of Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela. The current status of the integration processes gives the impression of a region that is increasingly splintered and lacking a clear direction on issues of integration and political agreement.

Even though in recent years various integration proposals have emerged or re–emerged –such as ALBA, UNASUR, the Puebla Panamá Plan or the Rio Group, to cite just a few– none has managed to consolidate and serve as a regional model for all of Latin America. For this reason, it is necessary to debate whether the proposals should be for all countries or, to the contrary, simply accept that there are several Latin Americas that have increasingly diverged. In this debate ALBA appears to be an alternative project.

Josette Altmann
Associate Researcher at the General Secretariat of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO)

Josette Altmann

Written by Josette Altmann