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It might seem far-fetched to compare Eastern Europe with Latin America, but for British workers two opposite routes are shown. Which way will we go?
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The Free Trade Area of the Americas: RIP


There was a good decision by the TUC conference last September to oppose the EU constitution. The conference should be congratulated. There was also a successful resolution supporting the new government of Venezuela. But Venezuela is at the heart of the fight against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the US attempt to do in the American continent what the US and the EU are doing in Europe.

The US set out its plans at the turn of the century to incorporate every country in the American continent and the Caribbean into the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, also known by its Spanish acronym ALCA), except of course Cuba, which opposed the concept from the beginning. ALCA would have meant a single currency, the dollar, for the continent and economic destruction and bondage to the US for the peoples of the region.

Cuba was later joined in its opposition to ALCA by Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. Today ALCA is effectively dead. Perhaps, therefore, to fully understand the implications of that TUC resolution, we should understand what is happening in the American continent and see if there are any lessons for us. The election of Evo Morales to the Presidency of Bolivia last December seems an interesting place to start. At his inauguration on 22 January, he was flanked by miners and farmers, to make the point to his military and the US, that the country's working class will defend his government.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with a majority indigenous population who, incidentally, for centuries have farmed coca. It has vast reserves of natural gas, and in recent years has seen a range of multinational companies plunder this resource for the benefit of US capital.

The US has been pressuring Bolivia to introduce wide ranging free market reforms in preparation for ALCA, and to control and asset strip the country's economy.
The Caracas slums, where much of Chavez's support comes from.
Photo: Workers

Popular opposition to this, led by Morales, and to the sale of the water industry to a French company, brought down two presidents. Morales describes capitalism as the world's biggest evil, and has exposed ALCA as US colonialism. His election represents a rejection of the US, ALCA and capitalist 'democracy' that enables capital to control the country. It also represents the abandonment of the traditional political parties in Bolivia by a majority of the population. He has been elected to nationalise Bolivia's large natural gas industry and end the US-sponsored coca eradication programme that has ruined farmers in many areas while failing to curb drug trafficking. The US can only look on in horror, and will no doubt play the cocaine card, despite Morales advocating the use of coca for medical and scientific purposes.

Morales' first acts following his election were visits to Cuba to sign an agreement on cooperation in health, education and sport, and to Venezuela to sign agreements on energy and health.

Seven years ago, the Venezuelan people also abandoned their traditional political parties to elect Hugo Chavez as their president. He immediately set up an assembly to draft a new constitution, which was agreed overwhelmingly in a referendum. It determined that the country's natural resources, oil and gas in particular, belonged forever to the Venezuelan people, enshrined the integrationist principles of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of South America, decreed that industries abandoned because of past neo liberal economic policies would be taken over by the people, and tilted power towards the majority of the population who lived in poverty while the oligarchs and the middle class lived in plenty.

After fierce battles with the US-backed opposition, including an attempted coup d'etat, the state-owned oil company, PdVSA, was rescued from plans to privatise it and brought firmly under the control of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It would now be used for the benefit of the people.

ALBA, the new dawn
The Venezuelan government also opposed FTAA/ALCA and proposed an alternative to it. It was to be the Bolivarian Alternative Area (Spanish acronym ALBA, which is also the Spanish word for "dawn"). It was intended to integrate the resources of the region for the benefit of the people as an alternative to the free market.

The first ALBA initiatives were agreed with Cuba. Venezuelan oil would be sold to Cuba at around half of the market price and would be paid for over many years at a low interest rate. In return, Cuba would construct a free health service for Venezuela's poor, the vast majority of the population who had always been excluded from health care. The Cuban health programme in Venezuela became known as Barrio Adentro, "inside the neighbourhoods". Today, 23,000 Cuban doctors and health professionals offer a first class health service in that country.

Having established primary health care in the poor districts, Cuba now provides state of the art equipment, medicine, and staff for the 600 new diagnostic centres across Venezuela that give a full range of health care from emergency and intensive care to dentistry and diagnostic processes, all free of charge.

The construction of the centres, funded by PdVSA Cuba, is also providing free medical training for Venezuelans so they might take over from the Cuban medical staff in the country. Venezuela wants to train 30,000 doctors for its new health service and a further 70,000 to be deployed free of charge across the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean alongside the Cuban Medical Brigades. It is not hard to imagine the reaction of the well off who have to pay dearly for this and who so far have backed the opposition to Chavez.

Similar oil deals called Petro Caribe and Petro Sur were signed with poor Caribbean and South American nations. Chavez countered opposition criticism that he was giving away Venezuela's resource by arguing that it was in Venezuela's interest to help, for example, poor Caribbean nations whose tourist industries had been decimated by the advent of cruise liners, so as to minimise emigration from there to Venezuela.

In November 2004, the people of Uruguay obliterated the Colorado Party that had ruled the country for a century and elected a new coalition under president Tabare Vasquez. This government has started to eliminate hunger among the poor and tackle housing and education. As well as being an ALBA partner in Petro Sur, it has entered into another ALBA project – TeleSur. This is a television channel whose stockholders are the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina. It is based in Caracas and broadcasts to South America and the Caribbean in Spanish as an alternative to CNN. It mainly broadcasts news-related programmes but includes serials, sport and documentaries, and its philosophy is the promotion of ALBA. It permits advertising only from state companies and institutions.
1 May 2005, and Cuban workers express support for Venezuela
Photo: www.siporcuba.it

Uruguay also has an agreement with Cuba on medical collaboration and is a beneficiary of the Unesco-acclaimed Cuban literacy programme called "Yes, I can do it!" This programme has already abolished illiteracy in Venezuela under Plan Robinson (verified by Unesco), and is being applied in Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, Argentina, Honduras and among the indigenous population of New Zealand.

Argentina abandoned its traditional politics when the government's neo-liberal economic policies caused the country to default on its debts. There was nothing left to privatise except the city parks. Personal savings were frozen in the banks. The new president, Nestor Kirschner, also elected to reject traditional politics, told the IMF and World Bank that Argentina would not repay their debts to them, and invited them to make offers of lower sums.

Whenever a country cannot or will not repay its debts to these institutions, it is excluded from the world capitalist financial system. It cannot trade, borrow or obtain credit, and its currency cannot be traded. Venezuela proposed a barter arrangement with Argentina – oil for cattle. This was successful and Argentina then proposed to the IMF and World Bank that it issue Bonds to raise money. They agreed, assuming that no one would buy Bonds in a bankrupt nation. Venezuela immediately bought $500 million of the Bonds raising their value, followed by a further $500 million making the Bonds an attractive investment. Argentina has now cleared its reduced debt with the IMF.

A participant in ALBA cooperation, Argentina looks to have broken the cycle of dictatorships and corrupt government. Venezuela and Argentina, learning from this experience, are now planning the establishment of a bank, based in South America, to enable countries that cannot or choose not to repay debts to the IMF, to continue to operate outside of the capitalist world financial system.

Eyesight 'miracle'
Perhaps the most visual ALBA project is the joint Cuban–Venezuelan Operation Milagro ("miracle"), which is restoring sight to hundreds of thousands of the poor from the Caribbean and Latin America free of charge. In most cases, an agreement is struck between governments on the principle that the patients are selected based on low income and the home country pays for the flight. Venezuela then takes responsibility to gather the patients in Caracas, and Cuba then flies them to Havana for surgery at the Pando Ferrar Ophthalmic Hospital.

Some 1,500 patients and relatives are flown daily to Cuba, and the target for the number of operations has been raised from 100,000 annually to 260,000. There are provincial ophthalmic centres operating across Cuba with the Pando Ferrar as the reference centre. The surgeons treat cataracts, glaucoma, short sightedness and undertake cornea transplants, refractive surgery, retinopathy, and ocular plastic surgery.

Those currently participating in the project include Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, Bolivia, Panama, Argentina, Surinam, St Lucia, Guyana, Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis. The plan is to devolve these centres to other countries to avoid the need for the flights, and the first agreement to do this was signed by Morales in Havana recently. Cuba will build and equip an ophthalmic centre in Bolivia staffed by Cuban surgeons.

Of course there have been setbacks. The government of President Lula in Brazil has recently cancelled a debt of $15 billion to the IMF but is not yet winning the 200-year-old battle against corruption and the power of the oligarchs.

In Paraguay, a nation associated with dictatorships, submissive government and second only to Bolivia in the poverty league table of South America, the new government of Nicanor Duarte was welcomed as he began to undo the legacy of the past dictatorship. Medical and educational collaboration with Cuba began to help the country's poor. However, the government was not able to withstand pressure from the US to allow the free transit of US military on its territory. This has now developed into a massive military base close to the point where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet.
The Venezuelan people's March for Victory, Caracas, 8 August 2005

The Bolivarian Revolution
But in Venezuela, the Bolivarian revolution deepens. Land is being redistributed from wealthy landowners to landless peasant farmers. Industries that failed to survive the economic policies of the previous government are now running under new ownership – 50% by the state and 50% by the workers of those plants.

Illiteracy has now been eradicated. Radical changes in the distribution of health, education and food have been introduced. All immigrants have been granted citizenship, winning them to the revolution.

A majority of Venezuelan states are now controlled by Bolivarian revolutionaries. All national elections and referenda have been won by the Chavistas. The first "Bolivarian" universities are accepting students from the poor majority without charges instead of limiting access to higher education only to those wealthy enough to afford it. Some 1,500 CITGO petrol stations in the US, owned by the Venezuelan state, have begun to sell cheap heating oil to the poor of the US, who are also being offered free eye surgery under Operation Milagro.

The Venezuelan opposition, which controls most of the TV, radio and press, is now in a state of disarray but desperate, and is in contact with the Colombian right-wing death squads. The revolution will, however, now try to win over the middle class.

The US has barred Spain and Brazil from selling planes to Venezuela – marking the beginning of a US embargo. As for ALBA, there are now proposals for continental oil and gas pipelines (Venezuela has the world's biggest known reserves of natural gas and a recent audit suggested that oil reserves may be equal to Saudi Arabia's). Venezuela has entered Mercosur, the South American trading organisation. In April, Peru may well elect as its new president Ollanta Humala, like Evo Morales, an ally of the Bolivarian revolution and a firm enemy of FTAA/ALCA.

The unity of these nations with a common colonial past and, in most cases, a common language, is the absolute opposite of the EU or the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It is voluntary, based on the welfare of its people and mutual respect for each nation's sovereignty. The common theme is the jettisoning of the old political parties and traditions, and an understanding by the people of those countries that neo liberalism is a death sentence. The concept and language of neo-liberalism is widely understood across South America.

So what can we in Britain learn from this? Firstly, that a better world is possible, and we don't have to accept the EU as inevitable. Secondly, we should not cling on to the existing traditional political parties – let go of Labour.

But what practical lessons are there for us to learn to tackle the EU in the same way that they have tackled the Free Trade Area of the Americas? Well, we can start by recognising that the EU and FTAA/ALCA are one and the same. It's of no value shouting "Solidarity with Venezuela" if you are not prepared to fight for Britain's independence from the EU, in the same way that Venezuelans have fought for their independence from FTAA/ALCA.

We could also stop our unions being used as partners in colonial-style "nation building" in Eastern Europe and Iraq. We should demand that our unions are free of government influence and control, refusing funding from government front organisations to help promote their agenda. This is, after all, what the TUC demands of foreign unions.

We could, for example, demand that Britain refuse to accept doctors and nurses from poorer countries, be they Malawi or Poland, and that no British-trained doctors or nurses be allowed to take their qualification to richer countries such as the US. This would protect poorer countries and force Britain to train more of its own doctors and nurses. This would, of course, be illegal under European Union law on the free movement of labour and would require us to take control of our own borders.

What about a demand that British natural resources should be owned by the British people in perpetuity, like in Venezuela? This would mean nationalising (or maybe Venezuelan style co ownership) North Sea oil, what remains of our coal industry and our water industry. Does that sound so bad? But it would contravene the Human Rights Act (an EU creation) that protects capitalist property rights, EU regulations and the proposed EU Constitution.

How about the state and the workforce taking over industries laid waste by Blair's continuation of Thatcher's economic policies? We could start with Rover, move on to the coal industry (investing in Clean Coal Technology) and then tackle all those manufacturing companies that have gone to the wall. However, the EU does not permit the state to 'subsidise' these industries, and EU regulations would deem it to be 'anti competitive'.

So it becomes clear that we cannot make progress, we cannot do these basic, simple things whilst we remain in the EU. Let us learn and take hope from events on the American continent. But the buck stops here with us.

See EU/Ukraine article