There was a time when Central and South America were seen as America’s back yard. No longer...
That was an interesting few weeks through July and August with Edward Snowden holed up in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, hoping that some country would offer him political asylum out of reach of the US authorities who want to lock him up and throw away the keys. Venezuela and Nicaragua both offered him asylum. Bolivian President Evo Morales found his Presidential plane grounded in neutral Austria because of threats by NATO countries over his remarks in Moscow that Edward Snowden would be welcome in his country.
Caracas, Venezuela: The election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 marked a major shift in the politics of South America
Photo: Alexander Chaikin/shutterstock.com
And of course, there’s Julian Assange having been granted asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. So what’s going on in Latin America that places these countries in the position that they can stand up to and defy the USA and NATO?
Well, there has been immense change, and a gradual process of growing unity among this family of nations that includes both Central and South America and the Caribbean – with Cuba at the heart of it.
That all looked unlikely back in 1962 when the Organisation of American States (OAS), founded by the USA in 1948 to extend its hegemony over the Americas, suspended Cuba over the October missile crisis, at the behest of the USA.
Every country in the Americas was a member of the OAS, which was committed by its founding pledge to “fight Communism”. It was an integral part of the Cold War structures.
But that was then. Fast forward to 2009 when the OAS voted to revoke the suspension of Cuba from the organisation in defiance of threats from the USA and with only that country voting against. Instead, the OAS voted to suspend Honduras following the US-led coup against President Manuel Zelaya. Cuba, though, declined to take up its membership in a move that started a debate on an alternative to the OAS.
So what brought these political changes about? Maybe the trigger was the attempt by the USA to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA in Spanish). This was a proposal to force every country in the Americas into the straitjacket of a US controlled trade pact, with the exception of Cuba.
The concept, kicked off in 1994 at the summit of the Americas in Miami, came to public notice in 2001 at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas. This summit was the target of massive demonstrations protesting against capitalist “globalisation” and once again the summit excluded Cuba.
Some 150,000 marched in opposition to the FTAA in Quebec on 20 April 2001 while 11 days later, on May Day, Cuban trade unions organised a million workers to protest in Havana under the slogan “Anexo no! Plebesito Si!” or “No to Annexation! Yes to referenda”. Cuban trade unions had been campaigning internationally against globalisation since 1996 when they coined the simple, but now widespread slogan – “a better life is possible”.
Doomed to failure
With opposition from Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Dominica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela – Hugo Chavez described the FTAA as “a plan for annexation” and a “tool of imperialism for the exploitation of the Americas” – the summit was doomed to failure.
But the USA would not give up its attempt to impose the FTAA. Most countries had noticed that its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) which included Canada, the USA and Mexico, had destroyed Mexican agriculture because the USA continued to subsidise its own farming. There had never been any suggestion of the people of the Americas having any say on the FTAA. This may seem all too familiar to those who have been warning about the Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) currently being proposed by the USA and the EU and which will not even be subject to ratification by EU member states.
But how did the Americas progress from subservience to the USA to outright defiance? In the 1990s, Cuba was in a bad situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 had led to a total collapse of its trade. The USA had taken the opportunity to tighten the political and economic blockade, and at one point in 1994 was literally starving the island to death.
By the late 1990s, oil and energy were the main problem as Cuba was forced to buy at premium rates on the spot market. Cuba had to change its economy and turn to tourism to earn hard currency. This led to Latin American tourists flooding to Cuba and seeing the country with their own eyes.
Then in 1998 and 1999 hurricanes Georges and Mitch hit Haiti and the Central American countries of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, inflicting heavy loss of life.
Cuba not only sent doctors to help in the relief effort but offered to train young people from those poor areas that had suffered, to become doctors. In the meantime, Cuban medical staff would build a health service, based on the successful Cuban model, for the poor in those countries and the Cuban staff would eventually be replaced by the young nationals of each country who had been trained at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. Although Cuba had no diplomatic relations with those countries, it would not be long before ambassadors were exchanged.
In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected as President of Venezuela, a country previously governed by a corrupt media-controlling elite with second homes in Miami. Chavez took on these oligarchs with the backing of the poor from the slums and, by agreement with the people, in 1999 changed the Constitution. Through that, the name of the country was changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela after Simone Bolivar, a leading liberation fighter against the Spanish colonialists whose goal was to unite South America into one republic.
This led the Venezuelan government to take full control of PDVSA, the state-owned but corrupt petroleum industry, using the revenues for popular projects. Cuba was involved in establishing a health care system for the barrios as well as providing anti-illiteracy experts and teachers. In exchange Cuba received low cost oil. Plans were afoot to spread social projects across not just Venezuela but the Americas.
This plan was rudely interrupted by a US-inspired coup in 2002. The coup saw Chavez detained but due to his popular support at home and in the military, and the outcry from the other countries of the region, he was released and went on to win four Presidential elections.
The failed coup led to a real coming together of the Americas against US “hegemony” over the region. If there was one thing countries of the region were vehemently opposed to it was coups, especially those emanating from the USA.
In 2004 Bolivarian Venezuela and revolutionary Cuba signed the agreement on medical, education, and petroleum cooperation and launched ALBA, an alternative to the FTTA or ALCA. The Bolivarian Alternative Trade Agreement then set out to encompass other Latin American and Caribbean nations into Peoples Trade Agreements.
ALBA was to become the Bolivarian Alliance of Our Americas and today has in its membership Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and St Vincent and the Grenadines. Honduras was a member but withdrew after the 2009 coup. Suriname and St Lucia are special guest members and Haiti is an observer. The objective of ALBA was integration based on recognising each country's national sovereignty.
The attempts by the USA to undermine Venezuela and Cuba and to reassert its hegemony over the continent were themselves rudely interrupted by the US/British invasion of Iraq. While the US was stuck in the Iraqi quagmire Russia re-established trading relations with Cuba, and because of a US ban on spares for the Venezuelan Air Force's US-built planes, that country turned to Russia, which became a strong trading partner for the region. But China was the game changer, brokering huge trade deals with the region, especially with Brazil.
ALBA created a virtual currency for trade, the Sucre, to avoid having to use US dollars. Existing trading and international organisations such as MERCOSUR (covering the South Cone of South America), the Union of South American Nations, CARICOM (the Caribbean Community), and the Andean Community of Nations continued to strengthen their roles, but there was a need felt by all for an overall organisation to deepen integration based on sovereignty.
On 3 December 2011, the Declaration of Caracas was signed creating the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States or CELAC. Its aim was to deepen integration and, most importantly, to significantly reduce the influence of the USA on the politics and economics of the region. Seen as an alternative to the OAS, it comprised 33 sovereign countries in the Americas representing 600 million people. Those not permitted to join were the USA and Canada plus those colonies and territories of France, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands.
The first President of CELAC was Hugo Chavez followed by Chilean President Pinera. The current President is Cuba's Raul Castro. How times have changed!
The coups haven’t stopped
That didn’t prevent a coup in Paraguay in 2012 because the reforming President Lugo was tackling land reform, which threatened US giant multinational Monsanto. But the coup had to be carried out through parliamentary impeachment rather than the blatant overthrowing of leaders as had been the case with Chavez in 2002 and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in 2009.
For Britain, this decade and a half of change has some strong messages. Sovereignty is the key to a better life. There are plenty of other trading partners in the world, in Latin and Central America and the Caribbean as well as Russia, China, Africa and India, offering an alternative to the EU where there is no sovereignty. While some of our class think they can see light at the end of the tunnel through TAFTA, the peoples of the Americas saw the express train of the FTAA coming and did something about it. And remember that Britain still has colonies in the Caribbean, many of which are used as tax havens. ■