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It is testament to how much Latin America has changed politically over the past several years that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez not only criticizes U.S. military policy in the region but now actively seeks to form a new defense force designed to counteract the colossus of the north.
Recently, Chávez invited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to join him on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente! Turning to his friend and ally, Chávez remarked that Latin American countries which formed part of ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas) "should set up a joint defense strategy, and integrate our armed forces and intelligence services because the enemy is the same: the United States empire."
Chávez, who is known for his bravado and rhetorical flair, then added, "Whoever takes on one of us will have to take on everyone,because we will respond jointly."
ALBA is an initiative set up by Chávez to encourage greater solidarity and reciprocity amongst left leaning regimes throughout the region; its members include Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica. In recent years, ALBA has served as a mechanism to enhance barter
exchange between nations. For example, Venezuela has shipped oil to Cuba and in return receives thousands of Cuban health professionals who attened to the Venezuelan poor.
Originally set up to upstage the Free Trade Area of The Americas sponsored by the Bush White House, ALBA also seeks greater cultural integration amongst Latin American countries. Now, Chávez seems intent on expanding ALBA's scope to the military realm as well.
Chávez's comments come at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. American officials such as Admiral Michael Glen Mullen, Chief of the U.S. Southern Command, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, say Venezuela is a threat to the region. They claim that Venezuela is encouraging an arms race in South America and has become a drug transshipment point. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to arm the Colombian military and the civil conflict there has spilled over the Venezuelan border. Chávez has accused the Colombian "oligarchy" of collaborating with Washington in an effort to foment an armed conflict with Venezuela.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Chávez remarked that "The time will come when the Colombian people get red of that oligarchy. We won't provoke them unless they provoke us." Chávez claims that Colombia, acting on U.S. instructions, wants to create obstacles for the proposed
South American Union of Nations or Unasur.
In the midst of the Colombian imbroglio and escalating tensions, Chávez would like ALBA
nations to demonstrate greater solidarity in an effort to oppose Washington's military influence. The Venezuelan leader has called on the defense ministers of each ALBA member-nation to begin preparation for a joint Defense Council. While it's unlikely that such plans will come to fruition, the Bush administration's policy of seeking to isolate Chávez has produced the exact opposite effect.
During his meeting with Chávez, Ortega declared "If they touch Venezuela, it will light up the
region. No one is going to stand idly by, because to touch Venezuela is to touch all of Latin America." The Nicaraguan President added that the United States sought to threaten Venezuela via Colombia. In return for Ortega's diplomatic support, the grateful Chávez offered to provide technical assistance to maintain Nicaragua's Russian helicopters.
Ortega has commented that ALBA nations have just as much a right to form a joint military force as European countries and NATO. His pronouncements represent a shift from earlier, more pro-U.S. administrations in Nicaragua. In 2003, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños sent a team of doctors, nurses, and mine sweepers to the Middle Eastern nation to assist a Spanish brigade.
The Chávez-Morales Axis
Bolivia is the South American nation which shares the most ideological affinity with Chávez
at the current time and it's no surprise that Morales has sought greater military cooperation with Venezuela. Despite U.S. complaints about Chávez's allegedly expansionist aims in the region, Bolivia's chief of staff, General Freddy Bersatti, reportedly backs the idea of "merging" the Venezuelan and Bolivian armed forces. Chávez has provided helicopters to Bolivia and says he will send weapons to replace equipment. The Venezuelan President has reportedly pledged to provide up to $22 million to build 20 military bases in Bolivia.
In late 2006, Venezuela's ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, remarked that "if for some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened, and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here." Morales faces a particularly active and vigorous political opposition from the right, and Chávez has remarked that he will not sit idly by if the "Bolivian oligarchy" tries to forcibly remove his ally.
It's not the first time that Chávez has proposed forming wider military alliances in the region to put a break on the United States. In 2006, Chávez invited Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales to a military parade in Caracas where he proudly announced "We
must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization." In another speech, Chávez added: "We must form the armed forces of Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] merging warfare capabilities of the continent."
During a trip to Bolivia, where he was accompanied by Venezuela's army chief, Raul Baduel, Chávez declared that there was a need for a Latin American alliance akin to NATO "with our own doctrine, not one that's handed down by the gringos."
During a two month trip through South America in 2007, I spoke with a number of military experts. Without exception, they all scoffed at Chávez's proposals to form a joint defense force. Chávez's proposals are problematic in a couple of respects. First of all, it would prove logistically challenging, not to mention costly, for Venezuela to maintain its troops if they were sent abroad.
The other obstacle for Chávez is political in nature: not all governments in the region share his particular socialist views or vision, nor do they necessarily view the United States as a mortal enemy which must be confronted.
In a region still beset with political and national rivalries, Chávez's bid for a unified military force faces an uphill battle. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how the Chilean armed forces -- which have an enormous amount of institutional pride and which have never lost a war-- would ever be willing to enter into a joint military force with Venezuela. Indeed, Chile has rebuffed Chávez's military proposals.
Meanwhile, the largest and most important country in the region, Brazil, is unlikely to become a member of a military force if it is constituted under Venezuelan leadership. In fact, Brazilian army commanders have declined Chávez's initiatives.
Even amongst sympathetic ALBA nations, it's doubtful that Chávez can succeed in creating
a united defense force. Despite growing military ties between Venezuela and Bolivia, there is pressure on Morales not to go too far. Conservative media in Bolivia such as the paper La
Razón have ridiculed Chávez's proposed ALBA military alliance. What's more the Venezuelan leader is reviled by the Bolivian right wing opposition. If Morales were to increase military collaboration with Venezuela it would give rise to calls that Chávez is interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs.
Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the political opposition has rejected Chávez's proposals as a "senseless adventure." Eduardo Montealegre of the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense party remarked that the idea of an ALBA force was a "smokescreen" designed to obscure real problems facing ALBA nations such as misery, hunger and lack of medicines. Even within his own ruling Sandinista party, Ortega faces opposition to Chávez's plan. Edwin Castro, the leader of the Sandinista parliamentarian faction, dismissed the idea that the Nicaraguan Army might fight, together with Venezuela, in a likely U.S. attack. "The Sandinista Front wrote in the Constitution (of 1987) that we have a defensive Army. It is prohibited to have an offensive Army," Castro said.
Despite the dim prospects for an ALBA military force, the armed forces in South America (with the exception of Colombia) are tied to new left of center regimes which are less sympathetic to the wider U.S. agenda in the region. Unlike the 1970s, the military establishment is beholden to civilian rule and is unlikely to intervene in the political arena by staging an armed coup.
Take for example the case of Argentina. The Minister of Defense, a woman named Nilda Garré, was a sympathizer with the Montonero guerrillas of the 1970s. A former political prisoner during the military dictatorship, Garré wants to bring rogue military officers to justice for past human rights abuses. Before coming to the Ministry of Defense, Garré was the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela. In Caracas, Garré was a vocal Chávez supporter, and when she got the call from Kirchner offering her the new job the Venezuelan president
phoned her in congratulation.
Garré has severed ties to the notorious military School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. In taking the momentous step to break with the school, Garré followed on the heels of Chávez, who severed ties in January, 2004.
Over the years, U.S.-Argentine military relations have been quite cordial, but recently ties have become strained. According to an official who I spoke with at the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, in 2006 there wasn't a sole bilateral military meeting between the U.S. and Argentina.
Up to that point the two nations had met every year. Initially Argentina could not fix a date but when the government proposed an alternative time to meet, the U.S. responded that "the
Pentagon was being restructured" and could not schedule a summit.
Garré's counterpart in Chile is another woman, Vivianne Blanlot. She has been similarly
confrontational towards the military top brass identified with past human rights abuses. Recently there's been a lot of cooperation between the Chilean and Argentine armed forces. The two countries signed an agreement to form a combined military force for peacekeeping
missions which will be ready by the end of 2008.
Chávez's ALBA military initiative is probably a non-starter, but in the Southern Cone the armed forces have turned a critical page in their evolution. Though the military establishment is not strictly anti-U.S., it has become less identified with American strategic goals. It's a historic reversal for Washington, which now faces a much less inviting political environment within the region.
Now that John McCain has presumably wrapped up the Republican nomination, it's natural to wonder what kind of foreign policy he might pursue towards the rest of the world if he were elected President. For example, how would the "maverick" McCain deal with Latin America?
In recent years, the region has taken a decidedly leftist turn; new leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have openly challenged U.S. diplomatic and political influence. McCain's record suggests that he would pursue a very hawkish and antagonistic policy in the hemisphere. It's even possible that the Arizona Republican, who has suggested that the United States might be in Iraq for hundreds of years and might "bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran," could ratchet up military tensions in Latin America and escalate conflict with countries like Venezuela.
The International Republican Institute (IRI)
McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World.
On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society. In reality, however, the IRI is more concerned with crushing incipient left movements in Latin America.
One of the least known Washington institutions, IRI receives taxpayer money via the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. A.I.D.). The organization is active in around sixty countries and has a budget of $74 million. On the board of IRI, McCain has been joined by a who's who of Republican bigwigs such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick.
IRI's Latin American Activities
In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti's two heavily conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the island's major business, church and professional figures, was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian President's forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI funneled taxpayer money to hard-line anti-Castro forces allied to the Republican Party.
In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were militantly opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television and radio ads. Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.
McCain and Cuba
McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI's Cuba work and praises the anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a national security threat," adding that "as president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship ... The Cuban people have waited long enough." McCain wants to increase funding for the U.S. government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations, seeks the release of all Cuban political prisoners, supports internationally monitored elections on the island, and wants to keep the U.S. trade embargo in place. What kind of future does McCain envision for Cuba? No doubt, one in which the Miami anti-Castro exiles rule the island. McCain's most influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from Florida, including Senator Mel Martínez and far right Congress members Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.
For McCain, It's Never Ending Free Trade and Militarization
On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes while working to isolate those governments which are rising up to challenge American hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been a big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia's status as a human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the "narco-trafficking and terrorist threat."
McCain has taken a personal interest in the Andean region. He has traveled to Ecuador and Colombia so as to drum up more support for the counter insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of dollars a year. McCain's foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn off the money flow to Uribe. "You don't build strong alliances by turning your back on friends," he has said.
McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support American style free trade. "We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region,'' he has said. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas."
Chávez has been one of the greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of McCain's free trade agenda, however. In recent years, the Venezuelan has pushed his own barter trade scheme, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which promotes economic solidarity and reciprocity between Latin American nations. Concerned about growing ties between Cuba and Venezuela, McCain said "He [Chávez] aspires to be this generation's [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a thing."
Fighting the Information War in Latin America
Speaking in Miami's Little Havana, McCain said that "everyone should understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez. "They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new oxygen" into Castro's regime, and that the U.S. government should do more to quell dictatorships throughout Latin America. Perhaps not surprisingly given his historic involvement in IRI, McCain's campaign Web site even featured an online petition calling for support in his quest to "stop the dictators of Latin America." The petition called for the ouster of Chávez "in the name of democracy and freedom throughout our hemisphere."
Though the petition was later taken down, McCain has staked out hawkish territory on Venezuela and would surely escalate tensions with the South American nation. Most troubling is the Senator's strong push for renewed U.S. propaganda in the region. McCain has criticized the Venezuelan government's decision to not renew Radio Caracas Television's license, and has called for reestablishing an agency like the United States Information Agency (the USIA oversaw a variety of agencies including the Voice of America radio network before it was merged into the State Department in 1998).
"Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and the American message amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas,'' McCain has said. "We need to re-create an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message to the world. Thiswould aid our efforts to communicate accurately with the people of Latin America."
If McCain was ever able to push through his aggressive media initiatives, he would antagonize many nations in the region which resent the pervasiveness of U.S. dominated media. Already, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay have formed a joint satellite news station called Telesur (in my upcoming book scheduled for release in six weeks, I devote an entire chapter to the issue of media politics in South America).
From Bolton to Big Stick
To make matters worse, the Chair of IRI has sought to promote neo-conservative figures from the Bush regime such as John Bolton. During the latter's confirmation hearings in the Senate, McCain urged his Democratic colleagues to approve the diplomat's nomination quickly. Bolton has been a hawk not only on Iran but also Venezuela. McCain, who refers to Chávez as a "wacko," said it was important to confirm Bolton. With Bolton at the United Nations, the U.S. would be able to talk back to "two-bit dictators" like the Venezuelan leader.
Like Bolton, McCain apparently shares his colleague's disdain for the United Nations and wants to create a so-called League of Democracies. As envisioned by the Arizona legislator, the new body would take the place of the United Nations on such issues as conflict resolution, disease treatment and prevention, environmental crises, and access to free markets. Interestingly, McCain's inspiration for the League is Teddy Roosevelt, who had a vision of "like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty."
Roosevelt, however, was no dove: he wielded a Big Stick and practiced gunboat diplomacy in Latin America. It's a policy which John McCain would probably like to revive if he is elected President in November.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has never lacked a sense of theatricality -- that is for sure. He recently shocked his diplomatic counterparts in the middle of a Latin American summit held in Caracas. In the midst of the proceedings Chávez turned to his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and remarked "You brought me coca, I want the coca that Evo produces there."
Chávez's stimulant of choice is coffee. A year and a half ago, I saw him speak at Cooper Union in New York. At one point, he paused in the middle of his speech to drink a cup of espresso. Chávez, who is totally hyperactive, is reportedly a caffeine fiend and sleeps very little. Now, however, the Venezuelan leader's favorite fix seems to be changing. Before his audience of sympathetic Latin leaders, Chávez popped a coca leaf into his mouth
while defending use of the plant.
"Capitalism and international mafias have converted (it) into cocaine, but coca is not cocaine," Chávez remarked. Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former labor leader of a coca growers' union, had personally brought the coca leaves to Caracas for Chávez. In recent years, Chávez has sought to further his strategic alliance with Bolivia in an effort to further his socialist agenda and to counteract U.S. economic and political influence.
"I knew you wouldn't let me down, my friend, I was running out," Chávez said as he received the leaves from Morales.
As Chávez chewed the coca, he drew applause from the audience.
Even before the Caracas summit, Caracas had revealed that he chewed coca "every day in the
morning." The Venezuelan leader said that he received ice cream and other items from Fidel Castro, but Morales sent him coca paste.
Coca paste is a highly addictive substance made from coca leaves that serves as a base for cocaine. It is sometimes smoked -- not chewed -- by drug users. Apparently Chávez misspoke and meant instead to say that he chews coca leaves, which have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Andean highlands to boost energy and ward off
"I Recommend Coca"
Coca leaf, which was domesticated over 4,000 years ago, is usually chewed with a bitter wood-ash paste to bring out the stimulant properties, which are similar to caffeine or nicotine. For Andean Indians, coca leaf is closely tied to the spiritual world. Offerings to Pachamama, the Mother Earth, begin in August to scare away malevolent spirits of the dry season and to encourage a good harvest. Offerings consist of llama foetuses, sweets of various colors, coca leaf and other herbs. The yatiri, or indigenous priest, burns the offerings in a bonfire while
muttering prayers to the achachilas, Gods that inhabit the mountains.
Chávez has praised the health benefits of chewing coca and refers to the plant as the sacred leaf of Bolivia's Aymara Indians. In a speech delivered to the Venezuelan National Assembly
no less, Chávez brazenly remarked "I recommend it [coca] to you" (Chávez's admission prompted a Venezuelan opposition leader to accuse the Venezuelan leader of being a "drug consumer." Chávez, charged the politician, ought to submit to a drug test). In his search to legitimize and rehabilitate coca leaf, Chávez has been joined by Morales. The Bolivian President says that coca in its natural state does not harm human health, and that scientific research has demonstrated that the plant is "healthy."
When drug smugglers change coca into cocaine, Morales says, they change the plant's chemical composition. While Morales condemns such practices, he also touts the commercial uses of coca leaf. In a riff on Chávez's earlier misstatements, Morales said that one could indeed consume coca in paste form, that is, through coca toothpaste.
In praising the therapeutic properties of coca leaf, Morales echoes claims made by the Coca
Research Institute in La Paz. According to the organization, coca has nutritional and pharmaceutical uses. For example, coca flour is rich in iron and helps balance blood sugar. Additionally, coca tea can counter altitude sickness. David Choquehuanca, Bolivia's foreign minister, claims that coca leaf is so nutritious that it should be included on school breakfast menus.
"Coca has more calcium than milk," he told the Bolivian newspaper La Razón. An eight ounce glass of milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium. According to a 1975 study conducted
by a group of Harvard professors, a coca leaf weighing 3.5 ounces contains 18.9 calories of protein, 45.8 milligrams of iron, 1540 milligrams of calcium and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C, which is more than most nuts.
"Before, the coca leaf was totally satanized, penalized," Morales has said. "But we respect the doctors and scientists who have begun to industrialize it." During the colonial period the Spaniards looked upon coca leaf as a symbol of native people's inferiority, but today Morales employs coca as a potent political symbol. When speaking before adoring crowds, he drapes a garland of coca leaves around his neck and wears a straw hat layered with more coca.
Morales has even appointed Felipe Cáceres, a coca growers' union leader, as his point man in halting drug trafficking. Those types of moves play well at home, where the cocalero movement preaches indigenous ethnic pride as well as anti-globalization. On the floor of congress, representatives of the cocaleros frequently deliver speeches in native languages while chewing coca.
Life in the Coca Market
Currently under the Morales administration, coca in its natural state is sold through markets established and controlled by the government. The regulation forms part of a government plan to industrialize and export coca to other countries such as Argentina. Under the initiative, legally established companies, cooperatives, or organizations may opt to acquire coca, according to the quantity needed for consumption, from legal markets without any interference from retailers.
Though Bolivian officials claim not to possess information about the relative importance of coca in the Bolivian economy, clearly the leaf plays a vital role for many. The Adepcoca market in La Paz is the largest coca market in the country. A constant stream of poor Indians arrives here, day and night, seven days a week, to weigh and sell coca. Women dressed in traditional Aymara clothing haul 23-kilo taquis,or sacks of coca leaves, to waiting vans. All the buyers are registered and the coca they buy is supposed to be used for chewing or tea.
Morales recently inaugurated the first coca industrialization plant in the town of Chulumani. The plant will produce and package coca and trimate (herbal tea made out of anise, chamomile, and coca leaves). In a snub at Washington, Chávez has even donated $125,000 to the Chulumani coca industrialization plant.
Chávez and Morales Speak Out Against the Drug War
Morales claims that the United States seeks to intervene in Latin American countries by playing up the drug war. Washington's policy, Morales has charged, is merely "a great imperialist instrument for geopolitical control." The Bolivian President argues that the only way to do away with drug trafficking is to cut off demand. Currently under Bolivian law, 29,600 acres of coca may be cultivated for traditional use and consumption.
Though Morales is expected to receive $30 million for coca eradication in Bolivia in 2008, his incendiary rhetoric and toleration of limited coca cultivation does not go over well in Washington. To make matters worse, Chávez has long charged that the United States is destabilizing the Andean region by funding the drug war and arming the Colombian
Colombian violence has in turn spilled across the Venezuelan border, creating chaos and lawlessness. The Venezuelan authorities combat drug trafficking, but Chávez has long
since severed any collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He has also moved to prohibit U.S. over flights of Venezuelan airspace to combat drug trafficking and has railed against aerial fumigation of coca leaf in Colombia.
Washington has hit back, claiming that Venezuela does not do enough to combat the drug trade. According to U.S. officials, Venezuela has become a key transshipment point for Colombian cocaine.
Chávez Promotes Cultural Independence
Surely, by attacking the drug war Chávez scores points amongst many in the region who view U.S. militarization as a menace. But by going even further and promoting coca leaf as
a cultural symbol, Chávez hopes to encourage cultural nationalism in South America in opposition to the United States.
For years, the Venezuelan leader has railed against the homogeneity of U.S.-inspired globalization. Chávez denounces shopping malls and rejects consumerism while promoting Venezuelan art and music. Under the Law of Social Responsibility, 50 percent of what DJs play must be Venezuelan music. What's more, under a cultural law approved in 2004, at least 50 percent of all that music must be "folkloric." As a result of the new laws, llanero (rat-a-tat ballads or mournful love songs from the Plains region) and gaita (lilting music from the city
of Maracaibo) musicians have been doing a thriving business. Chávez has even founded his own publishing house, El Perro y La Rana, which publishes books on Marxism.
Meanwhile the government has promoted Ávila TV, a cultural TV station. Additionally, Chávez has inaugurated a spanking new film studio, Villa del Cine, designed to encourage the growth of Venezuelan and Latin American cinema as a counterweight to Hollywood.
Encouraging Latin American Cultural Nationalism
By rehabilitating the coca plant, Chávez also hopes to foster cultural unity amongst sympathetic regimes throughout the region. Chávez's ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative
for The Americas), a counterweight to U.S.-sponsored free trade schemes such as the FTAA (or Free Trade Area of The Americas) is an initiative which promotes reciprocity, solidarity, and barter trade amongst left wing Latin American nations such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia. In recent years, Chávez has sent oil to Cuba. In exchange, Fidel Castro sent health professionals to Venezuela who attended to millions of poor Venezuelans.
ALBA, however, also has an important cultural component. In early 2006, Venezuela and Cuba agreed to set up a cultural fund under the scheme. The two countries will create an ALBA publishing house designed to showcase the work of prominent intellectuals and also promote an ALBA record label. Other South American countries have expressed interest in signing cultural agreements with Venezuela. Francisco Sesto, the Venezuelan Minister of Popular Power for Culture, is particularly interested in setting up a network of "ALBA houses" in Buenos Aires, Quito, and La Paz. More than mere bookstores, exhibit halls, or movie theaters, the ALBA houses would spur dialog among intellectuals in the region and facilitate integration of peoples throughout the hemisphere.
During a recent gathering, the ministers of culture from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia met to discuss their future plans. Abel Prieto, the Cuban minister, described the countries of the region as locked in a struggle to preserve their cultural diversity against the forces of globalization.
"The defense of our own multiple identities and traditions is a priority," Prieto
said. "It was a necessity," he added, "to confront racism as well as all forms of colonization and exclusion."