While European and North American governments wallow in right-wing militarism, Latin American states are leading the world in implementing progressive social change. They are doing this not just within countries, but also on a continental level now that 10 left-wing Latin American governments are in power: in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Chile. and Cuba.
On May 23, at a summit in Brasilia, Brazil, 12 South American countries formally constituted the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional integration initiative which includes a parliament, a presidential forum and a secretariat. The countries are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a main force behind UNASUR’s creation, stated at the summit: “Some kick and yell, but will not be able to stop the South American revolution…[UNASUR is] a project of the change unleashed in this last decade–which could be the driving force of changes around the world.” UNASUR’s main tasks are to eliminate poverty and illiteracy.
The countries included in UNASUR are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay—an organization whose main tasks are eliminating poverty and illiteracy.
The UNASUR member states (except for Colombia) also agreed to the formation of a South American Defense Council aimed at ensuring that the countries’ armed forces “are committed to the construction of peace.”
For Chávez, UNASUR is the culmination of Latin America’s two-century-long search for unity.
“Only in unity will we later have, progressively, complete political, economic, cultural, scientific, technological, and military independence,” Chavez explained.
UNASUR instutionalizes a revolutionary process of South American integration that is becoming a model for the world.
I spoke to Dr. Maria Paez Victor in Toronto about this process. Dr. Paez is a Venezuelan-Canadian sociologist who recently returned from Venezuela, where she observed firsthand the sweeping changes that continue to be brought about by Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Paez is now retired after teaching sociology at the University of Toronto and working as a consultant.
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Q: Simon Bolivar, who liberated South America from Spanish colonialism, wanted its countries to unite partly to prevent another imperial power, the United States, from dominating them. It appears that today his vision is becoming a reality to some extent and Chavez is behind much of this significant transformation. Tell us about this integration.
Paez: It is truly amazing what Chavez has done. The political and economic integration of South America is definitely underway. In addition to UNASUR and the South American Defense Council, it includes the setting up of Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South), PetroAmerica, and Telesur. UNASUR represents 377 million people with a GNP of $1.5 billion, and it signals to the world that South America is ready to control its own destiny.
The formation of UNASUR is a historical event that creates structural pillars for South American unity: it includes an Energy Security Council to diversify and conserve energy and the environment. The South American Defense Council is aimed at creating a military alliance without the United States–an absolutely unprecedented event.
UNASUR emerges as a solution to the imbalances and inefficiencies of the Organization of American States (OAS) and a response to the not-so-veiled threat of Washington which has slapped the sub-continent in the face by reactivating its Fourth Naval Fleet to intimidate South America.
With Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) and PetroAmerica, an entirely new economy is being created. Latin American countries now have an alternative source of credit, and this means the end of 25 years of U.S.-imposed neoliberalism that reduced these nations to beggars through enforced privatization, free trade, and structural adjustment programs (SAPs).
Whenever they wanted a development project, the countries had to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and/or the World Bank (both U.S.-dominated) which would offer loans at usurious interest rates that the states could not afford. When the countries could not pay back the loans, they had to carry out the IMF’s SAP conditions, which included selling whatever valuable national assets they had to multinational corporations that then controlled their economies. This was known as “the Washington Consensus,” and from 1980 to 2005 it created immense poverty in Latin America.
Then Chavez comes along and says to the Latin American countries, “We’ve got money and we will help you pay these debts.” As you know, Venezuela is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S. Chavez gave money to Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Ecuador then threw the representatives of the World Bank out of the country, and Bolivia let its loan agreement with the IMF expire. Argentina got $5.1 billion from Venezuela, funding that rescued it from the ravages of the IMF that had destroyed its economy. With the money, Argentina was able to pay off its debt to the IMF.
Chavez has not given away this money. It has to be paid back, but only little by little at a reasonable interest rate that the countries can afford. That is one of the reasons why the financial powers-that-be want to get Chavez: because he hit them where it really hurts, to the point that the World Bank now is in a crisis; it’s downsizing, and the IMF doesn’t know what it’s going to do because nobody wants its loans. This has been absolutely wonderful because it has struck a big blow against this international extortion that these U.S.-controlled organizations are practising.
[Author’s Note: The worth of loans given by the IMF fell to $20 billion in 2008 from almost $100 billion in 2004. According to the U.S. magazine In These Times, “The IMF has lost almost all influence in Latin America, with lending there plummeting to a paltry $50 million, less than 1% of its global loan portfolio. As recently as 2005, the region had accounted for 80% of its outstanding loans.”]
Q: How does Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) work?
Paez: Chavez and the Latin American countries have replaced the Washington extortion racket with the Bank of the South, which will finance true development in Latin America by providing loans which, unlike those of the World Bank and IMF, will have no strings attached. The Bank of the South has been formed by Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, and very soon Uruguay will join as well. Each country gives a portion of its GNP to the Bank, which now has assets of $7 billion. This capital is going to be used to promote cooperative development between these countries. For example, for the first time, Venezuela and Brazil are building a refinery in Brazil. Venezuela has oil and Brazil has the expertise to set up refineries, so what do they need the U.S. for?
In the same spirit, Chavez arrived at the empty dockyards of Buenos Aires, Argentina, after its economy had been devastated by the IMF, and gave an order for three oil tankers to be built there. He could have ordered the tankers from the U.S. or Europe, as would have happened in the past under Northern domination. The élites of Latin America had traditionally looked towards their “betters,” the élites in the U.S. So each country thought that whatever they needed had to come from the U.S. or Europe. Never did they think: why don’t we have our ships built by the Argentinians? They never considered each other to be good enough for advanced projects.
Q: In September 2005, Energy ministers from 11 Latin American countries–Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela–agreed to move towards regional integration in the energy field by consolidating the PetroAmérica energy project promoted by Chávez. Rafael Ramírez, the Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Oil at the time, called this agreement the “axis of continental integration.” Can you explain PetroAmerica?
Paez: PetroAmerica is a multinational oil company formed by the state oil companies of Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Cuba, and Trinidad. The joint company will control 11.5% of world oil reserves. PetroAmerica is aimed at achieving full energy cooperation within Latin America so that its oil can be used for the development of its people rather than that of Northern countries. As Chavez says, “Petroleum is going to run out eventually, so why are we selling it for the development of countries that are already developed?” We need the oil to develop our own countries, to create a diversified economy that includes an industrial sector and viable agriculture so we can feed and employ our own people. Until now, oil has been Venezuela’s only resource. We have to import most of our food.
Within PetroAmerica, Latin American countries will exploit oil and gas together, help each other set up refineries and petrochemical plants, and carry out conservation plans. PetroAmerica also involves Venezuela sharing its oil with countries that do not have any. Venezuela has given 14 Caribbean countries cheap financing for oil purchases, to be repaid over 25 years. These are countries that often find it difficult to buy oil. Venezuela has also promised $50 million for social programs in the Caribbean and pledged to invest $2 billion to increase refining capacity in Jamaica, Cuba, and Uruguay.
For Chavez, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is an important example of what relations should be like between sister nations. Venezuela gives Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for the 20,000 Cuban doctors who are working in the poorest areas of the Venezuela. In every indigenous village in Venezuela, a Cuban doctor is providing primary care that Venezuelan doctors refuse to give because they favour private medicine.
Similarly, Venezuela is exchanging oil for cattle with Uruguay.
Such South-South cooperation means a new economic focus on serving the needs of the Southern people, not the greed of multinational corporations and Northern governments.
Q: Tell us about Telesur (which stands for “The New Television Station of the South”).
Paez: Telesur is a television channel formed by the state television broadcasters of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Its function is to allow these countries to communicate directly with one another, and not through CNN. For the first time, Telesur gives Latin Americans a clear vision of each other which is crucial for creating an integrated community. South American integration cannot succeed if we learn about each other through international media that are hostile to us and distort our self-image.
How did we learn about each other’s countries until recently? Through CNN, which, as you know, is part of a media campaign directed against Chavez. We got the news about ourselves through Northern channels, so we looked at ourselves through Northern eyes. How could we change our societies then? Chavez got the Latin American countries together and said, “Let us launch Telesur by combining the state televisions of our countries.” When I was in Cuba, I turned on the TV: there’s Telesur and I’m watching something that’s going on in the Congress of Argentina. I had never seen that before. It was remarkable.
Q: Simon Bolivar in the past, and now Chavez and other Latin American leaders, wanted South American countries to unite partly to prevent the United States from dominating them. What has been the U.S. reaction to this process of Southern integration?
Paez: U.S. imperialism has long been the main impediment to South American integration. It operates through a divide-and-conquer strategy. The U.S. tried to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and then attempted to destabilize Venezuela by crippling PDVSA, the public oil company. When all this failed, the U.S. tried to divide Venezuela by promoting the secession of Zulia state, which has the most oil. This also failed, so now the U.S. is trying to use Colombia to spark a regional war and thereby stop integration.
On March 1, the Colombian army and air force invaded Ecuador and killed 24 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla movement that is fighting in Colombia for land reform. This was a blatant violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty and threatens all the countries in the region. Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s President, was outraged.
Clearly, Colombia was encouraged to invade Ecuador by the U.S., which may also have participated in the raid. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt. Colombia also has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, and its President, Alvaro Uribe, is an international criminal linked to drug traffickers and death squads.
Chavez reacted to Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador by rushing battalions to the border Venezuela shares with Colombia, and warning Uribe that, if his troops entered Venezuela, it would be cause for war.
The Latin American Presidents met in the Dominican Republic two days after the raid, and resolved the crisis. They met without the presence of the U.S. or Canada. Chavez was lauded by all the leaders as the main peacemaker. He said to Uribe: “Are you part of us, the Latin Americans? Your history, your culture is also ours. Or are you just a lackey of the U.S.? Because if you are, then you’re excluded from our club.” Uribe saw himself isolated and knew that, if he continued in this way, there would no support for him in Latin America. So he backed down, apologized to Correa, and promised never to violate the sovereignty of any other nation.
All the Presidents agreed that, if war were to break out in South America, the only country that would win would be the United States. You can see how perilous the situation was: the Colombian raid was to be the first in a domino process. If Colombia, as an arm of the U.S., had got away with invading Ecuador, then it would have done the same to Venezuela, and a major war would have followed, destabilizing the entire region.
Latin Americans were proud of their Presidents because they resolved an explosive issue through dialogue and cooperation amongst themselves. It showed that, if Latin Americans work together, they can solve their own problems and defeat the machinations of the U.S. empire.
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July/August 2008.
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA.