In the last 40 years, in the Latin American region, several projects of regional integration have been proposed, and some of them have been enacted — e.g., NAFTA and MERCOSUR. A common trait of all these projects has been the neoliberal underpinning that spurred those projects and characterised their features (Katz, 2008). One project of integration, however, deeply differs from the rest, for its principles are unconcealable with neoliberalism. The “Alianza Bolivariana Para los Pueblos de Nuestras Americas” (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our Americas) (ALBA) is often deemed to be in direct opposition to those projects that emerged under the neoliberal aegis, and some scholars have highlighted its counter-hegemonic potential. This article will address the ALBA project and analyse its counter-hegemonic potential. The first section will give some historical details about the formation of ALBA and its political trajectory; the main political and economic aspects will be addressed. The second section, instead, will focus on its main features and will relate them to the concept of counter-hegemony by highlighting the potential of educational and medical cooperation.
ALBA: A Historical Account
As the name suggests, the origins of the ALBA trace back to the thinking of Simon Bolivar, representing a long strand of thinking in the 19th century that emphasised the Latin American identity and unity, vis-à-vis the Spanish colonisers (Hernández & Chaudary, 2015). Closer to nowadays, the founding process of the ALBA was strongly fostered by Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. The Venezuelan president laid its foundations in 1999 when he announced its ideological commitment to the establishment of a confederation of Latin American states, based on social and political cooperation rather than free trade (Ullán De la Rosa, 2012). Even though Chavez’s call for the unity of Latin American nations did not immediately have the expected effects, such an intention was repeatedly stated by the Venezuelan president on the occasion of regional meetings, and finally, Cuba decided to join the Venezuelan efforts, paving the way for the formal construction of the ALBA in 2004. The ideological component of the regional block — inclined towards an anti-capitalist and socialist conception of the world — was from the beginning one of its most prominent features, and the fact that Cuba and Venezuela were at the time very close in terms of political inclination reinforces this characteristic. It is for this reason that several countries joined the block in the years of the so-called “pink tide” — the shift to the left of many governments in Latin America and the Caribbean in the first decade of the 21st century (Ullán De la Rosa, 2012).
Bolivia joined in 2006 when Evo Morales, supported by its party Movement for Socialism, became president of the country. Other countries joined after a political shift to the left, which put them in a position of ideological and political accordance with the principles of the ALBA and of the countries that were already part of it. Nicaragua joined in 2007 and some months later Dominica entered the project whereas Honduras joined in 2008 together with several other small Caribbean countries. The last joining country was Ecuador after the election of Rafael Correa, highly influenced by nationalist and popular-leftist claims, in 2009 (Ullán De la Rosa, 2012). As one might appreciate, the block achieved a considerable number of adhesions, as the pink tide was hitting the sub-continent, and started to acquire importance at the regional level as important countries — in terms of dimension and resources — had joined.
However, due to the strong ideological component that has been addressed above, political changes and variations in the leadership of the member countries could easily cause the withdrawal from the ALBA. Honduras, only one year after the adhesion decided to step back as the national congress, did not ratify the decision of joining the block (La tribuna, 2010). After the election of a new government, Ecuador also announced its intention to interrupt its participation in the block, with the specific aim of stopping the flow of immigrants from Venezuela, that in its turn was facing an internal crisis due to the intent of the coup d’état (Infobae, 2018). Finally, Bolivia also temporarily withdrew, because Jeanine Áñez seized power in 2019 both as an ideological demonstration of dissent against the ideas enshrined in the ALBA, and as a show of solidarity with the Venezuelan opposition to the government of Maduro. However, the triumph of Evo Morales’ “Movement for Socialism” in the elections of 2020 led the new president Luis Arce to announce the rejoining of the ALBA by the end of the year (ALBA-TCP, 2020). From this brief description of the volatile character of the membership of the project, the volatile character of political affinity as a crucial element of participation can be appreciated. The commitment to such an ideological project of cooperation is inherently liked to the degree to which the internal political conjuncture of member countries is affine to the one expressed by the ALBA. Hence, it is understandable the way in which countries have joined and withdrawn easily according to their political orientation. This logic is even stronger in a region where political change is often very sudden, and thanks to the prevalence of presidential regimes, also very tangible and polarised.
Nevertheless, the ALBA has facilitated the constitution of relevant projects of cooperation both in the economic and social realms. One relevant aspect is the objective of achieving energy independence, thanks to the nationalisation of the Venezuelan oil reserves and their use in the framework of the ALBA instead of its commercialisation in the world market. Furthermore, besides energy independence, the profits coming from Venezuelan oil are intended to be reinvested in the realm of the ALBA concerning social projects (Garcia Aponte, 2019). Another relevant aspect of the block is financial and economic independence. Finance is in fact a decisive factor in neoliberal schemes of international integration and, according to its detractors, it fosters the dependence of subaltern countries on dominant ones. As ALBA aimed at countering Neoliberal integration, the institution of independent financial entities marked a departure from that model (Garcia Aponte, 2019). In 2013 a common bank (Banco del Sur) was established together with the Unified System of Regional Compensation for Payments to provide the countries of the ALBA with financial instruments not tied with the financial centres of the world economy (Garcia Aponte, 2019). In this sense, the project fosters an alternative economic block, isolated from the mechanisms of the world economy for the most part.
Beyond the economic aspects, which are crucial for achieving an alternative position regarding the neoliberal model of international integration, the ALBA fostered a wide range of social and political programs, based on the principles of cooperation and solidarity rather than free market exchange (Garcia Aponte, 2019). For the purpose of this article, they will be summarised under two main categories: education and health.
Education is one of the main tenets of the ALBA. In the framework of this program, several initiatives of cooperation to foster schooling and primary education have been promoted, and relevant improvements in rates of analphabetism were reached (Muhr, 2010). These objectives are pursued through a model base on cooperation, where programs of schooling and primary education are established under the name of “Misiones”, aiming to reach the remotest areas of the ALBA countries where traditionally illiteracy and lower education are concentrated. Another crucial aspect of the ALBA is medical cooperation: with the same logic of education, health workers are displaced among member countries to foster prevention and healthcare in regions that are not usually reached. Medical cooperation is particularly underpinned by the strength of Cuba in terms of medical research and the abundance of medical personnel which is employed in the “Misiones” in the ALBA realm.
After having briefly explored the history and main characteristics of the ALBA, the next section will focus on the counter-hegemonic potential of this project, specifically on analysing why it has been deemed to bear counter-hegemonic potential, referring to the features that have been explored above.
ALBA and Counter-Hegemony
As briefly anticipated in the introduction the ALBA is often deemed to bear a counter-hegemonic potential (Muhr, 2010). To explore the counter-hegemonic extent of the project, a brief explanation of what hegemony and counter-hegemony mean. The concept of hegemony was firstly introduced by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci during the inter-war period (1918 - 1939). Hegemony, in his understanding, is a concept that describes one specific configuration of class relations. As opposed to class domination, class hegemony is a concept that does not involve the use of violence to achieve a position of control of one class over another (Bertelli, 2010). For instance, Gramsci referred to the fact that the capitalist class aims at fostering the idea that its interest is the same as the subaltern class, and thus the latter do not feel the need to engage in any protest or revolt. The concept of hegemony was introduced in the International Relations scholarship by Robert Cox. Cox argued that world-systems — one specific configuration of the relations between states — are the product of class hegemony at the national level, and at the same time help maintain class hegemony (1981). Therefore, the projects of international relations are an expression of relations between classes, and also one of the means through which one class maintains control over another. The world economy, after the 1970s, was characterised by the hegemony of neoliberal class relations, for they were hegemonic at the national level as well. Those class relations were centred on competition, free market, financialisation, and economisation favouring capital above labour (Harvey, 2005). Returning to international integration in Latin America, this was reflected in the freedom of movement of capital guaranteed by NAFTA, Mercosur and ALCA — although it was not established at the end — which gave a decisive advantage to the latter over labour.
In this context, ALBA represents a clear alternative to the neoliberal model of international integration, for it is based on principles such as cooperation and solidarity, and thus the social and political aspects of cooperation are the first objectives, and economic cooperation is subordinated to them. Not only does the ALBA represent an alternative geopolitical bloc — as opposed to Mercosur and NAFTA strongly under the US’s and EU’s sphere of economic influence — but it fosters an alternative conception of society based upon different principles to those underpinning g neoliberalism. This is the reason why ALBA is considered to be counter-hegemonic. In his definition of counter-hegemony, Carrol (2007) stresses the fact that such a concept goes beyond the mere opposition to hegemony, and it entails both a destructive and constructive tendency. Indeed, the ALBA fits the definition of a project that counters the neoliberal model of integration, as demonstrated by the qualifications that the project has received from those think tanks usually associated with the promotion of neoliberalism and the neoliberal way of producing integration in general (Garcia Aponte, 2019). Nevertheless, the ALBA goes beyond that by fostering an alternative model of international integration, based on alternative principles, around which the block is built, and that constitutes the basis of an alternative society vis-à-vis neoliberalism. The ALBA, thus, goes further than economic independence, which is of course one of its crucial components and proposes an alternative relationship between the economy and society. It represents to a certain extent a counter-hegemonic block when it encourages cooperation in the realm of education to eliminate illiteracy without the involvement of the market but according to the principles of solidarity among peoples. It also does so when it fosters medical missions to the remotest area of its member states, that have little economic implication and in a market, context would be certainly undesirable.
ALBA is a project that has united several countries of Latin America under alternative principles vis-à-vis those of neoliberal integration. It is built under the premise of cooperation among peoples, and it refuses the principles of neoliberal integration and the free market. However, it has an open political and ideological inclination, which led some countries to withdraw from the project as a consequence of political change. Its main areas of intervention are economic and energetic independence, education, and health cooperation. The ALBA has been often defined as counter-hegemonic. This attribute is based upon the ideological features of the project that openly contrast neoliberal hegemony at the regional level and the neoliberal model of integration. Furthermore, it does provide a radical alternative to the neoliberal model of class and social relations based upon competition, market, and economisation. Thus, it constitutes something more than a mere alternative: a counter-hegemonic block.
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