From Managua to Gaza

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Ben Gregory

In a meeting of the UN security council in May, Nicaragua’s UN ambassador said that the UN charter does not include any reference to the right of humanitarian intervention, but considers the respect of sovereignty to be paramount. She wondered how civilians will be protected by bombing them. She also asked where the determination of the security council was when it came to protecting the heroic, victimised Palestinian population.

Palestine is a useful way to look at how Latin America foreign policy is developing much more independently. The hegemony that the US once exercised over its backyard is almost broken, and nothing illustrates this better than the issue of Palestine.

UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, has been meeting since 2004. It passed a constitutional treaty in 2008, which came into force this March: it is a legal body whose economic, political and foreign policy powers will grow. The wave of countries in Latin America recognising Palestine stemmed directly from talks last year between UNASUR and the League of Arab States. Since the New Year, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Suriname and Uruguay have all recognised Palestine, within the 1967 green line armistice borders. They joined Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, who had already recognised Palestine. Chile and Peru, with more right-wing governments, have also recognised Palestine, but without referring to borders. What was the US response to the wave of Palestinian recognition? They called it “counter-productive”. Counter-productive for whom?

The New World

A few words on the US relationship with Latin America, and the Obama presidency. President Lula of Brazil said at the end of last year, as he handed over power, that he would like the relationship of the United States with Latin America to be different: “The Americans don’t have an optimistic vision of Latin America. They have always related as an empire to poor countries. This vision needs to change. The truth is that nothing has changed in the United States’ vision for Latin America. I view that with sadness.”

There are now a number of regional groupings in Latin America which offer both economic and political challenges to the traditional powers. The most radical is the ALBA – the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas”. In 2008, the ALBA countries, which include Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, signed the People’s Trade Agreement which it said “protects our countries from the depredation of transnational capital, foments the development of our economies, and constitutes a space liberated from the imperatives of global and financial institutions and the monopoly of the dollar as the currency for trade and reserves.”

The theoretical basis for the People’s Trade Agreement is a rejection of the two previous models of development in Latin America: the opening up of economies to multinational investment, or the de-linking of Latin American economies through import-substitution industrialisation, both of which failed the continent. ALBA proposes regional de-linking, which it hopes will provide individual countries with enough markets to allow them to develop, while at the same time economic activity is co-ordinated across boundaries.

ALBA is developing a number of practical mechanisms, including the setting up of a regional currency, the Sucre. What it is not about is using Venezuelan oil money to support Hugo Chavez’s friends. In fact, Venezuelan oil is available on preferential terms through a different mechanism, PetroCaribe, which includes many countries that are neither members of ALBA nor particularly left-wing.

What does this mean for a country like Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America? Here’s a brief summary of what ALBA has helped Nicaragua achieve under the Sandinista government. The Roof Plan aims to improve the houses of 250,000 families. 150,000 have received corrugated iron and nails already. The plan is funded by ALBA.

Zero Hunger is on target. It will support 75,000 families over five years to help them enter the rural economy. $150 million is being spent, in the form of animals, seeds, a biodigester and training and advice. Funding comes from the ALBA and bilateral and multilateral agencies. A similar model is being used for Zero Usury. 80,000 women are receiving small loans (about $200) in a micro-credit scheme to help set up small businesses. ALBA and other countries have provided the finance.

ALBA is also supporting the re-paving of roads in the Streets for the People programme, and funds new homes in the Houses for the People. Because of these and other initiatives, Daniel Ortega looks likely to win the presidential election being held in November.

Many had speculated that the left had run out of steam in Latin America, but the most recent elections in June, held in Peru, saw them make more gains. The vote saw Ollanta Humala win the presidency at the second attempt. His success will be a bitter blow for the media and elites who backed his opponent, and for US policy makers, who saw Peru, along with Chile and Colombia, as their only political allies in the region.

Topics: Global south