April 29, 2006

Latin Americans cement left alliance

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Leftist leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and
Bolivia on Saturday signed a comprehensive integration
agreement and trade accord cast as an alternative to U.S. plans
for a free-trade pact with the Latin American region.

Bolivian President Evo Morales signed on to a year-old
political, social and economic integration agreement between
Cuba and Venezuela dubbed the Bolivarian Alternative for the
Americas, or ALBA, after South American independence hero Simon

The accord gives Cuba preferential financing for Venezuelan
oil and payment for services of more than 30,000 Cuban doctors
and other professionals working in Venezuela. It has helped
Cuba emerge from the economic crisis that followed the demise
of the Soviet Union, its former benefactor.

Morales, along with Cuban President Fidel Castro and
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, signed a second agreement
under which Cuba and Venezuela will eliminate all tariffs on
Bolivian products.

Venezuela agreed to provide "all the energy resources
Bolivia needs" as the second poorest country in the hemisphere
nationalizes its natural gas reserves, and to help it develop a
petrochemical industry.

Chavez and Morales contrasted the agreements with faltering
U.S. plans for a "Free Trade Area of the Americas," each
charging the United States with trying to impose "imperialist
domination" on the region.

"All Venezuela's and Cuba's experience over these years
building integration, all the potential of our economies and
people are at the Bolivian people's disposal," Chavez said
during the signing ceremony.

Morales, who was elected in December, said upon arrival on
Friday, "This meeting is a great meeting of three generations,
of three revolutions."

Castro came to power in a 1959 communist revolution, and
Chavez first won a presidential election in 1998 to lead what
he calls a "Bolivarian revolution."

"ALBA has worked very well for both Cuba and Venezuela, and
Bolivia's joining can only improve it by adding another
dimension," Cuban economist Omar Everleny said.


Nicaraguan Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega, who held
power in the 1980s and is a leading candidate in a presidential
election in November, was at the podium for the signing as an

"Until this year, Castro and Chavez seemed doomed to remain
a two-man club. The addition of Morales dramatically changes
this equation," said Daniel Erikson, Caribbean programs
director at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy

Bolivia's gas desposits expand the economic potential of
ALBA, which already includes Venzuela's oil reserves, he said.

Latin America is increasingly divided on how to form an
economic bloc that can compete in the global economy.

Nine Latin American countries, including Mexico and Chile,
have signed free-trade agreements with Washington. Others, such
as all-important Brazil and Argentina, have refused, while also
keeping their distance from ALBA.

"It remains to be seen how far this alternative economic
model will take hold in the hemisphere. Most countries are not
about to adopt restricted, selective policies toward foreign
investment or turn toward state direction of the economy," said
Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a
conservative U.S. think tank.