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A Latin American Presidents Summit Comes to Cochabamba


Last weekend the normally quiet city of Cochabamba was transformed into ground zero for a Latin American Presidents Summit. Seven heads of state were on hand, as well as scores of diplomats and hundreds of representatives from social organizations across the Americas, for a meeting of Latin America’s left – ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People).

The summit included Presidential declarations in favor or a new regional currency to compete with the dollar, a parallel social movements summit, and a Saturday afternoon rally that packed the Cochabamba soccer stadium and was one part Presidents ‘report-back’ and one part political rally for Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is up for re-election in December.

Our report on the ALBA summit, a collaborative effort of the Democracy Center team, includes a video which you can view by clicking on the image above or at the link here, the Blog article below, and a slide show which you can see here.

Jim Shultz

A Latin American Presidents Summit Comes to Cochabamba

Last weekend’s summit drew a host of famous names from among Latin America’s left of center Presidents – Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega, and Rafael Correa from Ecuador. The Presidential summit occurred in conjunction with a meeting of social organizations that gathered to collaborate on the development of ALBA-sponsored “people’s trade agreements” that run counter to the form of U.S. style “free trade” agreements. Discussions ranged from a new currency to climate change.

What is ALBA?

Originally founded in December 2004 by the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, the ALBA initiative for Latin American collaboration has positioned itself as an alternative to U.S. led free trade agreements in the region, or as some supporters would state it – ‘a socialist response to the spread of capitalism.’ The agreement has since expanded to include Ecuador, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Antigua and Barbuda and Nicaragua.

ALBA supporters note a series of differences between its vision of trade versus U.S.-led trade agreements in the region, but most important is that these regional agreements should be based on mutual support instead of simple profit-seeking and competition. This includes, for example, Cuba’s decision to send teams of doctors to Bolivia to provide free eye surgery and Venezuela’s efforts to increase its purchases of Bolivian textiles, which suffered from Washington’s repeal last year of trade preferences for those products.

The Hot Topics in Cochabamba

Last weekend’s summit, the 7th annual meeting of Alba countries, was full of speeches declaring the ideological aims of the alliance, but it also took up some significant concrete matters as well. They included:

Creation of a New Regional Currency: Seeking to compete against the dominance of the U.S. dollar as the primary currency for international exchange in the region, the Presidents declared their intent to create a new one, the Sucre. The new currency is not aimed at replacing national monies, but to create an alternative to the U.S. dollar. Venezuelan President Chavez proclaimed the aim was “liberating ourselves from the dictatorship of the dollar.” However, how soon that currency that will actually appear and how broadly it will be accepted remains a serious question.

Creation of New International Public Enterprises: The countries agreed to create five “super-national” businesses that will aim to challenge the dominance of trans-national corporations in areas such as the exploitation of natural resources. One will focus on facilitating import and export among member countries and the others will include an aluminum company, an iron and steel company, a mining company, and a mining exploration firm.

Creation of Regional Media: Similarly, the Presidents set forth a plan to establish a set of regional media enterprises, in television and radio, to offer news coverage that would compete with CNN in Spanish and other corporate media sources for the region.

A Climate Change Justice Tribunal: The nations agreed to establish a regional tribunal charged with holding countries accountable for their impact on climate change. The plan calls on the tribunal to sanction countries that fall short of environmental commitments, and to increase pressure on developed countries in particular.

In addition to these agreements on ALBA initiatives, the governments represented in Cochabamba also declared their firm backing for the ousted democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras. Mr. Zelaya’s Foreign Minister was a participant in the Cochabamba summit and spoke to the crowd assembled in the stadium Saturday afternoon.

A Sea of Hats – the Social Summit

While the Presidential summit offered up sweeping declarations and the trappings of power, the parallel meeting of social organizations felt like a community event. Nearly 700 delegates participated from 40 countries. The main hall of the hotel Casa de Campestre outside the city, where the meetings took place, buzzed with representatives from countries across the region and every manner of social concern, from women’s rights to protection of the planet.

Elsewhere in the world when social movements head to the same meeting spot as official summits, the agenda is primarily protest, and often to shut down the summit altogether. In Latin America, where progressive governments close to social movements have swept the region, a different approach has taken root –
the ‘social summit’. Here social movements gather to discuss a variety of subjects, including many of the same subjects being discussed by the heads of state. Their conclusions are addressed not only to those governments but also to the people of their respective countries.

In some respects these social summits serve as incubators for ideas and debates that eventually find their way into the official summits. One clear example is the 2008 decision by the government of Bolivia to withdraw from participating in the secretive World Bank trade court (ICSID) that took jurisdiction over the Bechtel vs. Bolivia case in the aftermath of the Cochabamba Water Revolt. The initiative to leave ICSID began in a previous social summit.

Before a sea of hats, leaders of the Cochabamba social summit last weekend presented conclusions from the various issue roundtables that took place over two days – on women’s rights, indigenous autonomy, community development, climate change and other concerns. These reports were in turn presented to the Presidents on Saturday.

An activist from Venezuela explained that the discussions in a roundtable on community economics focused on how to maintain “equality of working conditions and the maintenance of the environment; as well as the rural and indigenous production.” Another participant from northern Bolivia came to assert the right of indigenous communities to self-determination, “so that we can determine our own norms and govern ourselves, with respect for the Mother Earth.”

This is where the seeds of initiatives in future official summits were plant

A Sea of Flags

On Saturday afternoon the two summits – the one of the powerful and the other of the humble – came together in a packed soccer stadium under sunny skies. The stage in front was lined with Presidents and the stands pulsed with flags and banners. As the Presidents filled the afternoon air with speeches the representatives from social organizations looked on from the front rows.

President Morales called on his U.S. counterpart, President Barack Obama, to drop U.S. sanctions against Cuba. President Chavez repeated the slogans of Morales’ re-election bid and called on Bolivian voters to support him. Nicaraguan President Ortega donned a Bolivian miners hat.

To some, the official summit and its social movements partner seemed like a hopeful sign of a new approach to governing and a challenge to a global order bent on serving only the privileged. To others it appeared an exercise in rhetoric with little real impact on the lives it is purported to serve.

But by any measure it was encouraging to see lively and open debate around an international trade meeting – instead of a battle with riot cops and tear gas.

View a slide show from the ALBA and social movements summits here.

The article for this post was prepared by Democracy Center intern Jessica Aguirre with contributions from Aldo Orellana and editing by Jim Shultz. The video was prepared by Democracy Center intern Anders Vang Nielsen. The slide show was assembled by Jessica Aguirre from photos taken by members of the Democracy Center team.

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