Monday, September 18, 2006

Cuba and Venezuela: Building an 'axis of hope’

Green Left Weekly

Stuart Munckton

“Plagued by wars and the threat of new wars, the world we live in becomes more unjust and unequal with each day that passes” — this was the indictment of the current international order offered by Carlos Lage, vice-president of Cuba’s Council of State, at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana.

“A few examples suffice to reveal the absurdity and cruelty of the international order that has been imposed upon us today”, Lage told delegates at the meeting, held September 11-16. “More than a million million dollars are allotted to military spending annually, while 11 million children die of preventable or curable diseases each year. Another million million dollars is spent on commercial advertising, at a time when 860 million human beings around the world do not know how to read or write.”

But Lage’s speech did not merely deplore the state of the world, it recognised the possibility of changing it for the better. “Another world is possible and urgently needed”, he explained. “If we grow in conscience, if we join forces, if we become determined to defend our rights with ideas and steadfastness, we can build such a world”, he added, citing the survival of Cuba’s revolution in the face of implacable hostility from US imperialism as an example of the possibility of striving for a better world.

Socialist Cuba’s assumption of the presidency of the 118-member-nation NAM for a second time — the first was from 1979 to 1983 — offers the prospect of strengthening unity among Third World nations in opposition to, in particular, US aggression and, in general, the neoliberal economic policies forced on the poor nations by the First World.

When Havana first held the presidency it was instrumental in building international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, helping to expose the horrific Israeli-sponsored massacres of refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon. Cuba also used the NAM to fight against Apartheid-era South Africa, backing Namibia’s independence struggle.

Now Cuba will head the NAM in a very different international situation: Only one superpower exists and, under the guise of a “war against terrorism”, the US elite is trying to explore how much it can get away with in a “unipolar” world. But it also occurs at a time when Cuba’s revolution is the least isolated at any time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which was its main trading partner.

Cuba has long been respected by rebels the world over, particularly in the Third World, for his vigorous defiance of the US and for the Cuban attempt to build a more just society than the model offered by the “Washington consensus”.

Cuba has now been joined by new left-wing governments winning respect for combatting First World domination of Latin America: Venezuela’s, headed by socialist President Hugo Chavez who is leading a radical process dubbed the Bolivarian revolution, and Bolivia’s, led by Evo Morales, who is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and came to power on the back of mass anti-neoliberal uprisings.

Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia are forming a new “axis of hope”, going beyond the hollow anti-imperialist rhetoric of some Third World governments and finding solidarity-based alternatives to the “free trade” model, the primary beneficiaries of which have always been First World-based corporations.

If not for cab driver Felix Jose Espinoza Ledesma’s “large print and the way his eyes squint slightly when he reads an address or a phone number, you would never guess that just over a year and a half ago, he was on his deathbed, his vision nearly completely gone, and barely struggling to stay alive”, Michael Fox wrote in an August 24 article.

Felix, going blind from diabetes, was flown free of charge by the Venezuelan government to Cuba, where, also free of charge, he received “no less than ten operations” that restored his sight. He is just one of nearly 13,000 Venezuelans who have been flown to Cuba to receive treatment for a range of health problems, entirely free.

Cuba and Venezuela are seeking to spread free operations to restore eyesight in a program aptly named “Mission Miracle”, given that the idea of alternatives to “user pays” and “profit first” principles are so often dismissed as “unrealistic” and that health care is frequently out of reach of the poor of Latin America.

Venezuela headed the successful opposition to the US-pushed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have opened Latin America up to further exploitation by US corporations, and has been developing trade agreements across the continent based on solidarity, rather than exploitation.

An example is Uruguay, which Washington has pressured to sign a bilateral free trade agreement. Venezuela has offered Uruguay economic cooperation instead. The September 12 New York Times reported that Venezuela pledged to invest some US$500 million to help Uruguay build an oil refinery — crucial to breaking the cycle of exporting crude oil and then having to import refined oil from First World multinationals at a much higher price.

Venezuela and Cuba promote the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA). In December 2004, the two nations signed far-reaching agreements that began to make ALBA concrete, strengthening economic cooperation between them. In April, Bolivia’s government, a few months into Morales’s presidency, became the third nation to sign onto ALBA.

At the World Social Forum (WSF) in Caracas in January, Chavez explained how such agreements will assist Bolivia: “One of the conventions we signed related to the fuel Bolivia imports. This is one of the realities of our colonial economies: Bolivia, which has so much energy, has to import fuel ...

“We are going to supply all the fuel that [Bolivia] needs. They are not going to pay us with currency, because they don't have any. Bolivia has been robbed for centuries. So they are going to pay the equivalent, in soy ... Another convention we signed was the 'literacy plan’ that we will carry out with Cuba. And we have offered between Cuba and Venezuela 10,000 grants for Bolivian youth to study in universities and technical schools ...”

The differences between Washington and the “axis of hope” are not limited to Latin America, as Israel’s recent war on Lebanon graphically revealed. At the same time as the US rushed Israel weapons of mass destruction to use indiscriminately on the Lebanese population, Venezuela was sending a Boeing 707 full of humanitarian aid to assist the war’s victims.

This anti-imperialist stance is gaining increasing respect throughout the Third World. Chavez received a standing ovation when he addressed the African Union in June and denounced imperialism for impoverishing the continent. He called on African nations to do as Venezuela has done with its oil industry — to take control of their natural resources in order to tackle poverty.

Venezuela and Cuba have pointed out the enemy is not the US people, but the ruling elite. Havana offers scholarships to poor African Americans to study free of charge in Cuba. In the last northern winter, Venezuela provided 200,000 poor US citizens with 40 million gallons of heavily discounted heating oil. The Alaskan Anchorage Daily News commented on the irony of Venezuela providing cheap heating oil in the “oil-rich state with more than $34 billion in its Permanent Fund, more than $2 billion in its budget reserve fund”.

At the WSF, Chavez said that “This empire that we face” — US imperialism — “is the most perverse, murderous, genocidal, and immoral that this planet has known in 100 centuries”. But Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela offer proof that a different world is possible. The governments of the three nations are products of mass people’s movements, and their origins show in the mammoth gulf between their efforts to build solidarity and the policies pursued by Washington and its allies.

From Green Left Weekly, September 20, 2006.

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