Mercosur versus ALBA?

In his comment piece, "Should Venezuela have entered Mercosur?" (GLW #682), Raul Bassi emphasises the incapacity of Mercosur — the "Common Market of the South" set up in 1991 between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — to "truly confront US domination" of South America. He argued that Venezuela's decision to join Mercosur is a "blow" to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

At the July 4 public ceremony in Caracas at which Chavez signed the protocols for Venezuela's admission to full membership of Mercosur, he stated that "it is important to remember that Mercosur was born in the era of neoliberalism and it was born as a simple treaty of free trade".

By contrast, ALBA arose out of the developing Venezuelan socialist revolution, in alliance with socialist Cuba. ALBA sets as its primary aim not "free trade" but the elimination of poverty and other major social problems in Latin America.

Unlike Mercosur, ALBA agreements — which have been put into effect between revolutionary Venezuela and socialist Cuba — explicitly prioritise social needs over corporate profits.

So why would Venezuela on the one hand, promote ALBA, and on the other, join Mercosur?

Venezuela has entered Mercosur because this trade bloc expresses a certain opposition to US imperialism's agenda in Latin America — however partial and contradictory — through its member-states opposition to the US Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) project. Venezuela has joined Mercosur in order to strengthen that opposition.

Of course, as Bassi notes, Mercosur operates within "the rules of capitalist profitability, competition and guarantees for capital". But the Venezuelan government is challenging these — both through the ALBA project and through its joining Mercosur. For instance, at a March 14 press conference held jointly in Caracas with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, Chavez argued that "Mercosur will either transform itself, or it will be on the same path as the CAN, the Community of Andean Nations — a project wounded to death".

In a speech made in December, Chavez argued: "We need a Mercosur that prioritises social concerns, we need a Mercosur that every day moves farther away from the old elitist corporate models of integration that look for ... financial profits, but forget about workers, children, life, and human dignity."

Rather than being a "blow" to the ALBA project, Venezuela's entry into Mercosur is clearly aimed at defending and promoting this anti-capitalist project.

Yes, Mercosur is dominated by capitalist governments and as long as this is the case, the Chavez government will no doubt have to make certain concessions to them.

However, Chavez is also operating in a context of a continent-wide social rebellion against neoliberalism, an enormously increased mass pressure on elected capitalist political leaders to defy US imperialism's policy agenda and the consolidation of governmental power by anti-capitalist revolutionaries in Venezuela itself (and now the opening up of a similar process in Bolivia, an associate member of Mercosur).

Bassi argues that Brazil and Argentina have supported Venezuela's entry into Mercosur to "stop, or at least reduce" Chavez's political influence in the region. If this is the case, the plan seems to be backfiring. Not only has Chavez been the centre of media attention at every recent Mercosur gathering, he also invited his key ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, to address the 30th summit of Mercosur. Castro used this platform to list the achievements of ALBA as examples of what the Mercosur bloc should aim for.

Contrary to Bassi's thesis, it seems that the capitalist governments of Argentina and Brazil have welcomed Venezuela into Mercosur in order to strengthen their position vis-a-vis US imperialism and its push for the FTAA, which would further strengthen the position of US imperialism at the expense of Argentinian and Brazilian capitalists. The revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela are taking advantage of this intra-capitalist contradiction to win a wider hearing for their ALBA project among the Latin American masses.

Their approach to Mercosur is in no way a "blow" to the ALBA project, but a tactic to help promote it. It is an example of how revolutionary working people's governments intervene in different forums to try to promote an international anti-imperialist united front with other Third World nations — nations where the working people have not yet succeeded in overthrowing their capitalist political leaders.

As Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's national legislature, pointed out in an interview earlier this year: "Now, more countries are expressing opposition [to imperialist policies in the region]. This creates the potential for a broad front against imperialism, even where there are differences... Where a national bourgeoisie has been willing to assert its interests against imperialism it is important to take advantage of this contradiction to attempt to advance anti-imperialist policies."