April 30, 2006
The announcement in Havana on Saturday of the "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas" -- a trade alliance between Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia -- may be mostly a symbolic gesture, but it is nothing to sneeze at. Cuba and Venezuela had already signed a similar bilateral treaty last year, and Castro's government is already receiving large quantities of Venezuelan crude oil at bargain prices. Cuba is offering medical and educational services as a way to improve the living conditions of poor people in Venezuela and Bolivia. That sounds plausible. The obstacle to making this vision work, of course, is Bolivia's geographical isolation from the outside world. What would Bolivia have to offer the other two countries? Tropical fruit and soybeans, apparently. Presumably Bolivia's coca production will enter the trade picture in some fashion, and if this new pact facilitates increased traffic in cocaine, it would pose a serious threat to U.S. national interests. Will the Bush administration refer to the three leftist-dominated countries as a new "Axis of Evil"? See BBC.
The three leaders made it clear that they are intent on stopping the proposed "Free Trade Area of the Americas," the U.S.-inspired plan to bring the entire hemisphere under a common trade regime. Much as I favor free trade, I have always been skeptical about pushing the agenda that far, especially since the United States does not share strong interests with some of the countries in South America. NAFTA and CAFTA are fine, as are bilateral agreements with Andean nations. In the 21st Century, however, the (slowly) emerging economies of Brazil and Argentina will inevitably give rise to a strategic impulse to maintain a degree of autonomy from North American influence. There is nothing wrong with that.
Whether this new axis gathers strength depends on whether or not it can attact new members, to create genuine community of neighboring states that could trade with each other. The missing piece of the puzzle is what I have always called the "keystone country" of South America: Peru. That is why the ongoing Peruvian elections are so important.
Peru's President Alejandro Toledo, who remains unpopular at home and has been assuming a very low profile for the past several months, withdrew Peru's ambassador to Venezuela as a protest against that country's interference in Peru's elections. Peru's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an unusually blunt statement criticizing the violation of international norms by Venezuela's government. Hugo Chavez recently denounced APRA candidate Alan Garcia as a "thief" and a "crook," heartily endorsing the radical populist Ollanta Humala. He even threatened to withdraw Venezuela's ambassador to Peru if Humala doesn't win the second round election.* See CNN.com. That article did not mention what may be the underlying reason for the hostility toward Garcia that Chavez exhibits: The former president of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Perez (a.k.a. "CAP"), is a good friend and close ideological ally of Alan Garcia. In fact, "CAP" became the godfather of Garcia's first son Alan Raul in April 1988, and Chavez tried to overthrow him in the early 1990s when he was an army officer.
* That CNN.com article mentions that conservative candidate Lourdes Flores has not conceded being eliminated in the first round, even though she is 70,000 votes behind and over 99 percent of the ballots have been counted. The political establishment in Peru is indeed desperate.
The presidents of Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil met in Sao Paulo, Brazil last Wednesday, and agreed to proceed with a huge natural gas pipeline project that would stretch from Venezuela to Argentina. It is estimated to cost $20 billion, and would take at least ten years to complete. See BBC. The economic-strategic implications are obvious: It would forge close trade and investmennt ties between countries on opposite sides of the South American continent, laying the groundwork for the grand "Bolivarian" dream of a vast confederation. Can those countries sustain such a level of cooperation for such an extended period of time? What perplexes me is why they are planning to build it across the extremely rugged Gran Sabana mountain region of southeastern Venezuela, rather than through the lowland gap where the Casiquiare Channel passes between the Orinoco and Amazon river basins.
It may be a pragmatic accommodation to reality, or it may be a sign that Mexico's police and government are simply unable to enforce the country's laws. President Fox is expected to sign a bill that would eliminate penalties for possession of small amounts of cocaine, marijuana, raw opium, or even heroin. See Washington Post. This will no doubt further anger U.S. politicians who are (justifiably) upset about Mexico's policy of promoting illegal emigration, but it is an idea that Americans should consider. Our current "war on drugs" is probably causing as much damage as it is preventing. I think there should be a distinction between highly addictive drugs (cocaine or crystal meth) versus pot, so I would not advocate decriminalizing the former hard drugs. Any reform in our drug laws would need to be carefully thought out and planned.