I saw Hugo Chavez speak once, in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2004. He was addressing a stadium-full of attendees at the World Social Forum, speaking for three hours about socialismo, capitalismo, but most importantly, El Sur – the South.
His emphasis on the South is notable, given our Norteamericano orientation towards the US and the North. The mainstream press has been quick to pick up on strains of anti-US sentiment from Chavez – some of have gone so far as to group Chavez with Osama Bin Laden, as in this piece from the BBC.
But in reality, the most revolutionary aspect of the Hugo Chavez presidency was that he wasn't really concerned with the US: he was concerned with his country and South America.
Take ALBA, for example. The "Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas," (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or ALBA) is a nine-year old effort to build a Southern-focused trade group, with arrangements for energy, medical expertise, and even a monetary union. Created as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, ALBA – whose name also means 'dawn' in Spanish – now contains eight countries, with a total population of 69 million.
Chavez' vision of a more-integrated South America finds its roots in Simon Bolivar's 19th century wars to free the South American colonies from Spain. Before his death in 1830, Bolivar – a contemporary of George Washington, Napoleon, and Kamehameha – had created Gran Colombia in what are today Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Bolivar was ultimately unsuccessful, and his state collapsed. But he still plays a founder's role in modern Latin American politics, with statues in towns throughout the region, and even in Paris and New York City.
ALBA's work has focused on "Grand-National" projects, bridging domestic corporations from member countries to cooperate on social initiatives. Joel D. Hirst, an International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, has documented some of these efforts, which have been carried out "with varying degrees of success:"
The education program, with support from Cuba’s Sí, Se Puede (“Yes We Can”) literacy program has reduced illiteracy across the region.
Nicaragua has implemented the Programa Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger Program) to reduce global acute malnutrition by up to 4 percent.
The telecommunications project has purchased a Chinese satellite, has run a fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela (and eventually Jamaica and Nicaragua) and has established dozens of TV stations (including TeleSUR, the ALBA’s international news channel) as well as wire services for facilitation of documentaries, videos, movies, interviews and news.
For its culture activities, ALBA has organized literary fairs, fellowships, literature prizes, movie showings, and has even held Olympic style games in Havana on three different occasions (every other year).
And ALBA health has facilitated millions of consultations, operations and visits by Cuba-trained community health workers.
Some of these projects have worked; others, like ALBA's agricultural program, have failed. Yet the thread running through it all is that it's not about us – it's about El Sur.