In a first, Haiti attends Latin American ALBA meeting

On February 5, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) held its eleventh meeting Caracas, Venezuela, to decide on a joint economic program. ALBA welcomed two new guest members, and moves were made to include Haiti in the organization.

ALBA was founded in 2004 with just Cuba and Venezuela as members. It now includes a total of eight countries: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Antigua, Dominica, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. At last weekend's meeting, two more small states were brought in as guest members, a step toward their full integration into ALBA: St. Lucia and Surinam. Honduras had been part of ALBA, but after the 2009 overthrow of left-wing President Manuel Zalaya, withdrew from the organization.  

ALBA's goal is to create enough regional integration to realize the dream of South American liberator Simon Bolivar that Latin America could thrive without dependence on, or interference from, the United States or Europe. It emphasizes trade agreements that, unlike the privatization and austerity policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund, encourage countries to increase their expenditures for education, housing and health care. Its ruling philosophy is solidarity among the peoples, not domination by multinational corporations and wealthy states. 

Attending as an observer was Haitian President Michael Martelly, elected last year amid controversy. The most popular party in Haiti, former President Jean Bertrand Aristide's "Fanmi Lavalas", had not been allowed to run a candidate, and the candidate of the party of outgoing President Rene Preval, Jude Celestin, was pushed out of a runoff by heavy pressure from the United States and its allies. Martelly has had some dealings with people close to former U.S. supported dictators Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. He had called for the restoration of the army which Aristide had abolished. So, many have seen him as a potentially dangerous right winger. For him to show up at the ALBA meeting, hinting strongly that Haiti might like to eventually become a full member, surprised many.

Martelly and Venezuela's left wing president, Hugo Chavez, announced new bilateral agreements to increase already high Venezuelan aid to Haiti. After the disastrous earthquake of January 2010, Venezuela cancelled Haiti's debts. In Caracas, Martelly made a point of praising Venezuelan and Cuban aid before and after the earthquake, and said he hoped that the United States would not be angry and would understand that Haiti is in no position to turn away any friend. 

Was Martelly misjudged, or has he been transformed by a year in the presidency? Haiti is destitute and its infrastructure wrecked. The country depends excessively on handouts from international donors, administered by foreign non-governmental organizations. Although there was a great outpouring of offers of aid after the earthquake, some of it has never come through and much of it comes with strings attached.

Plans elaborated for Haiti's future development by the United States, Canada and other wealthy nations were based on the idea that the country would forever function as a source of cheap labor for transnational corporations. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), especially in clothing and textile production, was to be the motor of "development." Companies would be attracted to Haiti by the cheap labor. This would create "jobs" for thousands of Haitians, many of whom had been displaced from the rural economy in the first place by a flood of taxpayer subsidized rice from the United States, dumped at prices with which Haitian rice farmers could not compete. The trouble is that FDI is only attracted as long as the conditions persist that made the country attractive in the first place. As soon as wages go up, foreign capital decamps to some even poorer place. So the FDI strategy is a recipe for perpetual poverty. Participating in ALBA provides alternative sources of economic support, especially Venezuelan oil sold on very favorable terms. 

In March, ALBA will hold a meeting of foreign ministers in Jacmel, Haiti, focused on how the ALBA countries can better coordinate aid for Haiti's recovery.  

The ALBA heads of state meeting in Caracas agreed on developing a joint program of economic development for the Caribbean, including Haiti. They also agreed to expand the use of the sucre, the ALBA-based virtual currency which is being developed as a means of trade within the group. They agreed that each country will set aside 1 percent of its international reserves for the purpose of creating a new area development and aid fund.

Finally, the meeting passed resolutions calling for freedom for the Cuban 5, for the liberation of Puerto Rico and for an end to outside interference in Syria. The participating countries also sharply denounced the unwillingness of the British government to reach a negotiated agreement with Argentina about the future of the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands.

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