frontline vol. 2 issue 3.
The New 'Alliance for Progress' in Latin America
Brian Pollit of the SSP International Committee looks at the current situation in Latin America. With a wave of left-leaning governments being elected, and with Venezuela and Cuba continuing to defy US imperialism, he looks at the context of the conflict between the USA and it's continental neighbours.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed an 'Alliance for Progress' for Latin America. Having failed to crush the Cuban Revolution at the Bay of Pigs, this was a project to avert the threat of 'another Cuba' emerging in the continent. Washington's analysis of the origins of the Cuban Revolution identified a key cause of social instability in Latin America to be the highly unequal distribution of income in both town and countryside. Social unrest in rural areas was of particular concern since it provided a propitious social milieu for the waging of guerrilla warfare. Such unrest stemmed primarily from semi-feudal agrarian systems in which the concentration of much under-cultivated land in few hands coexisted with a large land-hungry peasantry. Accordingly, the 'Alliance' encouraged ruling Latin American regimes to carry out modest reforms. Proposals included the payment of taxes by the urban rich and agrarian reforms that would redistribute land (not owned by United Fruit or other U.S. interests) to small peasant producers. The latter would improve national food production and consumption and promote social stability in the countryside. Such reforms were to be accompanied by a vigorous U.S. military programme to equip Latin American counter-insurgency forces to perform more effectively against rural guerrillas than Batista's forces had done in pre-1959 Cuba.
Little progress on reforms was made within the 'Alliance' not least because its wealthy ruling elites proved reluctant to tax themselves or to redistribute any of the holdings of agrarian landlords with whom they were both socially and politically intertwined. In 1965, however, a new political formation - the Christian Democrats, conceptually imported from western Europe - took power under Eduardo Frei in Chile. The U.S. embraced it, providing significant finance for its modest reform programme while touting it as the true alternative to Castro's Cuba under the slogan 'Revolution with Liberty'. But such enthusiasm evaporated with Allende's election in 1970. His Popular Unity government did no more than implement the reforms promised, but not delivered, by Chile's Christian Democrats and the popularity of Allende's nationalisation of the country's copper mines ensured its unanimous approval in the national Congress. In Washington, however, Kissinger perceived Chile's working alliance of communist and socialist parties to be a grave geo-political threat, fearing such a model might be emulated in Italy or France. Such a view, allied with the hostility of U.S. business interests such as I.T.& T., underpinned the U.S.-sponsored destabilisation plan that culminated in the military coup of 1973.
Subsequent waves of repressive military intervention in central and south America caused President Carter to express concern about violations of human rights but such preoccupations disappeared with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Reagan's primary ambition was to 'roll back Communism' in the region with the active assistance of Latin Americas military dictatorships. These had been defined by the late Jeane Kirkpatrick as 'authoritarian regimes' that were acceptable to the U.S. because they could be reformed. Unacceptable, however, were 'totalitarian regimes' that could not be reformed, i.e. Cuba and, from 1979, Nicaragua and Grenada. And the prevailing new philosophy on income redistribution to improve the lot of the poor was succinctly expressed by Honduras's chief of public security forces in December 1981. He then informed an interested group of foreign reporters that 'the problem' of politicians 'is that they promise people things will improve. That's how revolutions get started. You have to say: 'you are poor, and you are going to stay poor'. Otherwise people get ideas.'
With the U.S. invasion of Grenada and with a costly U.S.-sponsored civil war undermining electoral support for the Sandinistas, 'communism' in Latin America and the Caribbean did indeed appear to have been successfully 'rolled back' during Reagan's first term of office, surviving only in an increasingly isolated Cuba. With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the implosion of the USSR itself in 1991, the victory of the U.S. appeared to be complete and 'the end of history' was proclaimed. This was premature, for the new sole superpower's aggressive enthusiasm to spread 'democracy and Western values' worldwide accelerated the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and with it a new so-called 'clash of civilizations'. But with U.S. attention now fixed on - indeed, militarily overstretched in - Islamic nations of Asia and the Middle East a quite different, and more subtle threat emerged in its now-neglected 'backyard'.
Throughout the 1990s, and against all odds, Fidel Castro's Cuban regime suffered but survived the abrupt rupture of its key economic arrangements with the USSR and eastern Europe. Its profitable sugar exports collapsed in both volume and value and, between 1991 and 1995, both its imports and domestic investments fell by over 80 per cent. Unemployment rose and popular consumption fell sharply. But during the second half of the 1990s, and having adjusted the island's political economy to encourage tourism and joint ventures in mining and extraction, economic activity and basic living standards picked up. Moreover, though sharp cuts had been imposed on expenditures on defence and internal security, Cuba maintained its impressive provision of free medical and educational services to the population - an achievement that alleviated the acute social tensions that might otherwise have been expected to accompany severe economic deprivation and ideological isolation.
Then, in a key moment in modern Latin American history, Hugo Chavez's inauguration as Venezuela's President in 1999 gave Cuba the U.S.'s most important oil supplier and the world's fifth largest oil exporter as a powerful new regional ally. Reflecting growing opposition to the U.S.'s policies of hemispheric domination in general, and to its model of international trade in particular, a number of Latin American nations (including the major powers of Argentina and Brazil) developed increasingly cordial relations with Cuba. These countries shared the broader international view that continued U.S. policies aimed at 'regime change' in Cuba were no more than an anachronistic historical vendetta bereft of any geopolitical rationale in the post Cold-War world. Less widely appreciated was the crucial role that Cuba was beginning to play in the consolidation of the new progressive regimes in Latin America that sought to address acute internal inequalities of income while formulating policies explicitly hostile to the U.S. and other business interests that exercised direct or indirect control over key national resources, notably in mining and energy. Prominent among these were first Venezuela, followed more recently by Bolivia and Ecuador.
Alliance for Progress
Cuba's key role in a new and real 'Alliance for Progress' first became apparent in Venezuela itself. Chavez's regime disposed of major oil revenues that were increased yet further by steeply rising world oil prices. Such oil wealth coexisted in a country with a large impoverished and marginalised population. Chavez deployed oil revenues to raise popular living standards with food subsidies, while seeking to improve the social infrastructure of urban shanty towns and isolated rural communities to facilitate the provision of free public health and education services. In part this could be achieved by financing the private sector in building and construction. Politically more important was the mobilisation of local communities to use State-supplied technical assistance and construction materials to build for themselves schools, bridges and piped water-supply and sewage facilities. But the Chavez government - like other regimes with progressive intentions - was quite unable to mobilise the necessary number of national medical and educational professionals who were prepared to live and work in isolated or deprived communities. Doctors and dentists were the most obvious examples. They were typically the privately educated offspring of the privileged classes and were accustomed to exercise their professions in a comfortable social milieu for relatively handsome incomes. Chavez's much-publicised 'missions' to improve the conditions of the poor would enjoy little success if they could tap the skills only of Venezuela's own professional classes. Worse, if such projects were proclaimed but failed to satisfy the popular expectations they aroused, then Chavez could expect to join the ranks of Latin America's many failed populists who had promised much to the poor but delivered little. The solution was found in a novel exchange of Venezuelan oil wealth for large contingents of Cuban medical and educational personnel willing and able to live and work in materially deprived conditions. This true 'alliance for progress' was mutually beneficial. On the one hand, Venezuela could alleviate Cuba's acute economic difficulties by providing her with cheap oil and hard currency. On the other, Cuba's ability to train and export medical and educational personnel - including, in 2004, 10,000 doctors and 3,000 nurses - would enable Chavez to make impressive progress in his key social 'missions'. As was convincingly demonstrated in the Presidential elections of late 2006, this assisted him to both broaden and consolidate his political support among Venezuela's underprivileged classes.
The foundations of Cuba's emergence as a spectacular medical provider for the Third World were laid in the 1960s. The abrupt departure of about one-half of all the island's doctors and dentists between 1959 and 1961 forced Cuba to engage in a crash programme of medical training both to make good this loss and to extend medical and dental provision to the country's neglected rural areas. Then, in the 1970s, the nation's university system was expanded to include all the country's 14 provinces. Newly created faculties of medicine provided free education for students drawn from the regions in which these institutions were located. The outcome was an increased medical training capability that not only permitted a steadily improving ratio of doctors per head of Cuba's population but increased the island's ability to send medical personnel to work overseas as well. From the 1980s on, Cuba had more doctors working in Africa, Asia and Latin America than the World Health Organisation while at home, by 2001, she had three times the number of family doctors per head as the U.K.
Cuba's acute economic crises in the 1990s slashed the country's imports of chemicals, finished pharmaceutical products and medical equipment of all kinds. This did not affect the education system's ability to produce a steadily increasing supply of medical personnel but it drastically reinforced the practice of preventative medicine and encouraged the use of traditional herbal and other remedies to offset shortages in imported supplies. Scarcities in a wide range of pharmaceutical products were exacerbated by deficiencies in hospital equipment and by disruptions in the supply of energy and transport. But all this encouraged medical personnel to improvise and to develop a wider range of diagnostic skills within an environment that encouraged everyone to make the best of what was practically available. To the astonishment of many overseas observers, Cuba's grave economic difficulties in the 1990s were accompanied by a steady improvement of major public health indicators: by the year 2000, the rates of infant mortality and life expectancy bettered those of Washington DC. Moreover, the public health practices perforce developed within Cuba during these crisis years were precisely those required by the medical contingents she was later to dispatch to live and work within the deprived communities of Venezuela and elsewhere. A spectacular example was the disaster relief team of almost 3,000 doctors and nurses sent to Pakistan's isolated earthquake-struck regions where its sensitive provision of medical aid to Muslim communities deeply impressed Pakistan's military authorities and encouraged the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Supplementing Cuba's capability to dispatch her own medical personnel overseas, she also undertook a major training programme within the island to provide free medical education to hundreds of students from 12 countries of Central and South America. This, of course, was designed to strengthen the ability of such nations to make medical provision for their own deprived communities. The earlier development of a highly sophisticated bio-technology sector also now enabled Cuba to export - at costs far below those of the major international drug companies - a wide range of vaccines to shield the poor communities of other countries from preventable diseases ranging from polio and diphtheria to meningitis.
The intimate link between Venezuelan oil funding and Cuban medical expertise was perhaps most notably expressed in 'Operacion Milagro' (or 'Operation Miracle'). A notorious and preventable health scourge of poor communities in Third World countries were the sight-threatening diseases of glaucoma, cataracts and detached retinas. Teams of Cuban ophthalmic surgeons, supported by Venezuelan finance, were dispatched to a number of countries in Central America. Caribbean islands were visited by a Cuban vessel from which surgeons provided free sight-saving operations at all the points at which it was docked With the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Cuba set up 20 opthamological units equipped to perform similar basic surgical operations, complementing other centres established in Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras. Where patients from Central America required more complex opthamalogical attention, Venezuela financed their transport by air for treatment in Havana. In November 2006, it was reported that no fewer than 485 thousand such sight-saving operations had been performed across the region by Cuban medical personnel, of which 290 thousand were for poor Venezuelans.
Together with such multi-faceted medical aid, Cuba also drew on its own practical and theoretical experience to assist overseas campaigns against illiteracy. In 1961, Cuba itself mobilised tens of thousands of young urban students to live in the countryside teaching rural households to read and write. The methods used were rudimentary and follow-up campaigns were vital to make such initial educational endeavours really effective. Since those early days, Cuba has developed much more sophisticated pedagogical methods, linking phonemes with numbers, accompanied by audio-visual programmes in an integrated educational package. This specifically Cuban method was recently awarded a prestigious UNESCO prize both for its efficacy and economy and is currently being practiced in 15 countries and has to date resulted in almost two million poor people having learned to read and write. Cuba, moreover, has trained 600 specialists to instruct overseas anti-illiteracy campaigners in this teaching method which can be adapted for use in diverse cultures ranging from countries speaking Spanish, Portuguese and English to communities in Bolivia speaking the indigenous languages of, quechua, aymara and guarani. In recent months, Cuban instructors, employing donated audiovisual and other equipment, assisted Nicaragua to extend its anti-illiteracy campaign to 100 of the countries 153 municipalities, teaching some 150 thousand people to read and write by the end of 2006. At a recent Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana, it was reported that countries recently requesting Cuban expertise in the use of this method were not only Latin American but included Gambia and Nigeria and the Caribbean islands of Grenada and St Kitts and Nevis. Illustrating the fact that adult illiteracy is not only a problem of poorer countries, Cuban assistance has also been requested by Seville, Spain.
As is to be expected, the nature and scope of Cuba's assistance - supported by Venezuelan finance - in public health and educational provision to so many poor communities in Latin America and the Caribbean has greatly improved Cuba's standing in the region. Beneficiary nations have applauded such activities, sometimes via regional organizations such as CARICOM and/or by the representatives of individual governments. Such appreciations conflict starkly with the U.S. administration's blind pursuit of 'regime change' in Cuba in the name of 'democracy' and the 'free market', not least because its recently published manifesto for change in a 'new Cuba' - to be implemented under the direct supervision of a U.S. authority - includes the privatisation not only of socialised property but of Cuban current systems for the provision of free health-care and education. In short, the U.S.'s answer to the new Cuban-Venezuelan 'Alliance for Progress' would be to destroy it. In the new conditions prevailing in the hemisphere, however, it is increasingly evident that the U.S. design for achieving the political isolation of Cuba succeeds only in isolating the U.S. itself.
This is the full version of an article that appeared in an edited form in the Scottish Socialist Voice.