By Derrick O’Keefe
This December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is widely expected to win a convincing re-election, with his approval rating soaring and the Bolivarian Revolution bringing material gains to the country’s poor majority. Nevertheless, the opposition is preparing a major campaign against Chavez, aiming to heap scorn on the Revolution’s internationalism.
In August, opposition candidates announced that they would forgo scheduled primaries to unite behind Manuel Rosales, the governor of the state of Zulia. Rosales, the candidate of Venezuela’s oligarchy, has put a nationalist, populist spin on his criticism of Chavez. Unveiling the campaign slogan ¡Ni el imperio, ni el barbudo! (Neither the [U.S.] Empire, nor the [Cuban] bearded one!), Rosales stated, “No more dollars to any foreign country as long as there are slums in Venezuela, as long as there is unemployment and hunger.” 
With an opposition discredited by their ties to the ancien regime of neo-liberal austerity and by successive failed counter-revolutions – the April 2002 coup, the “oil strike” in the winter of 2002-2003 and the August 2004 referendum – those campaigning against Chavez appear set to focus much of their criticism on the Revolution’s foreign policy. Unable to openly criticize the redistributive measures taken by the Chavez government too harshly, Rosales’ strategy will be to demonize the Cuban government with which Venezuela has close relations, and to stoke chauvinism by attacking Venezuela’s foreign aid. This strategy’s prospects are difficult to predict, and Chavez’s popularity has not yet suffered for his alliance with Cuba. In fact, poor Venezuelans have benefited greatly from the Cuban foreign aid programs that Caracas has now joined and supplemented.
An examination of the foreign policy of Venezuela and its regional allies is an important part of understanding the dynamics of the December elections and the larger social struggles taking place regionally. It also helps to counter to steady stream of disinformation coming out of Washington and the corporate media in North America about Venezuela’s foreign policy, their alliance with Cuba, and their aid to movements throughout Latin America.
ALBA’s Challenge to the Empire So-called “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) have always been in reality agreements to maximize the power of capital over labour across borders, designed to minimize restrictions on corporate power. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, whose Spanish acronym “ALBA” means “dawn,” formally signed in December 2004 by the governments of Cuba and Venezuela, is a comprehensive challenge to agreements like the FTAA. ALBA proposes a framework for Latin American regional integration that encourages economies of social solidarity, genuinely fair trade, and cooperation on a number of levels. A joint declaration issued at an April 2005 conference for the implementation of ALBA stated this perspective:
We fully agree that the ALBA will not become a reality with mercantilist ideas or the selfish interests of business profitability or national benefit to the detriment of other peoples. 
The ALBA signatories’ vision for a future Latin America was given an important boost with the December 2005 election of Evo Morales in Bolivia. At the end of April 2006, Morales traveled to Havana to sign Bolivia into ALBA. Concrete measures now being taken to implement ALBA’s goals include, among others: elimination of tariffs between the three countries, cooperation on literacy and health care programs including HIV treatment and optometry programs, and energy technology and resource sharing.
The ALBA agreements can be viewed as the codification of a revolutionary vision for Latin America in confrontation with U.S. imperialism. For Rosales and Venezuela’s elites, this foreign policy is not just a “wedge issue” where they believe they can score some electoral points against Chavez; it is also a serious threat to their long-term interests. What is less easy to understand, however, is why the activities being undertaken to implement ALBA are coming under criticism from some socialist forces internationally.
Left Critics of ALBA The leading role of Cuba in ALBA is the target of criticism in a recent article by Chris Harman, a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party. He describes Cuba’s international solidarity as a mechanism to curry favour with capitalist governments and to quell revolutionary movements:
The Cuban government itself has long seen mass movements in other countries as little more than a means of putting pressure on established capitalist governments to establish friendlier relations with Cuba…
Dressing up the commercial exchange of Cuban doctors for Venezuelan oil as an act of “socialist solidarity” is then used to attempt to derail revolutionary possibilities today just as the exchange of Cuban sugar for Russian oil was 46 years ago. 
Harman does not mention ALBA explicitly, but Cuba’s socialist solidarity in Latin America is a concretization of the ALBA vision shared with Venezuela.
The sugar analogy here is faulty, to say the least. Cuban teachers and doctors are surely commodities of a qualitatively different sort than sugar. To take only the most obvious and salient difference: Socially conscious doctors and teachers willing to serve the poor and marginalized for little or no financial reward are exceedingly difficult to produce at the early stages of a process of social transformation. Cuba’s infusion of these health and education workers has made possible huge strides forward for the revolutionary process in Venezuela, and now in Bolivia as well. In a recent interview, Bolivian President Evo Morales described the aid received since his inauguration eight months ago:
Fidel helps us a great deal. He has donated seven eye clinics and 20 basic hospitals. Cuban doctors have already performed 30,000 free cataract operations for Bolivians. Five thousand Bolivians from poor backgrounds are studying medicine at no charge in Cuba. 
The scope of the human capital deployed by Cuba is indeed staggering. Le Monde Diplomatique recently profiled the medical internationalism of Cuba, explaining how the island’s human resources are now being supplemented by Venezuelan technology and financing:
There are currently some 14,000 Cuban doctors working in poor areas of Venezuela. The two governments have also set up Operation Milagro (miracle) which, during the first 10 months of 2005, gave free treatment to restore the eyesight of almost 80,000 Venezuelans, transferring those suffering from cataracts and glaucoma to Cuba for operations. More widely, the project offers help to anyone in Latin America or the Caribbean affected by blindness or other eye problems. Venezuela provides the funding; Cuba supplies the specialists, the surgical equipment and the infrastructure to care for patients during their treatment in Cuba. 
One would have to be suffering from a certain schematic blindness to describe this cooperation as part of an effort to “derail” Venezuela’s transformative social process. Venezuela’s foreign policy is now thoroughly integrated with Cuba’s internationalism, and this has extremely positive implications for the entire region’s prospects. ALBA is part of a conscious and coordinated effort to promote economic integration and cooperation in Latin America, not a to prop up capitalist power but to build unity and strength against the imperial centre in North America.
Axis of Evil or of Hope? Chavez, for his part, has never attempted to conceal his admiration for the Cuban Revolution; in recent weeks, for instance, he has made two highly publicized visits to the bedside of Fidel Castro, who has been recovering from an emergency intestinal surgery. It is perhaps the fear of the combination of Venezuela’s oil power with Cuba’s human resources that prompted the far right-wing National Review to run a recent hysterical cover story about the “real Axis of Evil.” 
Venezuela’s potential to become something of an “anti-Saudi Arabia” – a regional power spreading oil wealth to bolster progressive causes and movements – extends even to the possibility of intervening to assist the poor within the United States of America. Over the past year, Chavez has signed agreements with U.S. state governments to provide preferential prices for heating oil to poor communities, including in places as unlikely as Maine. (Surely no critic on the Left would assert that this is an effort to prop up the capitalist regime in the United States?)
What is critical about the emerging ‘Axis of Hope’ (Cuba-Venezuela-Bolivia), as author Tariq Ali dubs it in a forthcoming book, is that it shows that a different foreign policy is possible. Given a revolutionary mass upsurge and a successful struggle for government, it is possible to wield the power of the state to the purpose of technology transfer, cooperation in health and education, and the larger process of integration and unity against the prevailing neo-liberal economic order. This example will certainly be spotlighted at this week’s Summit of the Non-Alignment Movement in Havana, Cuba.
The global outlook of the process, it should be noted, has developed together with the consciousness of its protagonists, the poor and working people of Venezuela. The internationalism of the Bolivarian Revolution is, then, much more than just a good idea of the leadership, although it tends to sometimes be understood that way, as seen in the growing popularity in recent weeks of Hugo Chavez across many Arab countries for his strident denunciation of the Israeli aggression against Lebanon.
This example from Latin America can allow us all to think about fighting for real social change and for foreign policies that seek genuine international cooperation among the world’s peoples to fight the scourges of poverty and Empire.
 “Heading for presidential elections.” ElUniversal.com, August 26, 2006.
 “An alternative to the FTAA begins its implementation.” Venezuelanalysis.com, September 7, 2006.
 “Cuba behind the myths,” by Chris Harman. International Socialist Review, Issue 111, 2006.
 “Capitalism has only hurt Latin America: Evo Morales interviewed by Spiegel.” Znet, September 4, 2006.
 “Cuba exports health,” by Hernando Calvo Ospina. Le Monde Diplomatique, August, 2006.
 “Latin America’s terrible two: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez constitute an axis of evil,” by Otto J. Reich. National Review, April 11, 2005.