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What Is the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas and What Does It Do?

Author: Joel D. Hirst, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, 2010-2011
May 2, 2011
Americas Quarterly


“...all who served the revolution have plowed the sea.” Simón Bolívar, 1830

A little over a year after taking office under his new Bolivarian Constitution, at a conference of Caribbean states on the Island of Margarita in 2001, President Hugo Chávez announced his intention to follow through on Bolívar's political dream of creating an integrated nation-state in South America. “We from Caracas continue promoting the Bolivarian idea of achieving the political integration of our states and our republics. A Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean states, why not?" After several years of domestic instability, on December 14, 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro signed into law the creation of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos (Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas—ALBA).

To understand the nature of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) we must travel back to the dawn of South American independence. It is there, in the grand visions and hard-fought battles of South America's founding fathers, that we find the seed of the ALBA. It grew from the idea of Simón Bolívar to establish Gran Colombia from what today are Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. In this, Bolívar envisioned one powerful Latin American nation, subordinate to the will of one maximum caudillo and steadfast in its opposition to the United States. It was, Bolívar believed, the only way South America would be able to stand up and prosper in the face of what he could see, even at that early moment, would be a powerful giant and rival to the north. In a last-ditch effort to save his political project, Bolívar assumed the role of dictator over the unruly body, resigning a short time later—living long enough only to see the Gran Colombia and the Congress of Panama collapse.

Yet almost two hundred years after Bolívar's death and since the great post-independence wars shattered his grand vision, his words and ideas still reverberate around an exhausted continent. And again they have bred disorder under the imperial ambitions of another powerful, controversial Venezuelan leader.

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