The mere presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez makes any international summit interesting. At the 2004 Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, members of the press were waiting to speak with the Argentine delegation regarding its tense negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"Have you seen the photos that they've been sending from Mars?" Chávez asked the reporters, referring to images of the desolate, rocky surface of the Red Planet being transmitted at the time by NASA.
Not missing a beat, he quipped, “It looks like the IMF has been there too.”
Although Chávez has at times been critical of international summits, accusing world leaders of globetrotting from meeting to meeting, or “summiteering,” while their people go hungry, he has increasingly used these multilateral fora as platforms to advocate for greater South-South cooperation.
The Pan African Press Agency reports that Chávez was an invited observer at the Seventh African Union Summit in Banjul, the Gambia held June 25–July 2. The Venezuelan President gave an extemporaneous speech to African leaders, calling for integration and greater cooperation between Africa, Arab countries, the Caribbean and Latin America.
He suggested that a joint commission be created with the aim of launching four concrete projects: PetroSouth, Telesouth, Bank of the South and University for the South. These ambitious proposals could build on the base of similar projects Venezuela has already initiated with nations of the Western Hemisphere.
Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA has already begun cooperating with its state counterparts in Bolivia (YPFB), Brazil (Petrobras) and Argentina (Enarsa) in what has been dubbed PetroSur. Venezuela has also signed preferential petroleum deals with Caribbean countries and even municipalities in the United States and Central America. Under PetroCaribe, for instance, Caribbean nations receive cheap oil, which they can payback over several years with only a nominal interest rate. They can also decide to pay for the crude in kind with services and even foodstuffs. As part of the deal, Venezuela also agreed to help build up these countries energy infrastructures – partly, to make delivering the oil less costly.
An alliance between Latin American petroleum producers and those of Africa, which holds 15 percent of the world’s reserves, would go a long way in giving these often-trampled countries more leverage in international relations, particularly considering today’s soaring commodity prices. In Banjul, Chávez explained, “It (oil) was used by the colonialists (to oppress us). We are now going to use it to liberate our peoples."
TeleSUR, a joint venture between the governments of Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela (now also including Bolivia), is Latin America’s version of the wildly popular and combative Al-Jazeera satellite network and can be seen in 20 countries. The upstart TeleSUR has met with mixed results in some quarters, but its coverage of stories not normally on cable news has indeed been impressive. With slick production values and innovative programming, its viewing audience continues to grow. Last February, in what is perhaps a tentative step toward TeleSouth, Al-Jazeera and TeleSUR signed an agreement stipulating the two networks will share content, as well as journalistic and technical expertise. Al Jazeera has also stationed a correspondent in Caracas.
With Venezuela’s recent entry into MercoSur, Chávez and Argentine President Néstor Kirchner signed a series of bilateral agreements, including the creation of a “Bond of the South” as a building block for the creation of the Bank of the South. Last week, the two countries announced the creation of a joint bond as a first step in "the construction of a bank, a financial space in the south that will permit us to generate lines of finance," according to Chávez.
Venezuela has used its oil windfall to help debt-crushed Latin American nations pay off their international obligations. As Greg Grandin notes in The Nation, “Venezuela has already become an important regional creditor, purchasing more than $1 billion of Argentine debt last year, which allowed Buenos Aires to pay off its IMF tab in full.” Venezuela has recently purchased up to $2 billion more of Argentine debt, and last year it cut a similar deal with Ecuador.
Venezuela’s cooperation agreements with Caribbean states and other nations such as Bolivia and Cuba have included important educational components. So far, these have been limited to support of literacy campaigns and educational exchanges in areas in which one country has a relative advantage: say, Bolivian and Venezuelan health professionals studying in Cuba, or aspiring energy sector employees enrolling in Venezuelan university programs.
All these projects in Latin America have, of course, met snags and challenges, and they are certainly not without faults – particularly when it comes to commercial disputes and the jockeying of government/presidential egos. But warts and all, such projects and other countries receptiveness to similar proposals do signal an invigorated tendency for international cooperation between the world’s struggling nations. Not since the height of the Non-Aligned Movement (which meets again this September in Havana) has the need for international solidarity among poor countries met with such obvious consensus. Amid the stubborn belligerence of powerful nations, poor countries have shown a valiant and growing tendency for exercising their sovereignty in unison.
If Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America can harness this opportunity into solid, executable alliances, then this century can finally be the Century of the South – it's about time.