It’s as if they were locked in a crypt for the last ten years. The finance ministers of every Latin American nation last week signed on to a resolution in principle to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the hemispheric expansion of NAFTA.
The walking corpse of Argentina’s economy was there, as well as the long-deceased body of Ecuador and several other South American nations whose economies were long ago murdered and buried by the free trade and free market nostrums of the World Bank and the IMF.
Yet on they came. Stiff-legged, covered in rotting bandages, the official zombies marched to Miami to pledge, one and all, to sign on for their next dose of free market poison.
Every nation but one: Venezuela, the single and solitary nation to say "no thanks" at Miami’s treaty of the living dead economies. Today, I met up with Venezuela’s chief FTAA negotiator. Victor Alvarez was saved from zombification by his sense of humor. He noted that while the Bush Administration was preaching free trade to their dark-skinned compatriots south of the border, the USA itself was facing one of the largest penalties in World Trade Organization history for raising tariffs on steel products. He would have laughed out loud in Miami if it didn’t hurt so much: the illegal US trade barriers have closed two steel plants in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s ‘negociador jefe’ Alvarez went through the well-known data: in ten years of free market free-for-all, industrialization in Venezuela dropped from 18% of GNP to 13%. And Venezuela fared best. Elsewhere in Latin America, economies simply imploded. And NAFTA created employment only in a fetid trench along the Rio Grande, the ‘maquiladora’sweatshops which suck down wages on both sides of the Mexico-US border.
We finished our conversation as the President walked in. Hugo Chavez is not one for subtleties. "FTAA is the PATH TO HELL," said Chavez.
He meant this in the deepest theological sense. What is at stake for Chavez is Latin America’s mortal soul. "I have seen children shot to death," said the president, "not by an invading Army but by our own nation’s soldiers."
Chavez was referring to February 27, 1989. While the Northern Hemisphere was celebrating the impending fall of the Berlin Wall, "another wall was going up," he explained, "the wall of globalization." That day, the army massacred Venezuelans, young and old, during a demonstration against diktats of the International Monetary Fund imposed on that nation..
The President raced through a dozen more examples, from Bolivia to Chiapas, Mexico, where the miracle of the marketplace came out of the barrel of a gun.
FTAA is far more than a trade document. It’s not just about fruit and cars that we sell across borders. FTAA is an entire new multi-state government in the making, with courts and executives, unelected, with the power to bless or damn any one nation’s laws which impede foreign investment, foreign sales or even foreign pollution.
FTAA is revolutionary in the sense that governments are overthrown. And the easiest way to do that, of course, is to convince governments to overthrow themselves. Hence, the zombification process.
Chavez offers an alternative to FTAA. Following a numbing one-hour discourse on the philosophy of the nineteenth century founding fathers of South America (I could sympathize with this former history professor’s students), he dropped the Big One. Instead of ALCA [the Spanish acronym for FTAA], he proposes ALBA, standing for the Bolivarian Alternative for America. Named after his hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez would create a "compensation" fund, in which the wealthier nations of North and South America would fund development in the poorer states.
If that sounds like an Andean pipe dream, he reminds us that the European Union created just such a redistribution fund to jump-start the economies of its poorest nations. (To the anger of the English, I should add, who saw Ireland use the funds to zoom past their former lords to a higher standard of living today.) If Chavez' proposal appears at first to have a snow ball's chance in NAFTA hell, I remember when, in fact, it was accepted gospel: John Kennedy's Alliance for Progress.
In those years when JFK's Alliance was promising northern capital for southern development, a strange group of well-heeled and well-armed revolutionaries in Chicago under Milton Friedman were plotting to overthrow Kennedy's vision. They succeeded.
Over three decades, the Chicago Boys and their neo-liberal cohort have ridden history’s pendulum to the top, announcing that history itself has come to an end in a free market consensus.
But when the pendulum swings back, the history professor in Caracas will be waiting with his Bolivarian elixir to make the economic dead rise again.
Greg Palast is on assignment in Caracas for Rolling Stone Magazine. For photos and more on Venezuela, go to www.GregPalast.com. Palast is the author of, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" (Penguin 2003).