"Alca, al carajo!", was Hugo Chávez's war cry in Mar Del Plata, located in southern Argentina, on November 5th 2005, expressing the will of the people in the 35 countries of the American continent. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was a project proposed since 1991 by George H. Bush, under the name Company of the Americas, further developed by democrat Bill Clinton, but which was finally moved ahead by his successor George W. Bush, starting in 2001.
In addition to being a trade agreement, the FTAA provided for a series of mechanisms that subordinated the governments of Latin America to Washington. Among them, it proposed that Latin American companies and states prioritize the sale of raw materials and products in general to American buyers, in exchange for the possibility of competing freely for a share of the US market.
The FTAA also sought to make the dollar the continent’s common currency, and for White House advisers to participate in drafting new trade contracts signed by each Latin American nation.
The agreement also provided for the United States to lend military advice, which would open loopholes for the installation of military bases in the region. This was achieved in some countries through direct agreements, like happened in Colombia, which houses the largest number of US military bases in South America. From the first pact between Presidents Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton, in 1999, until the renewal of the Colombia Grows plan, between Iván Duque and Donald Trump, the country has already ceded territory to nine US military bases, signed US $ 10 billion in contracts with companies in the US military-industrial complex, and hosts thousands of American soldiers in its territory.
In 2001, President Fernando de la Rúa, during the III Summit of the Americas, in Miami, offered Argentina to be the host of the next conference, “which would lead to the FTAA”. The neoliberal government was defeated that same year by pressure from the streets, which led to the resignation of the president on December 21st.
Another consequence of the actions of the region’s conservative governments who sided with the United States was the series of privatizations promoted by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as was the case with mining giant Vale do Rio Doce in 1997, sold for only R $ 3.3 billion, when its mineral reserves alone had an estimated value of R $ 100 billion. The same was done with telecommunications behemoth Telebrás, in 1998.
In Ecuador, President Jamil Mahuad, faced with an economic crisis and three years of a shrinking GDP, decided to adopt a dual exchange rate system with the dollar as the official currency, displacing the Sucre, the former national coin, from 1999 until today.
‘Dollarization’ was also adopted by El Salvador in 2001, with conservative Francisco Flores as head of state.
In 2003, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and nine other countries in the region entered the Hemispheric Cooperation Program (PCH), which envisaged the preparation of national economic development plans, with the oversight of directors from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) to prepare the groundwork for trade negotiations that would open with the FTAA.
“And our continent would become a big 'United States', or better, 'Subordinated States of the Americas', because transnational companies were going to take over our entire economy,” says João Pedro Stedile, a member of the Rural Landless Workers Movement’s (MST) national leadership.
Lawyer and member of the Popular Consultation party, Ricardo Gebrim agrees that if the FTAA had been approved, some decisions would be irreversible for the countries and peoples of the region.
“It was a decisive move. If the FTAA had succeeded in imposing itself, the situation would have favored the United States to such an extent, that it would make it very difficult not only for the emergence of the new spheres of influence that are beginning to position themselves globally, but also any possibility for sovereign development of the countries on our continent”, Analyzes.
The peoples’ gamechanger
After the United States establishment spent nearly a decade laying the groundwork for the approval of the FTAA project, the peoples of the region began to organize.
Still in the 1990s, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, called on leftist parties and social movements to articulate against the actions of US interventionism in Latin America, especially in a context of economic crisis and the decline of the socialist camp.
At the time, Cuba had already been banned from the OAS because of US influence, as well as suffering from an economic blockade for more than 30 years.
The 1998 election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, was a breath of fresh air for progressive forces in the continent. With a socialist orientation, the Bolivarian Revolution provided political and economic support for the Cuban Revolution.
“The only one who refused to vote at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Canada, was Commander Hugo Chávez. He abstained from voting, because there it was declared that in 2005 the free trade area would be formalized”, recalls former Venezuelan Chancellor Elias Jaua.
From that event, Chávez proposes an alternative to the FTAA, which would later be called the Bolivarian Alternative for Our America (Alba). There begins a period considered by some analysts to be “the victory decade”, with the ascension progressive governments that promoted the strengthening of Latin America as a bloc.
"Chávez said 'it is not enough to say no to the FTAA, no to neoliberalism, an alternative must be built'. And to build this alternative, it is necessary to create a correlation of forces that make it viable”, details Jaua.
The rise of Chávez, as well as of Nestor Kirchner in Argentina; Fernando Lugo in Paraguay; Rafael Correa in Ecuador; Evo Morales in Bolivia; Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay and Lula da Silva in Brazil, came about propped up by a social base that was already organized through social movements. Something so fundamental that in just four years, was able to dismantle the Clinton and Bush project.
"I believe that this movement against the FTAA helped to denounce the interests of American imperialism, the interests of privatizations, and this was creating a political broth that later helped us to overthrow those pro-American governments, and create a new wave of progressive governments", affirms the MST leader.
Ricardo Gebrim also agrees that the recipe for success of the “No to the FTAA” campaign, was the alliance between political parties, organized social movements and leftist governments.
In Brazil, around 60 entities, including the Unified Worker’ Central (CUT), the MST and the National Students Union organized a popular referendum, in which 98% of the more than 10.1 million voters rejected the Free Area Trade.
In addition to this, from November 1st to 5th, 2005, the People's Summit was held, which began with a march from Buenos Aires to Mar Del Plata, hosting debates and activities that denounce US economic and military interests, and repudiated the presence George W. Bush at the IV Summit of the Americas.
“Lula, Chávez and Kirchner were the main spokesmen at the time, but the whole continent stood up against it. So much so that the activity in Mar del Plata in 2005 ended up burying the FTAA ”, recalls Stedile.
In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela launched the Bolivarian Alternative for Our America as an articulation between governments and left-wing organizations in the region. Later, Alba would consolidate itself between eight states as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - Peoples' Trade Treaty (Alba-TCP).
Social movements for their part, remained articulated through the Alba Movement's network, meeting annually and maintaining an organizational headquarter in the Argentine capital.
For the Landless leader, the unity of popular movements across the continent is a reflection of how they came out of the campaign against the FTAA strengthened. However, the current situation poses new challenges.
The “victory decade” ended with a series of events, from parliamentary coups, cases of judicial persecution, military coups and campaigns financed by the United States, to overthrow governments that sought to establish their foreign relations with greater autonomy, strengthening an alternative bloc to the North American economic potency.
Stedile identifies that in this period, the Americas were disputed by three distinct political projects: neo-liberalism, with the FTAA; the neo-developmental project, which proposed the reconciliation between the working class and the business community, to increase industrialization, employment and income distribution, as was in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico; and the third, which was the project for social and economic integration of the entire continent, Alba.
“The worsening of the global capitalist crisis has imposed a conflict of all three projects in our continent. We buried the FTAA, but neoliberalism is still alive in Colombia, Peru and Chile. Neo-developmentalism is in crisis, so much so that we lost the elections in Brazil, but is now recovering in Argentina, and Alba-TCP itself is also in crisis”, comments the MST leader.
Despite the electoral victories in Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia, as well as the achievments of the constituent referendum in Chile, which demonstrate a re-articulation within the popular field, Ricardo Gebrim signals that it is necessary to review the limitations experienced by governments at the beginning of the century, to be able to advance in the construction of a more egalitarian society.
“We can have one-off victories, but they are part of the same historical problem, this difficulty in rescuing a strategic project. If we do not address this in theoretical field, not only relying on concrete experiences, we will face the same problems that we faced in that period of progressive governments, that ended up being defeated”, comments the lawyer.
Joe Biden's electoral victory opens a new chapter for relations between the United States and Latin American nations. In the case of Venezuela, the Democrat maintains his support for Congressman Juan Guaidó, but says that unilateral sanctions were "inefficient" in their objective of overthrowing Nicolás Maduro.
The former Venezuelan minister says that perhaps the new US president will ease the pressure on Latin America, but points out that it was the Obama-Biden administration that carried out the destabilizing plans that toppled a dozen anti-imperialist governments in the world.
“Only the people through their own strength can return to the path we had built and strive for more. Not only can we not accept the loss of what was taken from us during that decade in dispute, but we also need to prepare for the third decade of the 21st century, to be “the victory decade” again, and this time in an irreversible way for the peoples of our continent”, affirms Elias Jaua.
Edited by: Rodrigo Durão Coelho