Much has been written and theorized about the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) since President Chavez first proposed the idea at Isla Margarita at the III Summit of the Heads of State and the Government of the Association of Caribbean States in December, 2001.
ALBA is by now well known as the antidote to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. An alternative that is based on cooperation and solidarity, without forgetting economic sustainability. Built on forging a new road away from multinational competition and neo-liberal free trade, so that each country retains its own sovereignty and is able to develop its own country according to its own necessities and desires. Based on breaking away from the economic colonization that swept across Latin America in the 90s through a wave of privatizations, free trade agreements, and structural adjustment policies that pushed Latin America further in to debt and increased the already aggravated inequality ratio.
But there remain many questions and the debate continues as to what exactly constitutes “Bolivar’s alternative,” about which programs, agreements, and joint ventures fall under the grand umbrella of the ALBA, and about what actually sets the “alternative” apart. ALBA itself is a work in progress. Towards which the countries of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and the rest of Latin America are, in the words of one ALBA analyst, “taking their first steps.” The first official declaration and subsequent agreement made under the framework of ALBA was signed between Cuba and Venezuela in Havana on Dec.14, 2004 (with Bolivia additionally joining in April, 2006). The declaration laid out the founding principles of ALBA in “firm rejection of the content and goals of the FTAA,” and “[in affirmation] that that cardinal principle that should guide ALBA is the great solidarity among the people of Latin America and the Caribbean as upheld by Bolivar, Marti, etc.”
Among twelve guiding principles highlighted in the declaration (annexed below) is the blueprint for the cooperation, solidarity, and integration encompassed within “Bolivar’s Alternative.” Among numerous proposals are included a continental literacy plan; a Latin American plan for free health care; an education scholarship program; a Social Emergency Fund; a Development Bank of the South; a regional Petroleum company, Petroamerica; a regional television station, Telesur; and many others. Some of the proposals have moved faster than others, such as Telesur which has already celebrated its first birthday.
The subsequent agreement, signed the same day, lays out with further specificity plans that attempt to realize the goals of the joint declaration, but according to historian, analyst, and director of the Association for the Unity of Our America (AUNA), Carlos Oliva, “The declaration signed in 2004 is not ALBA… [but a] bilateral agreement between Cuba-Venezuela, that is interpreted as a first real and effective step of ALBA.” It is also more than just one isolated bilateral agreement, but a conjunctive of accords previously signed between the two governments.
Building from this beginning, four months later, Cuba and Venezuela signed a further agreement laying out the steps they would take to implement their accords in the Strategic Plan for the Application of ALBA, in order “to guarantee the most beneficial productive complementation on the bases of rationality, exploiting existing advantages on one side or the other, saving resources, extending useful employment, access to markets or any other consideration sustained in genuine solidarity that will promote the strengths of the two countries." 
These accords contained reference to various social and educational missions and laid out strategic goals for important forms of cooperation and integration between Cuba and Venezuela already in place from previous years, referring to the “up to 30,000 Cuban doctors” tending to patients in Venezuela; Cuban support for the Venezuelan educational missions Robinson, Ribas, Sucre and Vuelvan Caras; energy integration and the identification of “11 projects for the establishment of joint ventures and other methods of economic complementation between the two countries.”
As the cooperation between the two countries grew, in April of this year, on the nearly one year anniversary of the Strategic Plan, Cuba and Venezuela again met in Havana, this time accompanied by Bolivian President Evo Morales, where the three countries signed the reciprocal People’s Trade Agreement (TCP) and Bolivia agreed to the 2004 joint Declaration signed between Cuba and Venezuela. 
In the TCP, the three countries highlighted further plans for increased trade, exchange and solidarity based on the tenets of ALBA. As highlighted in a recent report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, after Colombia (traditionally a market for Bolivian soy) decided to pursue a free trade agreement with the United States, Cuba and Venezuela agreed to buy or barter for all of Bolivia’s soy exports under the framework of ALBA. In exchange for some of the products, Cuba has promised to send doctors and teachers to work in impoverished regions throughout the country, a common experience in the “social trade” amongst the three countries.
All of these agreements signed between Cuba, Venezuela, and now Bolivia, under the framework of ALBA, could lead one to believe that “Bolivar’s Alternative” is constrained only to these three countries and their mutual development, but in reality these ALBA agreements are merely the beginning framework, and small portion of what many consider to fall under the grand umbrella of ALBA. According to the President of the ALBA Governing Council, Carmen Jaqueline Giménez Tellería, ALBA includes everything from the bilateral agreements signed between Venezuela and Uruguay or Argentina, to Funds for Haiti and even the low-cost heating oil program for low-income communities in the United States. Although she too makes the distinction that until now, these agreements are also not in and among themselves ALBA, but rather “agreements signed in the framework of ALBA.”
There is, however, no denying the debate among ALBA analysts over what actually falls within the framework of ALBA, about whether Petrocaribe and bilateral agreements between Venezuela and Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil would or should be included.
Carlos Oliva, director of the Havana based NGO AUNA agrees with Giménez Tellería, but is not quite so generous. He believes that these projects should be considered under the ALBA framework, just as long as they include a “flexible logic, regional focus, and, above all else,… these components of solidarity.” “While a project doesn’t impose conditions,” he said at his offices in Havana, “like the FTAA, that pushes you to sign a Free Trade Agreement through a series of repressive mechanisms, and which doesn’t support any form of economic development, then I am working with a country that feels part of ALBA.”
However Oliva also believes that this could be difficult with countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay who, although governed by leftists administrations, are still in good standing with the United States and haven’t yet broken from their neoliberalist traditions. “I’m not going to say if they are going to or if they are not [break from the old model],” he stated recently “I’m just saying that they are not doing it now.”
This raises the complex question of ALBA’s relationship with Mercosur, the South American trading block, made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, as of early July, Venezuela. With the fact that Mercosur now constitutes 75% of South America’s economic activity, holds 65% of the continent’s population, and contains some of the largest reserves of water and hydrocarbons on the planet, there is no doubt as to the geo-political importance of the trading block as an economic front against the United States. But the aspects of cooperation and solidarity are just now in the works. Although Mercosur has recently taken on a more social focus with the addition of Venezuela, the recent economic accords signed with Cuba, and Castro’s offer to share the Cuban social and educational experiences with the rest of the countries, the trading block is still essentially economic and built on the neo-liberal tendencies on which is was founded. Nor does Venezuela’s entry in to the 15-year-old block appear to be based on the ALBA tenets of cooperation and solidarity, but rather the complete elimination of tariffs on all imported and exported goods, including “sensitive products” by 2014.
Nevertheless, Venezuelan President Chavez has repeatedly called for Mercosur to be a vital step towards the integration of the Americas and the formation of ALBA. A recent pamphlet printed by the Bolivarian government for Venezuela’s entry into the trading block states as the number one political goal: “To drive a new model of integration based on the principles of ALBA: complementarity, solidarity, cooperation, and respect for the sovereignty of the people.” With the current synchronicity of political will on the part of the Mercosur nations, and the increased social and integrationist approach within the trading block which is considering various joint infrastructure projects, a development bank, and a parliament, it does appear that the ALBA framework could win over, but it is in construction. Which Giménez Tellería is willing to acknowledge.
“If we are not able to achieve the human sensibility and make this change of culture and share, not with competition, but with compatibility,” she said recently in Caracas, “If we are not able to understand that the world should be based on solidarity, this transition is going to be very difficult.”
But there is much that is agreed on. The Latin American Television Network, Telesur, which was billed by the mainstream press as the counter-weight to CNN, and which has correspondents across the Americas, was formed between Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela (51% owner) over a year ago. The network is the main communicational initiative set up under the framework of ALBA, with the goal of “developing a new communicational strategy for Latin America.”
The joint venture, Petrocaribe, was formed between the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA and fourteen Caribbean nations in June of last year, and has opened the doors for the Caribbean nations to receive oil at preferential rates, with 40% financing, 25 years to pay it off, and the potential of partial payment in other non-monetary goods and services. Since Petrocaribe, various other joint ventures have also been formed, including the formation in April of a joint venture between PDVSA and a group of mayors from Nicaragua’s Sandinista party. The goal of Petroamerica, outlined under the 2004 ALBA joint declaration has yet to materialize, but much has been accomplished in the short year and a half.
Of course, these agreements and joint ventures under the framework of ALBA are not without their problems. Many argue that the solidarity and cooperation in participation from various nations is not uniform, and that the main motivation for the involvement of certain nations comes purely from an individualistic and economic standpoint. This could be the case with many of the PDVSA joint ventures, where Venezuela appears to be lending its solidarity and extensive oil reserves to the partnership for little in return and to those who have little to offer. But the same could be said for other relationships which appear to be overwhelmingly unbalanced. Cuba receives only Venezuela’s “friendship” in exchange for the high costs of the thousands of Venezuelan patients who have traveled to the island nation over the past 5 years for medical treatment as part of the 2000 Cuba-Venezuela pact, which is now also considered to be within the framework of ALBA. But as explained above, the Cuban-Venezuelan (and now Bolivian) experience of integration, cooperation, and solidarity, within the exchange of resources, doctors, students, medical patients, and other support within the framework of ALBA is a unique and special one in which the three countries appear to hope to pave the road for the integration of the Americas. As for ALBA, most likely Oliva has it right when he says we’ll have to wait and see. “I think that this is a process in development. There is no easy road towards integration,” he says. “[But] I see that progressively it is possible to consolidate dynamics of integration.” Oliva believes that it all depends on the reaction of the United States, the consolidation of the processes in Venezuela and Bolivia, the outcome of elections in Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, and the extent to which the Mercosur nations are willing to build a Mercosur with “its positions against FTAA, a Mercosur that is in agreement to advance further in the community of South American nations.”
As President Chavez said in his speech last November, at the culmination of the March in Support of Latinamerica and the Caribbean, “ALBA is not just one proposal… All of this is ALBA. [ALBA is] integration.”
And it is, without a doubt, the direction towards which much of South America is headed, and Chavez’s rallying cry against northern imperialism, be it US military intervention or the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In Chavez’s own words, it is a “historic moment”, which nowhere is better described than in the final paragraph of the ALBA Joint Declaration signed between Cuba and Venezuela in December 2004: “In this year in which we commemorate the 180 year anniversary of the glorious victory of Ayacucho and of the Summons to the Anfictionic Congress of Panama, which tried to open up the road to a true process of integration of our countries, frustrated since then, we express our conviction that now, finally with the consolidation of the Bolivarian Republic and the indisputable failure of the neoliberal politics imposed on our countries, the Latinamerican and Caribbean people find themselves on the road to their second and true independence, the birth of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas…”