Ken Cole: Understanding the Bolivarian Alternative


Richard Moore

After opposition to neoliberalism in Seattle, Genoa, the World Social Forum and elsewhere; Third World governments’ inability to agree to further trade liberalization at the WTO; and regional opposition organized by the Alianza Social Continental, it became politically impossible for Latin American government representatives to reach agreement on the ALCA proposal at the Vth Summit of the Americas at Mar del Plata (Argentina) in November 2005. As “the Nestor Kirchner [President of Argentina] Administration hosted the official Summit of the Americas … [a] Peoples’ Summit brought together various social movements, labor, piqueteros, and community groups from Argentina and throughout the Americas to strategize a more just form of Latin American integration” (Fischer-Hoffman 2005). The Peoples’ Summit was “an enormous affair which consumed … two stadiums and the university provided the space for dialogue on how to build an anti-imperialist hemispheric movement” (op.cit.) and it hosted three workshops on ALBA.

In the future, we will speak of US-Latin American relations in terms of the era before Mar del Plata, and the era after it,” remarked President Hugo Chávez in his weekly televised talk show, Aló Presidente.

The International Journal of Cuban Studies

(Online) ISSN 1756-347X

ALBA: a process of concientizacion

Ken Cole argues that the development of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean is as much a process of political concientización as of economic institutional organization.


In the 19th century both José Martí and Simón Bolívar warned of United States’ intent to assume dominion over Latin America. In the globalized world of the 21st century the proposal for La Área de Libre Comercio de las Americas (ALCA) – The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) – would have secured US power over the Latin American economy and polity. This initiative expired at the Vth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata (Argentina) in 2005 when Latin American political leaders failed to ratify ALCA. ALBA – the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean – is an alternative integration process founded on complementarity, solidarity, cooperation, human dignity, respect for social diversity – rather than competition, domination, exploitation, corporate rule and economic expediency. The author argues that this process is as much one of political concientización as of economic institutional organization.


In his address to nearly a million people massed in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana on 4 February 1962, to protest at the US-inspired decision to exclude Cuba from the nascent Organization of American States, Fidel Castro pronounced:

“No nation in Latin America is weak – because each forms part of a family of 200 million brothers, who suffer the same miseries, who harbor the same sentiments, who have the same energy, who dream about the same future and who count upon the solidarity of all honest men and women throughout the world.” (Castro 1962: 21)

José Martí’s dream of Nuestrá América (Our America), originally published in newspapers in New York and Mexico City in January 1891, was reawakened, defining an internationalist conception of social change, which has characterized post-1959 Cuban revolutionary praxis. Such a commitment is celebrated in the 21st century in the establishment of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean (ALBA).

In the incipient nineteenth century, as Spanish colonial power waned, Simón Bolívar declared: “I am of the opinion that until we centralize our American governments, our enemies will gain irreversible advantages” (Bolívar 1812: 7). Bolívar attempted to unite Latin America, warning that the United States would assume the mantle of Spanish dominion: “…[the United States] seems destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of freedom” (Bolívar 1829: 173). A League of Latin American Nations was proposed, integrated around a unified armed force, a common economic policy and a regional political authority to pursue international negotiations.

After centuries of colonial exploitation and in the face of nineteenth-century US ascendancy, Latin America needed to integrate regionally to ensure local political self-determination. As Martí wrote, and was recently quoted:

“Nations that do not know one another should quickly become acquainted, as men who are to fight a common enemy. Never has there been in [Latin] America, from independence to now, an issue that requires more sensitivity, nor obliges us to be more vigilant, nor demands a clearer and detailed analysis, than the invitation from powers in the United States… to extend their control over the Americas.” (Ministerio de Comunicación e Información 2006:20)

In the 21st century, when citizen’s well-being is prejudiced by the financial exigencies of international capital accumulation, ALBA articulates the vision and hopes of Bolívar and Martí: “To return to theidea [of the League of Latin American Nations] is what we plan to do. That is the establishment of ALBA.” (Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, quoted in Harnecker 2002: 145, author’s translation and emphasis added).

This article focuses on the importance of the “idea” of regional integration, as people’s globalized, lived experience contradicts an ideological consensus which promises growth and development and structures their social existence, leaving feelings of confusion, powerless and frustration. It is the political task of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean to combat this and create the experience of a shared existence, which through education and reflection melds individuals with diverse interests, distinct traditions and idiosyncratic ambitions, into a collective force for radical, regional, social change, gradually supplanting the neoliberal tide of individualism and market competition.

Globalization and self-determination

In the 1970s, the competitive social relations of capitalist production assumed a renewed international compass of globalization, as a result of which “…capitalist development has been facilitated by the neoliberal adjustment programs … which every Latin America country, with the exception of Cuba, implemented in the last two decades of the 20th century” (Robinson 2008).

In June 1990, in an attempt to consolidate US dominion within the neoliberal panoply in Latin America, US President George H. Bush proposed the ‘Enterprise for the Americas’ initiative, intended to establish a “competitive, free market from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego”. The North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the US was the first step in this process. Intended to increase trade and regional investment, in 1995 US-Mexican trade increased by 23% and for the first time Mexico enjoyed a trading surplus with the United States, but the onslaught of US investment decreased total output in Mexico by 7% and unemployment increased (see Greider 1997: 270-3). “Real wages fell… In Mexico, labourer’s pay per hour dropped 40% in the first seven years … (while) in all three nations productivity (and profits) rose…’ (Palast 2007: 306).

Building upon the NAFTA initiative, in December 1994, the First Summit of the Americas of the Organization of American States, held in Miami, considered the establishment of the Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA) (Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)). All of South America was designated to become a deregulated free trade zone.

Already, the post-1970 consolidation of globalized, competitive, economic relations had led to the 1980s becoming a “lost decade” in Latin America. Average per capita income declined by 0.9% per annum in the 1980s and by 1.5% in the 1990s (see, Robinson 2008); and between 1983 and 1992 the overall number of people living in poverty increased from 78 to 150 million (see Korneniewicz and Smith 2000:8-9). After the price of oil had quadrupled in the 1970s to nearly US$12 per barrel, petro-dollar surpluses burgeoned and were deposited with international banks, a major portion being ‘recycled’ as loans to Latin American governments. Subsequently, in an effort to stave off price inflation in the US economy, domestic interest rates had been increased, an increment which, through the institutions of global finance, simultaneously augmented the cost of international lending, and consequently the indebtedness of Latin American countries mushroomed. The ‘debt crisis’ ensued when, in August of 1982, Mexico’s Finance Minister Jesus Silva-Herzog declared that foreign debt obligations could no longer be honored.

In response, commercial banks reduced or halted new lending and refused to refinance billions of dollars of short-term loans. To restore financial confidence, Latin American countries were ‘structurally adjusted’ by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (euphemistically justified as ‘debt relief’). Conditions were attached to new loans to ostensibly ensure repayment, requiring governments to: reduce fiscal deficits (limiting social spending on education, health and social services); moderate taxation (as an ‘incentive’ to private investment); ensure competitive interest and exchange rates (encouraging foreign investment, export production, trade liberalization); and deregulate flows of international finance across frontiers (see Williamson 1990: Chapter 2).

Lifting restrictions on foreign ownership, privatizing state utilities and industries, lowering taxes along with weakening trade unions and the social safety net to reduce costs and wages “…plunged Latin America [in the 1980s] into its deepest crisis this [20th] century … Deregulated economies … synonymous with unprecedented social polarization … plummeting living standards … and multi-billion dollar fortunes … [led to the] massive pillage of the economy (by foreign and local investors and bankers) and the state (by elected politicians and non-elected officials)”(Petras and Morley 1992: 7).

Poverty and inequality worsened and in an environment of social discontent and political revolt, the leitmotif of post-1978 politics in Latin America became a trend towards “democratization” (see Hagopian and Mainwaring 2005), which, in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia saw a transition from military/authoritarian rule; in Mexico and Colombia became an extension of semi-authoritarian political control; and in Central America was associated with civil war/revolution (see Garretón 2001).

However, this democratic enlightenment of the Latin American polity did little to address deepening poverty and rising economic inequality: “…[in spite] of more than two decades of democratic governments … the region faces a growing social crisis. Deep inequalities remain … serious levels of poverty prevail, economic growth has been insufficient and dissatisfaction with those democracies … has been growing, often with deeply destabilizing consequences” (Caputo, 2005).

“Deeply destabilizing consequences”: civil conflict against water privatization (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 2000), revolt provoked by a banking/peso crisis (Argentina 2001-2), challenging the privatization of electricity supply (Arequipa, Peru 2002). In other words, the failure of democratic governance to ameliorate individuals’ marginalization and the impoverishment of the masses had provoked the emergence of radical social movements.

Opposition to economic liberalization and the ALCA proposal was regionally articulated through theAlianza Social Continental (Hemispheric Social Alliance) of trade unions, social movements and indigenous, environmental and citizen organizations (see Saguir 2007): 30 mass movements from 19 countries organized into 18 regional networks, struggling under the banner “Yes to LIFE, No to FTAA: Another America is Possible”.

The Alianza ” is a forum where progressive movements from around the Americas can gather, strategize, share information and plan joint actions … [and] fight for an alternative development model” (HSC 1999). The Alianza convened for the first time in Costa Rica in March 1999.

After opposition to neoliberalism in Seattle, Genoa, the World Social Forum and elsewhere; Third World governments’ inability to agree to further trade liberalization at the WTO; and regional opposition organized by the Alianza Social Continental, it became politically impossible for Latin American government representatives to reach agreement on the ALCA proposal at the Vth Summit of the Americas at Mar del Plata (Argentina) in November 2005. As “the Nestor Kirchner [President of Argentina] Administration hosted the official Summit of the Americas … [a] Peoples’ Summit brought together various social movements, labor, piqueteros, and community groups from Argentina and throughout the Americas to strategize a more just form of Latin American integration” (Fischer-Hoffman 2005). The Peoples’ Summit was “an enormous affair which consumed … two stadiums and the university provided the space for dialogue on how to build an anti-imperialist hemispheric movement” (op.cit.) and it hosted three workshops on ALBA.

“In the future, we will speak of US-Latin American relations in terms of the era before Mar del Plata, and the era after it,” remarked President Hugo Chávez in his weekly televised talk show, Aló Presidente.

Political Mobilization

The significance of informal political organization to challenge disadvantage and impoverishment through social movements reflects the process by which individuals become radicalized to search for alternative modes of existence.

Normally a shared heritage is disseminated through social institutions (schools, universities, religious worship, the media) ideologically creating a consensus which morally and ethically maintains and preserves social stability.

When people’s experience contradicts ideological consensus – for instance when elected “on a platform promising alternative policies to market oriented reform … leaders (whether in Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador or Bolivia), once in office … [do] the opposite” (Biekart 2005) – the extant social consensus loses credibility and cohesion is undermined, presaging the emergence of social movements as a mechanism of political self-defence.

Governments coming to power after the ‘lost decade’ on a manifesto of intervening in competitive markets to arrest encroaching impoverishment only modified the extremes of neoliberalism, a development strategy that, at the close of the twentieth century, was “an unmitigated economic disaster… around 97 million people, are presently struggling to live on an income of less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile the number of Latin American billionaires has more than quadrupled since the late 1980s ” (Bellamy Foster 2007).

Social movements structured political dissent around opposition to free-trade agreements, privatization of public services, political corruption, indigenous rights, landlessness and unemployment. However, social change necessitates organized political institutions for the emergence of an alternative social environment, and in this regard there has been an ideological sea change.

In December 1998 Chavez, leader of the Fifth Republic Movement, was elected President of Venezuela and ratified in regional, national and referenda elections no less that 13 times, up until a referendum was narrowly lost in December 2007. However, in the regional and municipal elections at the end of November 2008, Chávez’ United Socialist Party increased its vote by 1.1 million over the referendum which had been lost the previous year.

During that period, Bharrat Jagdeo, of the People’s Progressive Party, was elected President of Guyana in August 1999. In Brazil, in October 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party, was first elected President, and reelected in October 2006. Néstor Carlos Kirchner, of the Frente para la Victoria or FPV (Front for Victory), was sworn in as President of Argentina in May 2003; and in October 2007, his wife Cristina Fernández, on essentially the same political platform, was elected to succeed him. In October 2004 in Uruguay, Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas, of the Frente Amplio(Broad Front) coalition, was elected President.

A momentous year was 2006: in January, Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS (Movement for Socialism), was elected President of Bolivia; in March, Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, of the Socialist Party, was elected the first female President of Chile; in April, Ollanta Humala, of the Peruvian Nationalist Party, came within 5% of being elected President; in July, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Party of Democratic Revolution, lost the election for President of Mexico by less than 1% in a disputed contest; in November José Daniel Ortega Savedra, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, regained the Presidency of Nicaragua; and also in November, in Ecuador, Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado who founded the Alianza PAIS-Patria Altiva i Soberana (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland Alliance) was elected President.

In April 2008 Fernando Lugo, a Roman Catholic bishop, of the Christian Democratic Party, a party integrated into a coalition of more than a dozen opposition parties and social movements, known as the Patriotic Alliance for Change, was elected President of Paraguay.

In all these instances, debates about the role of the state in development – which hitherto had been marginalized in the dominant discourse of neoliberalism – moved to centre stage. The result was that Presidents and candidates espoused, albeit with different emphases and in distinct contexts, development strategies and social policies intended to advance workers’ rights with a commitment to poverty alleviation and social reforms. In the words of one analyst: “The Latins are defying the American Empire” (Perkins 2007: 79).

It is the role of political leadership to effect understanding amongst the marginalized and excluded, and, when people appreciate the (social) process of their (individual) disadvantage, reason is elevated above self-interested calculation. In Castro’s words: “Do not allow anyone to believe anything that he does not understand. That is the way fanatics are made and dogmatic, fanatical minds developed … We are going to educate, teach to think, teach to analyze and understand” (Castro 1972: 451, emphasis added) As a social process, understanding to effect progress, development and democracy, has an essential cultural component: “…without knowledge and culture an ethical existence is unattainable… [and] equality and liberty would be impossible. Without education and without culture there is not, nor can there be, democracy” (Castro 2003a: 19). His words echo those oft-quoted by Marti, written a century and a half earlier: “To be educated is to be free.”

The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean

At the time of the 1994 First Summit of the Americas of the Organization of American States, where the process of establishing ALCA was initially considered by Latin American governments, Fidel Castro met Hugo Chávez for the first time in Havana: “Chávez … spoke with passion and depth about the program of the Bolivarian Revolution [in Venezuela] and the possibility of realizing the dream of [Simón] Bolívar … the union of America…’ (Elizalde and Báez 2005: 47, author’s translation).

In a speech delivered at the University of Havana in December to mark the agreement of intent to establish the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (see Castro and Chávez 1994), Fidel Castro affirmed:

“…like never before we need the ideas of Bolívar and Martí … in this unipolar world our people are threatened by being devoured by the empire … destroying our independence and popular sovereignty … the imperialist strategy is very clear … to impose a political and economic regime which is convenient to the United States … [nothing] will remain in Latin American hands … North American companies will fundamentally control all economic activity … [But] if we put the ideas of Bolívar and Martí into practice it will lead to an end to injustice, the end of exploitation… [This] can be called many things … socialism … Bolivarianism … the thought of Marti … [and] Christianity…” (Castro 1994: 94, 96, 101, 105)

Martí’s Our America and Bolívar’s League of American Nations were to be proclaimed through ALBA: regional integration to address “…poverty and social exclusion, and … the interests of the peoples of Latin America” (PortalAlba 2004, author’s translation).

The first official declaration and agreement made within the framework of ALBA was signed between Cuba and Venezuela in December 2004; Bolivia joined April 2006, Nicaragua January 2007, Dominica January 2008, and Honduras August 2008.

While ALBA formally includes only these six members, the various institutional components of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas incorporate: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, The Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Paraguay, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Uruguay.

These institutional components address regional needs: petroleum (PETROSUR); information and media (TELESUR); education (Universidad del Sur); international credit (Banco de la Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas); a regional seed bank and Agro-Ecology School organized by Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement; regional health initiatives, such as Cuba’s Operación Milagro to tackle ophthalmic problems, and Latin American medical schools in Havana and Caracas.

As part of the broader process of regional integration, in July 2006 Venezuela acceded to MERCOSUR, the Southern Common Market, a trading block, made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, which constitutes some 75% of South America’s economic activity and includes 65% of the continent’s population, and containing some of the largest reserves of water and hydrocarbons on the planet. MERCOSUR is essentially a trading bloc organized according to economic imperatives, but with the addition of Venezuela and recent economic accords signed with Cuba has assumed more of a “political” focus, and Chávez sees the involvement of Venezuela in MERCOSUR as a crucial step in the integration of the Americas and the formation of ALBA.

In April 2007, at the 1st Energy Summit, Venezuela was one of twelve founder members of Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Chávez stated at the Summit that UNASUR was a very important treaty for the continent and that it would strengthen the governments of the southern hemisphere. ‘”We are all governments of the left, we have a lot in common and we are committed to making the union of South America dynamic” (Chávez quoted in Prado 2008).

Democracy for the 21st century

The word ‘alba’ in Spanish means dawn and the implication is that there is a dawning of a new (non-capitalist) reality: an awakening of the collective imagination as to what is possible, an evolving consciousness of social existence, which is “…a geo-economic, geopolitical, social, cultural andideological space that is in construction…” (Chávez, at the 6th Summit of the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, January 30th 2008, quoted in Janicke 2008, emphasis added). The institutions of ALBA, MERCOSUR and UNASUR are essential elements in an emergent socialist consciousness and evolving process of democracy as consensus building (rather than the imposition of an institution of democracy which is a system of majority rule).

At a time when international, competitive, commodity exchange has transformed relations between governments and citizens, workers and employers, and people and the places where they live and work, the ideas of Bolívar and Martí have been recast to offer a radical alternative to globalization.

“Whatever conclusions we draw from the actions and words of José Martí [and Simón Bolívar] for the transnational and post-industrial present must be tempered by an acknowledgment of the challenges posed by new patterns of capital accumulation to our traditional understandings of politics, nationalism, and culture.” (Lipsitz 1998: 296)

Individual countries cannot counter global finance. Resistance has to be formulated in international solidarity: “…such struggles must be part of a more expansive transnational counter-hegemonic project, including transnational trade unionism, transnational social movements, transnational political organizations, and so on” (Robinson 2008: 15, emphasis added.

ALBA is, thus, a counter-hegemonic project, founded on complementarity, solidarity, cooperation, human dignity, respect for social diversity – rather than competition, domination, exploitation, corporate rule and economic expediency. Alba is a process of conscientización, a cultural andeducational process, in which human rights become the arbiter of political democracy. Ethical consensus, as a social process, continually evolves with human experience, while individuals’ potentials and ambitions advance as participative political institutions become accomplished at arbitrating on human need rather than individual greed.

Agreements within ALBA are necessarily mutually beneficial through a strategy of endogenous development, where the economy is conceived of as a social structure, linking production to consumption through distribution. The social provision of a local infrastructure to utilize local resources is paramount, as is the social inclusion of the disadvantaged within a political and economic agenda of equality. Such a strategy is inclusive of sustainable life styles and consumption patterns which do not compromise the well-being of future generations. And novel forms of social and economic organization (micro enterprises, cooperatives, technological alternatives, etc…) which address local conditions and traditions are addressed, promoting respect for diversity and particularities in the realization of national and regional potentials (see, Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2004:4-5).

In this context, the Banco para la Alternative Bolivariana para las Américas(the bank of ALBA) finances regional projects in infrastructure development, social, educational and cultural initiatives to enhance individuals’ well-being but also, fundamentally, to eliminate the economic asymmetries and inequalities between Latin American nations. For instance, loans were made to Nicaragua in August 2007 to finance agricultural machinery for twelve cooperatives and to build an oil refinery; also in January 2008 to create centres for child development, to reintegrate street children into society; and in July 2007 Bolivia borrowed money for cooperative agricultural development in the poultry, dairy, rice and forestry industries.

The agenda of the VIth ALBA Summit held in Caracas in January 2008, concentrated on food self-sufficiency, energy integration, terms of finance, health provision (especially Operación Milagro) and education (including the Cuban literacy programme Yo Si Puedo (Yes I Can) and the follow-up, Yo Si Puedo Seguir (Yes I Can Continue), a post-literacy education programme). Also the Cultural Fund of ALBA is an initiative to decolonize Latin American culture through the distribution of books, movies, crafts, and fine arts, and the promotion of local/indigenous cultural production.

ALBA as a process of concientización

To conclude, ALBA /alba, a process of human progress and social development, adapts to and is driven by Latin American individuals’ emerging social consciousness, by formulating a regional agenda for countering unequal exchange, poverty and social exclusion, fostering sustainable agricultural production and food self-sufficiency and building participative democratic governance (PortalAlba 2006).

“The Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean’ is a different proposal for integration. Whilst the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] is responsive to the interests of international capital and pursues an absolute liberalization of commerce in goods and services and in investment, ALBA emphasizes the fight against poverty and social exclusion, and therefore expresses the interests of the peoples of Latin America.” (PortalAlba 2004).

Democracy is both an institutional system for the social organization of individuals’ activity and an evolving process of human consciousness: more than periodic elections, democracy “…is a vast human experience … linked to the historical search for freedom, justice and materials and spiritual progress … it is an experience that never ends” (Caputo 2005: 35, emphasis added). At an international or regional level, such as that of ALBA, democracy can only mean political consensus within an ethic of human rights, the experience of which will rebound on national (local) political processes to raise awareness of the imperative for citizens to actively participate in national processes of political democracy, if the changing institutions of social existence are to facilitate individuals’ fulfilment of their emerging social potentials. Knowledge and understanding are the sine qua non of the process of consciousness. In Castro’s words:

“… allow me to repeat and reiterate: in the face of sophisticated and destructive arms with which they want to frighten us and impose on us an unjust, irrational and unsustainable, global economic and social order: Sow ideas! Spread ideas! Propagate ideas! Sow the seeds of consciousness! Scatter the seeds of consciousness! Grow the seeds of consciousness!” (Castro 2003a: 18).

Ken Cole
 is Honorary Research Fellow at the International Institute of Cuban Studies and former Director of the MA in Development Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of Cuba: from revolution to development (London: Pinter, 1998).

The concept of concientización is attributed to Paulo Freire as the principal theoretical framework ofPedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972)

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Copyright for this work is held jointly between Ken Cole and the International Journal of Cuban Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative 3.0 Licence 
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