(IPS) – Honduras has joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), amid criticism from the business community and right-wing political sectors.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who took office in 2006, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the membership document Monday in the presence of Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage.
Chávez initially promoted ALBA, which now has six members — Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela — to counteract the U.S.- led plan to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which has now collapsed.
ALBA was launched at the People’s Summit held in parallel to the official meeting of heads of state at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005, as an alternative to the "neoliberal" (free market) model, embodying cooperation, solidarity and complementarity and committed to fighting poverty, inequality and unequal terms of trade, according to its founding document.
Chávez highlighted Zelaya’s "courage, because in spite of the demonisation of ALBA, he has not hesitated to join a Latin American integration project based on the thinking and spirit of our foremost heroes."
"Today we are signing not only a fraternal pact of solidarity, but also an integration project for Latin America that stands out as an alternative to imperial hegemony and integrates progressive governments that are proposing a way out of oppressive imperialism," Chávez said.
Chávez had an altercation with the Honduran press, whom he called "pitiyanquis" (little Yanqui imitators) and "abject hand-lickers of the Yanquis. There are many of them here, as in the rest of Latin America, where the chief ‘pitiyanquis’ are the owners of the media," he said.
Meanwhile, Ortega faced protests from some women’s organisations in solidarity with his adopted stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, who has alleged that he sexually molested her over a period of 11 years. Her lawsuit against the Nicaraguan state for denial of justice is currently being heard by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Ortega’s visit to Honduras also triggered the resignation of the minister in charge of the National Institute for Women, Selma Estrada, who refused to be part of the official welcoming committee. Street demonstrators wore black, as a sign of protest.
Honduras’ entry into ALBA is "an act of freedom, because we are a free and sovereign people," Zelaya said. "This is a heroic act of independence and we need no one’s permission to sign this commitment. Today we are taking a step towards becoming a government of the centre-left, and if anyone dislikes this, well just remove the word ‘centre’ and keep the second one."
Among the benefits of ALBA membership will be projects to improve health, nutrition, education and culture, "so thank you, President Chávez, for opening ways to freedom for Latin Americans, because we were not born to be slaves nor to have masters," Zelaya said.
"When I met with (U.S. President) George W. Bush, no one called me an anti-imperialist and the business community applauded me. Now that I am meeting with the impoverished peoples of the world, they criticise me. I hope they will retract their statements in the coming hours," he said.
"Who has told them they have an absolute right to privatise? I invite them to participate in dialogue, and to sign a truly national pact with a vision for the country," Zelaya said.
None of the presidents spoke about the concrete meaning and scope of ALBA.
Honduras’ plans to join ALBA unleashed bitter confrontation between the left and the right in this Central American country over the past two weeks, ending with the withdrawal of private sector representatives from all official public acts, including Monday’s signing ceremony, on the grounds that it harms free enterprise and endangers the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States.
The business community’s stance was matched by that of the most conservative Honduran political sectors, on whose behalf former President Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006) was one of the main spokesmen.
Joining ALBA will increase the deportation of Honduran migrants from the United States, said Maduro, who warned "don’t bite the hand that feeds you," alluding to Washington.
The governing Liberal Party mobilised some 30,000 people to attend the public ceremony, offering individual payments of between five and 23 dollars. Liberal Party head Patricia Rodas justified the payments four days ago, saying that "if the right finances worse things, why shouldn’t we mobilise our people?"
Renán Reyes, one of those responsible for mobilising people from the remote jungle region of La Mosquitía, on the eastern Atlantic coast of Honduras, told IPS "they promised us a bonus of 300 lempiras (15 dollars) per person, but we can’t find the politician who is supposed to pay us, although we know he was given the money."
The non-governmental Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras (FOSDEH) called for transparency in the use of resources that the country will receive as a member of ALBA, as well as with respect to its scope and limitations, and for public access to information, as the official text signed on Monday has not been published.
Mauricio Díaz, the head of FOSDEH, told IPS that "the financial content of the ALBA pact is unknown to date, no one will talk about it, there is no information, only political pronouncements. But the people deserve to know what the country is letting itself in for in terms of debt and future prospects."
"The prime goal of (Honduras joining) ALBA is that the government wants money in the short term, but the needs of government seldom coincide with the needs of the people. This creates a delicate situation, because ultimately it is the people who pay for the inappropriate expenses incurred by a government," he said.
The lack of information was the main argument put forward by Congress in refusing to ratify Honduras’ admission to ALBA, which is required by the country’s constitution.
Two weeks ago, members of Congress reported that a group of lawmakers aligned with the executive branch would receive payments of around 52,000 dollars in exchange for voting for the ratification of Honduran membership of ALBA. This was promptly named the "petrosubsidies" scandal, in reference to the presumed source of the money, the oil-rich Venezuela.
Presidential spokesman Enrique Flores told IPS that "there has been much speculation about ALBA, but the truth is it’s a good alliance for the country. In due course the transparency measures will be made known; not everything can be accomplished in one day, it’s necessary to be patient."
In January, Honduras joined Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan initiative under which this country is supplied with 20,000 barrels of crude per day for one year to fuel thermal electricity plants on favourable terms: 60 percent of the bill is to be paid within 90 days, and the remaining 40 percent over 25 years, with a grace period of two years and an annual interest rate of one percent.
Honduras hopes to reduce its trade deficit with the other member countries of ALBA. In 2007 it exported a total of 110 million dollars to ALBA countries and imported nearly 170 million dollars’ worth of goods and services.
The country is in serious economic difficulties, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has frozen new loans because it believes Honduras has not complied with the financial restraints that were the conditions of previous IMF loans. Inflation has risen, as have public subsidies to several sectors.