After years of stalled integration efforts under the ideological banner of the Bolivarian Alliance for our Americas (ALBA), the left-wing bloc of nations that are dependent on Venezuelan oil aid are now pushing forward under the more successful brand of Petrocaribe.
Petrocaribe, an 8-year-old energy cooperation agreement between Venezuela and 18 client nations in the Caribbean basin, is expanding its mission to create a broader “economic zone” that includes joint initiatives in the areas of transportation, technology, trade, tourism, education, health and food security. Venezuela stressed the importance of adding a “social component” to the oil pact in the form of a joint literacy campaign, free eye surgery for the poor, and a coordinated campaign to eradicate hunger in the region.
The expanded focus of Petrocaribe, billed as revolutionary and historic, is mostly a repackaging of old ALBA initiatives—only less saddled with political baggage. Indeed, most of proposals presented during Saturday’s Petrocaribe summit in Managua summit were identical to previous initiatives introduced under ALBA, only stripped of a few layers of ideological dressing and presented as pragmatic approaches to regional integration and development. The rebranding under Petrocaribe seems to have made Venezuela’s regional integration push more palatable for other nations that previously declined ALBA’s invitation to membership under former revolutionary firebrand Hugo Chávez.
When presented without all the tedious trappings of “21st century socialism,” it’s hard to argue with calls for literacy, food security, fair trade, airline connectivity and healthcare. Indeed, as Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina pointed out, these are all initiatives that his government is already working on.
Saturday’s summit—co-hosted by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro—was not, of course, entirely free of ideological rhetoric. Sitting at the head of the table in front of a large portrait of a purposeful-looking Chávez, President Ortega worked in his jabs at the “empire” and voiced his ironic displeasure with the “tyranny of global capitalism.”
On Ortega’s flanks sat Chávez’s protégée, who sat serenely with his palms tented as if in prayer, and fidgety first lady Rosario Murillo, who constantly whispered unheard commands about unperceived details into the ears of passing minions. Seated around the herbaceous borders of the rectangular table arrangement, a collection of government leaders from small Caribbean islands nodded as translations came through their headsets. In the middle of the florally festooned room was a curious centerpiece that might have been an artistic rendition of the Nicaraguan Canal, or perhaps a turtle pond.
ALBA, PetroCaribe and Chavez
President Maduro called this weekend’s summit a combination of “love and action” and said “Petrocaribe is the daughter of ALBA.” (He later called Chávez the father of ALBA, making a full map of the family tree unclear).
Paternity results pending, Petrocaribe is a continuation of Chavismo and ALBA, Maduro stressed.
“This represents the luminous legacy of Hugo Chávez and Bolivar… and we will continue to prevail,” Maduro said.
President Ortega also talked about overcoming odds. Nicaragua’s so-called Supreme Dream of Bolivar Oil Refinery, which is still stuck in the earth-moving phase of preconstruction six years after the cornerstone ceremony, will eventually become a reality, Ortega insisted. What would be the largest refinery in Central America now promises to produce around 100,000 barrels of oil a day (50,000 less than its original billing),and will be ready sometime around 2021 (a decade behind schedule).
Once hailed as a key project of ALBA, the refinery also appears to be rebranded under the Petrocaribe label.
“God willing, we will have a refinery… and then a canal in Nicaragua,” Ortega said.
In the coming months, Petrocaribe will form special commissions to study ways to implement the various aspects of its broad new mandate.