During a summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas in early 2009, in the heady days of ALBA expansionism, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez urged his fellow travelers not to fall into the temptation of getting lost in paradisiacal woolgathering about “21st century socialism.” ALBA, he stressed, had to stay grounded in reality.
In Nicaragua, ALBA became an everyday reality for millions of people. Though critics argue it’s impossible to account for the estimated $2.6 billion in ALBA aid that entered Sandinista coffers over the past six years, that money did allow the government to stabilize the country’s desperate energy sector by increasing power production and putting an end to daily blackouts. ALBA also provided electricity subsidies for low-consumption households, transportation subsidies for the working poor, and fellowships for university students. It funded road construction through dust-clouded barrios, provided roofing materials for leaky shanties, monthly cash handouts for thousands of government employees, and other assorted eleemosynary programs for the poor and not-so-poor.
ALBA’s success in Nicaragua was a measure of its ability to stay grounded in reality and affect real change in people’s lives.
But ALBA’s greater promises were mostly will-o’-the-wisp stuff. Many of the projects Chávez offered Nicaragua never materialized. Over the past six years, the Venezuelan caudillo offered Nicaragua a $6.6 billion oil refinery, a regasification plant, a fertilizer plant, a new ship to double cattle exports to Venezuela, two aluminum-production plants, a factory to produce industrial bags, construction of 200,000 homes, the creation of two engineering universities, an ALBA airlines and an ALBA baseball league. If it weren’t for newspaper reporters, there would be almost no memory or record of those promises; most of them were never mentioned more than once, which made ALBA seem like a very capricious arrangement.
Of the many unfulfilled promises, only the “Supreme Dream of Bolivar” refinery got off the ground, and not by much—about six inches, or the height of the cornerstone laid in 2007. The refinery is reportedly still underway, though less than $100 million of the $6.6 billion has been spent in five years. (Each day that passes takes the promised refinery further from its woulda-coulda-shoulda 2012 inauguration, and Chávez’s death will only cause further delays for a project that seems fittingly named as “supreme dream.”)
ALBA also promised much loftier and ideological goals of uniting Latin America in a giant, pan-American fatherland, fulfilling the vision (or delusion) of South American liberator and Chávez idol Simón Bolivar. President Ortega contributed to ALBA’s legend by comparing Venezuelan aid to the “project of Christ” and suggesting it was somehow helping to build “the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Yet despite the promises of divine glory—and the logic of Pascal’s Wager—most countries did not believe in ALBA enough to join the club, and Honduras withdrew its membership the first chance it got following the coup in 2009.
By hurling insults at other nations and sparring quixotically against the shadows of imperialism, ALBA became a predictable voice of dissent and a kooky club of countries that often played the unintentional role of jester at larger international forums. ALBA, despite its mission statement, was far more polarizing than unifying. And its membership—a curious gaggle of beggared and/or authoritarian nations—was perhaps the single greatest deterrent to other countries that might have otherwise considered joining.
Other than producing a few ventose political pronouncements, ALBA couldn’t even pull together meaningfully when it mattered most; it couldn’t organize a cohesive opposition to the coup in Honduras in 2009, and has remained fecklessly tongue-tied when it comes to speaking up in defense of Nicaragua’s sovereignty, which is being threatened by Colombia’s naval encroachment and blatant disregard for international law.
While ALBA will most likely be remembered in Nicaragua as a political arrangement that helped many thousands of poor Nicaraguans with their immediate needs, its ultimate failure to convert bigger promises and visions into reality was a symptom of ALBA’s structural weakness and informality (The organization was so slapdash, it changed the meaning of its acronym three times in six years—from the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, to the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas).
Regardless of the name changes, ALBA was really a synonym for Chávez— it was as generous, avuncular, whimsical and spontaneous as the Venezuelan caudillo himself. ALBA was a loosely-knit organization that relied as much on Chávez’s vision and charisma as it did his petrodollars. ALBA was Chávez’s baby, and it will never be the same under its new adoptive parents.
Sandinista officials this week said they are confident that relations with Venezuela will continue unruffled by Chávez’s “transcendence into immortality.” But that’s a short-term wager. In quieter moments, even the Sandinistas recognize that they better be standing next to another chair when the music eventually stops. “We have to anticipate that ALBA is not going to be permanent,” presidential economic advisor Bayardo Arce told me in an interview last year.
Though Venezuelan aid is likely to continue for the time being—at least to create the semblance of stability and continuity in a region not known for either—without Chávez’s foot on the accelerator, ALBA is likely to lose momentum quickly.
Opposition lawmakers in Nicaragua are echoing calls from business leaders to “institutionalize” Venezuelan aid through a free-trade agreement to provide some assurances during the uneasy transition from Chavismo to whatever comes next (Chavismo con maduro frito?). But if ALBA wasn’t institutionalized during its heyday, it’s unlikely to happen in its denouement.
The Sandinista government, which has benefited mightily from ALBA over the years, would be wise to use Chávez’s death as an opportunity for a reality check. The success of ALBA and Ortega are built upon real achievements—the projects and aid programs that count most in people’s lives. ALBA shows that results and real development matter more in Nicaragua than ideological rhetoric or fantastical promises.
While it’s fun to daydream about megaprojects requiring tons of money that Nicaragua doesn’t have—a $300 million satellite, a $35 billion inter-oceanic canal, a $6.6 billion refinery, and a $500 million deep-water port on the Caribbean—the Sandinista government needs to focus more on what it does have: a rapidly flourishing tourism industry. Yet for all the lip-service the Sandinistas give to tourism, the government has been unable to complete the two not-so-mega projects that would most benefit the industry: a coastal highway along the Pacific shoreline and a convention center in Granada’s abandoned former hospital. Both those projects, which have been talked about for years, are more affordable, plausible and beneficial to development than the government’s megaproject plans. They are attainable projects that would produce real results for Nicaragua.
If ALBA has taught the Sandinista government anything, it’s that smaller projects that directly affect people’s lives in a real and meaningful way are what work in Nicaragua. The rest, as Chávez said in 2009, is succumbing to the temptation of getting lost in paradisiacal woolgathering.
The road forward for ALBA—and indeed Nicaragua—will certainly be bumpy following Chávez’s death. But Sandinista handlers can help steady the wheel if they keep their heads out of the clouds and their eyes on the road. President Ortega would be wise to honor Hugo Chávez the humanist who had a dedicated concerned for the commonweal, rather than follow his fallen comandante’s example as an egomaniacal strongman with a penchant for mega-project promises he couldn’t deliver.