The alba-tcp: Looking with Keen Eyes
Christopher David Absell
THE NATURE OF THE CRITICAL APPROACH ( ...continuation )

Backer and Molina presented a comprehensive study of the historical, ideological and institutional components of the ALBA-TCP which also attempted to contextualize the organization within the spaghetti bowl of Latin American agreements. Unlike Serbin and Siptroth, the article by Backer and Molino did not draw a critical conclusion (the authors acknowledged that such a conclusion would be premature). Instead, the authors highlighted a number of points of tension that reflect some aspects of the critical analyses of the abovementioned authors. These tensions included the ALBA-TCP’s lack of supranational institutions, its reliance upon State-driven integration, its explicitly ideological (anti-capitalist and anti-American) nature, its implicit rejection of traditional models of integration, and the ambiguity of its position towards other agreements (such as CARICOM) (Backer et al., 2009: 163-168).

The articles in the fourth category (see Table 2) present substantial critical analysis, as well as empirical verification to support this analysis. These works represent not only the most developed examinations of the ALBA-TCP, but also the most methodologically precise. They also occupy a minor position in the literature; only two authors have been included in this category: Muhr and Borbón. In a series of articles, Muhr developed a sophisticated theoretical conception of the ALBA-TCP which was derived from substantial qualitative investigation. Muhr’s research has focused on the nature of the ALBA-TCP’s development projects in the fields of education, health and energy in Nicaragua, as well as the ALBA’s “regionalization” of Venezuela’s higher education plan (Muhr, 2008; 2010a). Muhr’s work combines ethnographic research, elite interviewing and discourse analysis to provide insight on the ideological and political nature of the ALBA-TCP and how this has translated into concrete development projects on a national and sub-national level. The conclusions derived from this investigation sometimes contradicted those authors whose arguments relied solely on primary sources. Muhr’s work, for example, contradicted the view that the ALBA-TCP suffered from a democratic deficit. He argued that the nature of the ALBA-TCP’s projects in Nicaragua demonstrated that “… the construction of ALBA ‘by the peoples’ and ‘from the bottom-up’ is not mere rhetoric.” Using examples such as the ALBA Petroleos de Nicaragua (ALBANIC) oil supply scheme, the Yo Sí Puedo (“Yes I Can”) literacy campaign, and the Misión Milagro (“Miracle Mission”) ophthalmology program, Muhr observed that the ALBA-TCP constructs a “regional society”, “from the bottom-up by the transnational interplay between States and civil society actors.” These three examples “…were either directly initiated, negotiated or coordinated from the civil societal and/or municipal levels” (Muhr, 2008: 159).

Another article that used a substantial amount of statistical data to support its critical analysis was Josette Altmann Borbón’s examination of energy policies and the role of PETROCARIBE –the Caribbean oil alliance with Venezuela– in Latin America and the Caribbean. Borbón’s argument contradicted the view that the ALBA-TCP was solely an instrument for Venezuelan political coersion. Instead, the author argued that Central American countries took advantage of this initiative with economic interests in mind: “…their adhesion does not necessarily imply an ideological-political commitment, but rather a willingness to take advantage of economic opportunities” (Borbón, 2009: 127). Borbón concluded that this tendency explained the relatively small membership of the ALBA-TCP when compared with that of PETROCARIBE.

CONCLUSION

In essence, much of the literature reviewed here notes the romance of the ALBA-TCP but not its operative reality. This is not to say that the wealth of the material is uncritical, but that the assumption underlying almost all of this work is that the ALBA-TCP is a positive development which may bring an element of economic equity and social justice to the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, on paper, the nature of the ALBA-TCP and its development projects seems to be a viable alternative to the FTAA’s neoliberalism and the limited success of other integration projects in the region. But the promise of the ALBA-TCP calls for more than a merely descriptive evaluation. The complexity of the ALBA-TCP –both in organizational and ideological terms– calls for comprehensive empirical investigation, undertaken within a well-defined research agenda.

Historical description is a necessary component of the investigative process. It is clear from this review that that the descriptive element of the development of the ALBA-TCP to date has been covered quite comprehensively. The ALBA-TCP’s ideology has been examined (most notably by Cole and by Backer and Molina) in a creative and sophisticated fashion. While more work needs to be done on the ideological nature of the ALBA-TCP, the groundwork has been successfully laid. Therefore, the narrative on the development of the ALBA-TCP has passed through its formative stages.