At ceremonies in Havana, Dec. 14, presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela signed agreements calling for closer integration of their nations’ economies and announced new cooperative ventures in health care, education, and social services.

The signing took place on the 10th anniversary of Chavez’ first visit to Cuba. In 1994, Chavez arrived in Cuba as a lieutenant colonel in a Venezuelan parachute battalion. He had just been released from jail, having led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the corrupt regime of Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. Castro received him with state honors.

This time, Chavez arrived as president of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, fresh from receiving a decisive mandate in a failed recall vote organized by his U.S.-backed opponents.

The two presidents came together under the portraits of Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti. Bolivar pioneered the concept of Latin American unity and led the fight to end Spanish rule in South America. Marti was an organizer and theoretician for the Cuban independence struggle.

In 2001, at a summit meeting of Latin American heads of state, Chavez proposed a multilateral “Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas” (ALBA). Work on the accord had been on going since then in both countries.

In a joint declaration, the two leaders said that “integration is an essential prerequisite for the Latin American and Caribbean countries to achieve development.” They said they seek “integration based on cooperation, solidarity, and a common will. … The objective of ALBA is the transformation of Latin American societies, by making them more just, educated, participatory … with the elimination of social inequalities.”

ALBA was presented as an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), defined as “the ultimate expression of the appetites of dominion over the region.” The FTAA would place the countries of Latin America in positions of “unprecedented levels of dependency and subordination,” the declaration said.

Under terms of the Cuba-Venezuela agreement, the two nations will trade “assets and services … beneficial to the economic and social needs of both countries,” exchange “technological packages” and provide mutually supportive financial services. Tax and tariff barriers between the two nations will be removed, and fees and regulations relating to the ships and airplanes of both countries will be the same.

The agreement provides for joint commercial, industrial, and banking ventures. It also includes cultural cooperation. The two nations will jointly organize literacy projects for other nations, and will collaborate in biodiversity studies, telecommunications and tourism.

Cuba will maintain 15,000 physicians in Venezuela to provide medical care and teach medical students. It is offering 2,000 scholarships for Venezuelan young people to pursue advanced studies in Cuba. Cuban specialists will also assist sports programs in Venezuela.

Venezuela will provide Cuba with oil, at least 53,000 barrels daily, priced according to the international market, and no less than $27 per barrel. Venezuela also promised to finance Cuban industrial and development projects and will furnish technical support for energy facilities in Cuba. It will also provide science scholarships for Cuban students in energy technology.

The U.S. State Department expressed alarm at the new agreement. “We are troubled that a country with a democratic tradition like Venezuela would want to strengthen its ties to the only undemocratic regime and closed economy in the hemisphere,” according to spokesman Richard Boucher.

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Chávez: ‘No solution without integration’

Venezuelan President Chavez was recently interviewed in Brecha, a journal in Uruguay, about Latin American economic integration. Excerpts follow:

“[Integration is] a dream frustrated ever since the political defeat of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, now almost two centuries ago. In no other place has the U.S. empire used the tools of divide and rule of ancient Rome as in Latin America. … We’ll not make good on any other dreams if we don’t begin through a process of Latin American unity. …

“We propose a central Latin American bank … and a Latin American Monetary fund. And there is also ALBA — integration based on collaboration, not on competition. All these are possible dreams, things we dare to do.”