Latin America’s alternative alliance

April 3, 2011

Driven by its stated mission to pursue internationalisation via a socially progressive path, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (Alba) is quietly expanding its alternative vision of higher education across Latin America.

The left-leaning alliance, which includes Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Venezuela, is the brainchild of Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro, former president of Cuba.

It was set up in 2004 as a response to US-led plans to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas. The aim was to counter what the two socialist leaders saw as the US’ desire to keep Latin America and the Caribbean in a state of economic and cultural subservience. Their plan was to implement a modern version of the grand union of Latin American nations envisaged by Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century political and military leader seen by many as the region’s “liberator” from colonial rule.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movement has its opponents, and within higher education, moves for reform in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela have provoked violent street demonstrations and fierce opposition from the traditional university sector.

Speaking after the world’s first scholarly conference on the Alba alliance, held earlier this year at London Metropolitan University, academic Thomas Muhr said the Alba’s approach represented “a fundamental rejection of the internationalisation and commoditisation of higher education currently under way in Europe and the US”.

A visiting Fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol and an expert on the Alba alliance, Dr Muhr said numbers of international students enrolled at universities in Cuba and Venezuela are rising.

Now in the tens of thousands, these foreign students hail from some of the poorest areas of the Alba member states, as well as from elsewhere in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The majority undertake professional medical training with the intention of returning to work in their home communities. However, a growing number are studying in fields such as education, oil geopolitics, tourism and agriculture.

This expansion of access to university places is one of the key objectives of the Grandnational Project Alba-Education, part of the alliance’s wider programme to promote a regional alternative to the market-driven globalisation model.

Since its formation in 2004, the Alba has established a number of radical economic, political and social collaborations based on its aims of pursuing sustainable endogenous development, cooperation instead of competition, and a rejection of market forces.

Early Alba initiatives included a highly successful grassroots campaign to eradicate illiteracy throughout Latin America, and policies intended to combat the huge disparities in access to healthcare provision in the region.

These ongoing programmes, which subsequently have been adopted by other developing countries, are intended to address deep structural inequalities in the region and “pave the way for more people to enter higher education”, according to Dr Muhr.

They are also key steps towards the next phase of the Alba’s regional project.

Free education

The alliance has an unusual structure, and includes both government and non-government groups. In 2007, its executive created the Grandnational Project Alba-Education to formalise and expand on earlier education programmes.

One of the project’s principles is that, in contrast to trends in the developed world, higher education should be provided free of charge as “a public social good, fundamental universal human right, and undeniable duty of the state”.

It sees the “democratisation and universalisation” of higher education as an “engine of social transformation” aimed at the “liberation of the peoples of the south from cultural and educational domination”, according to the Alba agreement on education signed by the executive committee of the Grandnational Project in 2009.

In order to achieve its goals, the project’s executive committee has held a series of meetings involving the region’s higher education ministers, policymakers and civil leaders, with the aim of influencing the direction of university reform within each of its member states.

It has also produced agreements that encourage integration by universities across the region.

In 2009-10, the committee signed an agreement to create two new regional university structures, the University of the South and the University of the Alba. It also ratified a treaty on the mutual recognition of degrees and diplomas from Alba-funded programmes.

These moves are designed to build on the internationalisation processes already under way in Cuba and Venezuela, to further increase student and staff mobility and to ensure some form of standardisation of the Alba’s higher education provision.

Dr Muhr said that the measures were already showing results, which is all the more impressive given that the Grandnational Project is run on a relatively tight budget, currently $18.5 million (£11.3 million) over three years. However, he noted, it will take some time for the full effects to be seen.

“Because of the Alba’s respect for national sovereignty, every agreement made at the supranational level will have to be passed into law in each individual nation,” Dr Muhr said.

Rather than being a top-down implementation of policy, he added, the Grandnational Project is a “multi-layered, multi-directional process, whereby governments and civil society groups pushing for change in their own countries feed into the Alba project and vice versa”.

Over the past few years, the educational systems of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela have all undergone significant reform.

For the moment, however, petroleum-rich Venezuela’s resources and strong institutional framework mean it serves as the hub of the Alba’s internationalisation of higher education.

“In many ways, what is happening in the Grandnational Project is the regionalisation of the ‘higher education for all’ policy adopted as part of Hugo Chávez’s attempt to build socialism for the 21st century,” said Dr Muhr.

Through its founding of “social missions”, the creation of new institutions such as the Bolivarian University of Venezuela and the National Experimental Universities, the setting up of classes in all localities, and the reform of the traditional higher education sector, the Chávez government’s policies have led to a substantial growth in access to university education in Venezuela, especially for students from poorer backgrounds.

At its core is a model of higher education based on universal access, democratic participation and a combination of theory and practical experience.

Following a notion of quality measured by social and human impact, rather than abstract intellectual standards, its objective is to produce fully rounded, ethical citizens who “develop a critical understanding of their environment and get involved in the solution of the problems that affect them”, Dr Muhr said.

Largely based in Venezuela, the Alba group’s University of the South initiative is “currently scaling up these ideas to the regional level”, he noted.

Distance learning a priority

The University of the South is made up of a number of institutions intended to train students in fields prioritised by the Alba as a whole, and is now introducing distance-learning programmes.

The Latin American Agro-Ecological Institute “Paulo Freire” for Campesino, Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Studies, founded in 2007 as a joint initiative by the government of Venezuela, the Brazilian Landless Movement and the farmers’ organisation Vía Campesina, offers courses related to regional food sovereignty and security.

Opening this year, the International School for Eco-Agro-Tourism “Miguel Gerónimo Guacamaya”, in the state of Miranda in Venezuela, will train international students in agricultural science and technology, ecology and sustainable tourism.

A planned Alba International Education Research Centre in Caracas will bring together researchers in disciplines as diverse as medicine and sport.

The second new regional university structure, the University of the Alba, “aims to engender a virtual university space across the region”, Dr Muhr said.

It is currently in its planning phase, and the aim is to create a network of at least one participating institution in each of the eight member states, committed to applying the Alba education model.

Dr Muhr believes that the schemes “will further contribute to a sense of shared identity and purpose” as the alliance strengthens its position as a regional block. It already operates mutual fair trade agreements, and has its own currency, banking system and media network.

“We have to understand that this is a process that is very dynamic; in Europe it took decades,” he said.

In its entirety, the alliance “poses a serious threat to global market capitalism in the region”, according to Dr Muhr. As such, it has encountered considerable resistance.

He suggested that it was this that had sparked protests in a number of Alba states.

At the international level, the military-led coup d’état in Honduras in 2009 – the country had joined the Alba alliance in the previous year – and an attempted coup in Ecuador in 2010 represent concerted political moves to counter the aims of the organisation.

But while the Alba project remains a work in progress, the Grandnational Project, Dr Muhr said, “is already proving that a university education and the chance to study abroad does not have to be the privilege of the rich global elite”.

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