Peru: The Cold War of ALBA

The signs outside ALBA houses disappeared after the Peruvian Congress demanded analysis of their owners' bank accounts. (Photo: Jaime Razuri / AFP-Getty Images)

The train arrives in the southernmost parts of Peru only three times a week, but the revolution has set up tent there year round. The region of Puno is no stranger to poverty, lack of doctors, and, in some areas, deficient basic utilities such as electricity. Support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is ever present, however. It has not been an unendurable climb for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, developed by the president in December 2004, to reach the 3,850 meters above sea level where the capital of this department lies.

This story began a little over a year ago. A sign was posted on a humble building in the region separating Peru from Bolivia: building No. 178 in the Alfonso Ugarte alley bore a sign with the ALBA acronym. That is how news spread of over 110 houses under a Congress-led investigation for alleged concealment of a political-lobbying network involving foreign governments and even subversive movements.

The Peruvian Congress is probing the bank records of members of this group. Inhabitants of the so-called ALBA houses are now wary not to speak of Chávez. Things are not the way they used to be: members fend off any questions that may link them to foreign capitals; that sign outside the Puno building has disappeared; and, in the meantime, business owners in that very same building turn their backs and provide vague answers to anyone asking about ALBA houses.

On the inside of these premises, however, members insist that the sole purpose of these homes is housing the contingent of 1,200 individuals who make up the Peruvian edition of Misión Milagro. The walls showcase two posters: one of Ché Guevara and another one with some sort of trinity comprised of Chávez, Evo Morales, and a gallant Fidel Castro in the middle. The president of the ALBA houses, Marcial Maidana, personally guides a visit through the four levels of the property he manages in Puno.

He eagerly wants to clarify that he is merely in charge of a program for people suffering from cataracts and other eye conditions to be sent to other countries for surgery. From the city and department of Puno, he sends patients by land to an ophthalmologic center operated by Misión Milagro, located in the Bolivian city of Copacabana with Cuban doctors, medicine, and equipment sponsored by the Venezuelan government.

Funding seems to be a thorny subject. Maidana acknowledges that ALBA is an integration mechanism led by those three presidents appearing on that poster on his office wall. He also confirms that in the north of his country, on the opposite end of Peru, other patients board planes chartered by the Venezuelan government and access surgical procedures in public hospitals in the Venezuelan cities of Maracay, Barquisimeto, and Caracas. Nevertheless, he clarifies that he has never met with presidents of other countries and has never been allocated foreign resources.

He and others seem eager to tone down news surrounding this case. Though hesitant to admit it, they are scared. Their own figures show that 162 of the 326 offices have disappeared. Nearly half of them simply shut down. "Many believed that they would receive new homes while others opted to withdraw in light of probes by the Comptrollership, Public Prosecutor's Office, and Congress," he adds.

Social diplomacy ran into roadblocks in Lima. Official organizations have not prosecuted anyone, but both the press and authorities continue to warn that ALBA houses are Trojan horses inserted by the governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. So much altruism seems implausible to many, including Congressman Walter Menchola. "Who funds these trips? I have witnessed something like this only in dictatorships; it seems as though Venezuela is an ill-managed administration." says Menchola.

Flying Unannounced

Menchola cannot share the conclusions of the probe he presides in the Peruvian Congress, yet he points out that he is sure that there are clear ties among the Venezuelan government, members of the ALBA houses, and South American leftist groups.

On June 26, a Venezuelan plane entered the Tarapoto air space in the northeastern region of Peru. Menchola does not say whether that flight represents a violation of Peru's sovereignty, but he is convinced that this and other regular flights carried out by the Venezuelan government "do not pay taxes or report to tax and customs authorities," a situation that undoubtedly denotes irregularities.

The relation between these and other happenings, such as claims against the first secretary of the Venezuelan embassy, Virly Torres, the growth of the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator, and attendance by members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Group to a meeting held in February 2007, have been warning signs for members of the Peruvian Congress.

Certain actions may not be deemed illegal as Menchola acknowledges that the laws of his country are not prepared to determine whether a foreign government is permitted to transfer Peruvian citizens outside the country for surgical procedures. He does make it clear, however, that Venezuelan authorities are not minding their own business. "This is not just social diplomacy; we are evidencing an unprecedented flagrant infiltration attempt," he points out. "This is no game or joke; Peru's terrorist past has left a trail of blood and fire."

Misión Milagro, whatever its purpose may be, is still ever present in the land of the Incas. Its volunteers were spotted in Cuzco offering trips to cataracts patients. Approximately 17,000 surgeries have been performed in Bolivia alone. That may very well be the reason for authorities to be myopic in helping expand the eyesight of citizens.

Edwar Quiroga, sector leader of Misión Milagro and member of the communist party of the Apurimac region, stresses that his group is being persecuted. "We have been labeled as terrorists," he says after being apprehended along with other members. He denounces that they have been blacklisted. And his assertion is not mistaken: security organizations keep a list with the names, photographs, and addresses of the leaders of each of the ALBA houses.

Congressman Walter Menchola remains unperturbed by such a claim: "It is no secret that Peruvian intelligence services disarmed Shining Path and do not take this issue lightly." He adds that these actions do not constitute political apartheid: "No one is being persecuted or apprehended; we will not make our list public, but we have the right and power, in the interest of national security, to know what these people are doing."

No Venezuelan organization has addressed this issue; nevertheless, the ambassador of Venezuela in Lima, Armando Laguna Laguna, has explained that ALBA houses are part of a Peruvian initiative based on its bonds with our country. Chávez has explained that the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator is nothing more than a group aimed at turning Latin America into a single, large homeland.

"This is a cold war," denounces Marcial Maidana, president of ALBA houses. His assertion does not derive from claims of espionage and counterespionage in Puno, on the bank of Titicaca Lake; instead, it is based on the fact that rightist and leftist groups of the country found common ground to offer medical assistance in the south of Peru, where the train comes by only three times a week. "As a result of ALBA houses, there are more doctors available as well as a government program that, emulating Misión Milagro, offers cataracts surgery," he adds.

This alternative fostered by the Venezuelan government in light of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or ALCA, was exported to the south of Peru as a mission. In the leftist electoral arena of that country, in a location in which the National Statistics and Information Institute has announced a poverty rate of 75 percent of the population, in the cold and windy Andean highlands, Chávez has become a point of reference. Menchola insists that it is not an issue of philanthropy. "How does one repay these efforts?" he wonders.

Translated by Félix Rojas.

From El Universal.