Add Peru to the list of Latin American countries that have turned left. On Sunday, Peruvians voted in a second-round run-off ballot and elected Ollanta Humala, a 48-year-old former army officer, president. This is Humala’s second try for the office. In 2006, he came close to winning, but Wikileaks cables reveal that Peru’s establishment politicians put aside their differences and beat a path to the US embassy, asking for help smearing Humala as a Peruvian Hugo Chávez.
Wikileaks also reveals that that same year the Mexican right and the US State Department worked together to defeat the populist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leading many in the United States to gloat that the “left turn” in Latin America had run its course.
Humala’s victory suggests otherwise. Here’s just some of what has happened since 2006: In Bolivia, Evo Morales presided over the ratification of a new social-democratic constitution and was re-elected as president in 2009 with 64 percent of the vote. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa also easily won reelection and ratified a new constitution that guarantees social rights and puts tight limits on privatization. Recently, Ecuadorians likewise voted on ten progressive ballot initiatives, passing them all. They included the strict regulation of two blood sports: banks are now banned from speculation and bulls can no longer be killed in bull fights.
And last year in Brazil, the trade unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office the most popular politician on the planet, handing over the presidency of one of the world’s largest economies to Dilma Rousseff, a former urban guerrilla and economist who vows to continue to try to make Brazil a more humane and equal nation.
All of these national left political projects—from Venezuela to Uruguay—have their problems and shortcomings, and are open to criticism on any number of issues by progressive folk. But combined, the Latin American left can claim a remarkable achievement: It has snatched the concept of democracy away from neoliberals and the corporate privateers who came close to convincing the world that democracy equals deregulated capitalism and returned the term to its more humane, sustainable definition. In Latin America, democracy means social democracy. So considering the otherwise bleak global landscape, the return of the Latin American left, now well into its second decade, is cause for great cheer.
What does Humala’s victory mean for Peru? Most importantly in the short run, it has halted the return of Alberto Fujimori’s style of death-squad neoliberalism. Humala’s opponent was Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, who pledged to free her jailed father, who was convicted of murder, kidnapping and corruption.
In the long run, many Peruvians, particularly those outside of Lima, voted for Humala because they have seen little benefits from the country’s celebrated macroeconomic performance over the last decade, driven by the high price of silver, zinc, copper, tin, lead and gold—which comprise 60 percent of the country's exports.
Over 30 percent of Peru's 30 million people live in poverty and 8 percent in extreme poverty. In rural areas, particularly in indigenous communities, more than half of all families are poor, many desperately so. Humala has promised to address this inequity with a series of pragmatic measures—a guaranteed pension to people over 65; expanding healthcare in rural areas, including the construction of more provincial hospitals; an increase in public sector salaries, to be paid for with a windfall profit tax on the mining sector.
In terms of foreign policy, Humala’s election is another victory for Brazil in its contest with Washington for regional influence. If Fujimori had won, she would have aligned Peru politically with Washington and economically with US and Canadian corporations.
Humala, in contrast, will tilt toward Brazilian economic interests. Indeed, the Peruvian historian Gerardo Rénique said that the election, while representing an important victory for democratic forces, could also be understood in part as a contest between Brazil and the US over Peruvian energy and mineral resources. In this perspective, one could say that it didn’t matter who won the Peruvian election: the Amazon lost.
Here then might be the question that determines the success of Humala’s presidency: As he tries to put into place his “growth with social inclusion” agenda, will he be able to balance the conflicting interests of his Brazilian allies and the social movements that elected him, many of which are fighting for sustainable development and local control of resources?
In addition to reviving social democracy, the other major accomplishment of the renewed Latin American left has been to dilute the entrenched racism that has defined the continent for centuries. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and other countries, Native Americans and peoples of African descent have led a remarkable, if still incomplete, democratization of politics and culture. Peru, with its 45 percent Amerindian population, has largely been left out of this process. In fact, some say that racism has deepened over the last decade, with the mining boom wreaking havoc on the dark-skinned Andean countryside and Amazonian lowlands while financing the rise of luxury condos and malls in white, middle-class Lima.
So however hard it might be for Humala to take on international capital—Peru’s stock market plunged 12 percent the day after his election—an equally difficult challenge will be to tackle Peruvian racism. “El Indio Humala” lost Lima by a wide margin, driven mostly not by fears he would turn Peru into Chávez’s Venezuela but into neighboring Indian-governed Bolivia. Candidate Humala did his best to deflect these concerns.
President Humala, however, will have to confront this racism directly if he is to succeed in democratizing Peru. After all, even before all the votes where in, tens of thousands of his supporters began to fill the country’s plazas, including Lima’s. They raised high the rainbow wiphala flag that became ubiquitous in Bolivia, during the rise of the social movements that brought Evo Morales to power. Today, it is waved throughout the Andes as a symbol of indigenous pride and sovereignty.
In El Salvador, on the last leg of his Latin American tour, President Barack Obama paid a highly symbolic visit to the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot through the heart as he raised the Eucharist chalice during a mass, in March 1980. His assassination was ordered by Salvadoran military officer Roberto D’Aubuisson, a School of the America’s graduate.
As El Faro—an important online source of independent Central American news—put it, Obama’s homage to Romero is a “truly extraordinary” gesture, since D’Aubuisson not only ran private-sector financed death squads but was a founder of ARENA, an ultraconservative political party that until 2009 had governed the country for two decades and enjoyed excellent relations with Washington.
Today, El Salvador is led by President Mauricio Funes, head of a center-left coalition government that includes the FMLN, the insurgent group turned political party Ronald Reagan wasted billions of dollars and over 70,000 lives trying to defeat in the 1980s. By lighting a candle for Romero, Obama, it might be said, was tacitly doing in El Salvador what he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—do in Chile: apologize for US actions that resulted in horrific human tragedy.
Obama in San Salvador focused on trade and immigration and celebrated Central America’s transition away from the civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. But hope, in reality, is in short supply; it would be difficult to exaggerate the crisis that today engulfs Central America, one that might very well turn out to be as bad as the 1980s.
Squeezed by Plan Colombia to the south and Mexico’s disastrous War on Drugs to the north, Central American violence has skyrocketed. Whole regions in Honduras and Guatemala are either overrun by narcos, or militarized by security forces, themselves deeply involved in criminal activity, including drugs, illegal logging, car theft and kidnapping. The explosion of biofuels production and the intensification of mining (particularly gold mining) has created an ecological disaster and generated widespread social dislocation. Protesting peasants, especially in Honduras and Guatemala, have been checked by a revived planter-death squad alliance, though now “death squads” generally go under the euphemism “private security.” An increasing number activists are turning up dead. In February, the bullet-ridden bodies of four Q’eqchi’ Mayan community leaders—Catalina Muca Maas, Alberto Coc Cal, Amilcar Choc and Sebastian Xuc Coc—were found in a river.
Just last week, as the Canadian human rights group Rights Action reported, over the course of three days—March 15–17—hundreds of police officers, soldiers and private security forces entered fourteen Mayan communities in the municipality of Panzós shooting live ammo and firing tear gas in an effort to displace peasants to make way for African palm and sugar plantations. Peasants futilely begged soldiers to allow them to harvest some of their crops. At least one person was killed, many wounded, others arrested, and thousands are now living in makeshift shelters on the side of the road. The plantations are capitalized by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, as part of the larger multilateral lending that supports the production of biofuels, to be sold in the United States. This social catastrophe is just one of the more recent expressions of the counter-insurgent neoliberal “security corridor,” running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico, I’ve written about here.
In his memoir, Obama says he came to political awareness in the 1980s, opposing what he called Ronald Reagan’s “minions.” If so, he no doubt had some exposure to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, or CISPES, perhaps the most prominent of the organizations that worked to fight Reagan’s Central American policies. CISPES still exists, and it is still doing great work.
Most recently, timed to coincide with Obama’s trip to El Salvador, CISPES has launched a campaign opposing the Canadian-based gold mining corporation, Pacific Rim, which under the terms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is suing El Salvador for $77 million. That figure corresponds to the profits Pacific Rim expected to earn had the Salvadoran government not revoked its operating permit (in response to an impressive, cross-class protest movement made up of environmentalists, progressive religious folk and peasants concerned with the high level of heavy metal contamination of water and soil and rocketing infant morality rates that resulted from similar mining operations).
That’s right, under CAFTA’s Chapter 10, private companies can sue countries for projected future profits lost as a result of national laws or regulations. But you might ask how a Canadian corporation can sue under the terms of CAFTA, since Canada isn’t a party to the treaty. Simple: Pacific Rim purchased in 2007 a Reno, Nevada, shell company to act as front. Forget that bugaboo of the jingoist right, so-called “anchor babies.” What we have here are “anchor corporations,” foreign businesses that get a toehold in the United States to secure their right to plunder. The suit will be arbitrated by the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, a shadowy appendage of the World Bank (more than half of the suits launched by corporations in the ICSID are against Latin American countries, and to give a sense how CAFTA has locked Central America into the neoliberal “security corridor,” Brazil has never joined the ICSID, Bolivia and Ecuador have withdrawn from its jurisdiction, and Venezuelan has announced its intention to pull out. Nicaragua, too, has threatened to withdraw, but it is unclear it can do so under the terms of CAFTA). As CISPES puts it, “As a candidate Obama promised to remove the rights of corporations to sue governments from trade agreements—it’s time he takes action.”
We can only hope that Obama finds inspiration in Oscar Romero’s life: Romero, after all, started his public career as a cautious moderate who believed he could quietly work with El Salvador’s ruling class to coax needed reform. The reality of Salvadoran society forced his conversion into an outspoken, confrontational leader who directly attacked those who perpetuated what he called “structural sin:” “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed,” Romero wrote before his murder, “it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” If Romero was alive today, he would recognize CAFTA’s Chapter 10, along with the broader, disastrous policies Washington is pursuing in the Mexico-Central America-Colombia security corridor, as prime examples of “structural sin.”
In Latin America, Barack Obama went from one country, Brazil, led by a president tortured by a US-supported military regime to another, Chile, led by a president who, as the billionaire brother of one of the infamous “Chicago Boys,” did lucrative business with a US-enabled torturer, Augusto Pinochet. And so the first question he faced from a Chilean reporter was if the United States was “willing to ask for forgiveness for what it did in those very difficult years in the ’70s in Chile?”
Obama deflected: “I think it’s very important for all of us to know our history,” he said, and obviously the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult. I think it’s important, though, for us, even as we understand our history and gain clarity about our history, that we’re not trapped by our history.... So, I can’t speak to all of the policies of the past. I can speak certainly to the policies of the present and the future.”
Obama then hedged when pressed if the United States would release some 25,000 classified documents that could help victims of the massive human rights abuses committed under Pinochet. Last month, in anticipation of Obama’s trip to Chile, Carmen Frei, the daughter of Eduardo Frei Montalva, Chile’s president prior to Salvador Allende and believed poisoned by Pinochet in 1982, said that “precisely because there has been such a radical change in the politics of the United States that we believe in the human rights [policies] of President Obama, this is the moment—if he's coming to Chile he can receive the official requests and petitions.” And just before his arrival, Chile's entire center-left congressional cohort signed an open letter urging the US president to declassify the documents. Obama only committed to reviewing any request for information, adding that Washington wants to cooperate, “in principle.”
On this, Obama should take a cue from his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who did laudably declassify a massive amount of information to help the work of a United Nations truth commission—officially and aptly called the “Historical Clarification Commission"—charged investigating human rights violations during Guatemala’s long dirty war. The documentation was first released to the National Security Archive, a DC-based non-governmental organization, where it was reviewed and analyzed by Kate Doyle, who along with her colleagues at the NSA, including Peter Kornbluh and Carlos Osorio, over the years has worked tirelessly at exposing the dark side of US actions in Latin America. After this initial cull, the documents were passed on to Guatemala. I had the good luck of working with the commission on these documents and can say that the information obtained from them were indispensable in piecing together the architecture of terror, the mechanisms by which the Guatemalan state, with the active support of the United States, was able to carry out widespread repression.
Obama gave his trip’s keynote speech in Chile, holding up Latin America’s move away from the feverish violence of the cold war and embrace of democracy as a model for the rest of the world, with pointed reference to the Middle East.
Let’s hope he is right, for Latin America over the last decade has been a source of inspiration—not for the kind of anemic democracy the necons believe we can impose on recalcitrant states with a barrage of cruise missiles. The ongoing vitality of democracy in Latin America exists despite, not because, of US policy. It is not just rooted in constitutional proceduralism, in electoral rotations and checks on government power but in mobilized protest for a better world. And it is driven by an abiding faith in social democracy, a belief that for a society to be democratic it also has to be just—both in terms of welfare and enforcement of human rights. It is the heroic activists on the ground, from peasants in Honduras to the MST in Brazil and the Mapuches in southern Chile, who refuse to sit still as international corporations seek to turn the continent into a giant warehouse of primary material, water, gas, oil, soy, what have you, to serve the unsustainable needs of a globalized economy. It is the real human-rights activists, people like Berta Oliva, the besieged director of the Honduran Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared, who refuse to keep quiet as they are lectured about letting bygones be bygones—that make the region democratic.
These are the people Obama should be standing side by side with, and a good place to start would be to listen to the Chileans and open up the US archives.
Until then, we have Wikileaks. In recent weeks, the organization has released quite a bit of new information, some of it gossipy (it turns out that the ex-president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, “despite his phlegmatic and lugubrious bearing...enjoys a reputation as a lady's man”) and some of it damning. In Mexico and Central America, the United States is striving to put into place a transnational intelligence system, in effect replicating steps it took in the early 1960s when it created the death squad infrastructure that ruled the region for decades. It’s hard to keep up with all the cables, but a good place to start is the excellent googlegroup on Wikileaks Latin America run by Canadian journalist Dawn Paley.
Obama isn’t the first US president to seek a solution to domestic crisis by pushing for open markets, but his administration might be the first to so candidly admit that is what it is doing.
According to Michael Froman, Obama’s national security adviser for international economic affairs, “This trip fundamentally is about the US recovery, US exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States.” It’s a startlingly honest admission that, unable to overcome domestic obstacles (that is, the cult of austerity that enthralls Republicans and Democrats alike) to investment and stimulus, the United States is looking abroad for relief. Obama is making the case that more globalized trade—including the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement—will pull the United States out of its slump.
In the past, trade with Latin America did inordinately benefit the United States in all sorts of ways, underwriting its cold war Keynesian and post–cold war neoliberal economies. Today, though, things are different and it’s unlikely that more “free trade” with Latin America would heal what ails the United States.
Setting that point aside, the very same set of obstacles that blocks Obama at home makes it impossible—as I’ve noted here earlier—for him to offer serious concessions in exchange for Brazil’s help, particularly when it comes to the sticky issue of ethanol tariffs, subsidies and intellectual property rights. There was goodwill and great photo ops of the first family’s trip to Brazil, especially to Rio’s City of God favela. It was, as many noted, highly symbolic for the first African-American US president to visit the country with the largest African population outside of Africa (especially since Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did once ask Brazil’s president, “Do you have blacks, too?”—which prompted Conde Rice to give her boss a quick tutorial in the history of New World slavery).
But it was short on substance. Brazil's new president Dilma Rousseff was friendly and “warm,” as expected, but she did criticize the United States’s shameless ability to preach “free trade” while practicing protectionism. And Brazil was extremely disappointed that Obama, despite indicating that Washington was ready to deal with Brazil as an equal, did not endorse its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Washington and Brasilia signed a few inconsequential trade agreements, but Obama offered nothing that could jumpstart the stalled Doha negotiations—where any real movement in trade relations would take place. Over the years, Brazil has taken the lead in opposing a world trade agreement that didn’t address the issues of first-world agricultural subsidies and tariffs and intellectual property rights. Nothing in Obama’s trip suggests Brazil’s demands have been met, despite Dilma’s much admired cordiality (Lula was always extremely cordial; he also was steadfast in his vision of a more equitable global playing field and confident that Brazil, with its enormous economy, was in a position to demand it).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Washington Post’s op-ed page, feeling emboldened by the hawks’ success in ginning up yet a third, poorly conceived, open-ended war, took the opportunity of Obama’s Latin American trip to run a piece by Roger Noriega, perpetual plumper for all things bellicose, asking if here is a Hugo Chávez “terror network on America’s doorstep.” Noriega is part of the same Iran/Contra crowd, led by Otto Reich, that continues to have an inordinate influence on US policy in Latin America, even when Democrats are supposedly in charge (it was Reich who inaugurated the destabilization campaign against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya). They have long tried to link Venezuela to some international conspiracy, either involving nuclear weapons or Islamic terrorism. Both claims have been debunked by the State Department (via released Wikileaks cables) and the Pentagon. But as with Iraq, they never let the facts get in the way of an insinuation.
In fact, Chávez, in the wake of the disaster in Japan, has called a halt to Venezuela’s fledgling nuclear program. When Venezuela signed a deal last year with a private company in Russia to develop nuclear power, the Noriegas and Reichs perked up, charging that Venezuela was opening a back channel to get nukes to Iran. That deal now is on hold, and Chávez probably used events in Japan to cut loose an expensive program with very little expected return. Still, it’s a welcome policy reversal. As he put it, speaking of nuclear power generally, "it is something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world." Only Mexico, Brazil and Argentina have working nuclear power plants in the region.
In Chile, however, where Obama will arrive today, President Sebastián Piñera has taken the opposite lesson. Though his country sits on the same so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire" of seismic activity that does Japan, and suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami nearly exactly a year ago, Piñera said he was keeping the nuclear option open. In anticipation of Obama’s visit, Chile and the United States just signed a nuclear co-operation deal, which is to include US training for Chilean nuclear engineers.
So far, Obama’s visit to Latin America has entailed a series of ill-timed events: arriving in Brazil just after Aristide returned to Haiti; announcing the bombing of Libya from Brazil, a country that abstained from and criticized the UN Security Council resolution; and signing a nuclear accord with Chile, which recently suffered an earthquake and tsunami, just after Japan's earthquake-induced meltdown.
Not to add fuel to the anti-NPR fire started by the right—and I realize that criticizing its Latin American reporter, Juan Forero, is akin to picking low-hanging fruit—but this story on Obama’s trip to Brazil is typical of the vapid commentary in this country on foreign relations in general and Latin America in particular. First off, I thought the headline, “Brazilians Welcome Obama as Their Own,” was a description of what happened after Obama arrived in Brazil—massive, swooning crowds, etc.—but it was published before Air Force One even touched down, making it more a reflection of wish fulfillment than reality, or one of those premature Pravda headlines written before the event actually took place.
Then there is the reduction of foreign policy to self-affirmation. “He’s one of us,” like Lula, a trade unionist. This seems to be Forero’s main observation, ignoring the fact that Lula’s ongoing popularity might have been because he presided over, within limits, a significant redistribution of wealth in the form of welfare, education and healthcare to the poor, and presided over a significant realignment of foreign policy. And that his appeal is based on a misplaced identification by the masses? I remember some particularly inane comment made in one of the attempts to explain Chávez’s ongoing popularity with the poor, made either in the pages of the The Atlantic or Foreign Policy, I can’t keep track, going something like this: “Chávez projects his vulnerabilities, and the people love him because they identify with them.” How is this any different?
Rejecting a direct personal appeal from Barack Obama, South Africa has allowed exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s plane to take off. Obama told South African President Jacob Zuma that he had "deep concerns" that Aristide’s return to Haiti will disrupt the country’s presidential runoff, scheduled to take place this Sunday. But his plane took off yesterday and, after a stop in Dakar to refuel, is expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince later today, just a few hours before Obama will leave DC for Brazil. Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! will have on-the-spot coverage.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, a video has surfaced that shows one of the two neo-Duvalierist frontrunners, Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, threatening a bar patron: “All those shits were Aristide’s faggots,” he says. “I would kill Aristide to stick a dick up your ass.” It shouldn’t be taken as an idle threat. As Kim Ives points out, Martelly is close to Colonel Michel François, a mass murderer and one of the plotters of Aristide’s 1991 overthrow.
So, what does Aristide’s return mean in relation to Obama’s Latin American bid?
The mainstream media is heavily spinning Obama’s trip to Brazil as a rapprochement between Washington and Brasilia. Exhibiting a myopia typical of US reporters who can’t seem to shift the focus, when it comes to locating the sources of diplomatic obstruction, back to the US, the New York Times’s Alexei Barrionuevo today placed blame for the bad blood squarely on Brazil: “After a year of strain between Brazil and the United States—mostly because of Mr. da Silva’s efforts to wade into the contentious standoff between the West and Iran over its nuclear program by seeking to avoid further sanctions when the United States was pushing for them.”
Needless to say, there’s no worse sin than the presumption that someone not from the “West”—a former metal worker and trade unionist no less—have a say in how the “West” wages its conflicts. Expectedly, Barrionuevo ignores the problems within the United States, which I touched on here, that prevent movement on issues from tariffs to climate change, Palestine to immigration.
But so far, the heralded “mending of fences” isn’t panning out in any substantive sense.
Yesterday, Brazil, as a non-permanent member of the US Security Council, ignored heavy lobbying by Washington and abstained from the vote authorizing the bombing of Libya. Dilma’s ambassador to the UN, Maria Luiza Riberio Viotti, must not have gotten the memo that Brazil would be cooperating more closely with Washington. Yesterday, she warned that military action would “exacerbate tensions on the ground and cause more harm than good to the same civilians we are committed to protect.” And, judging from Aristide’s impending return, Brazil likewise rebuffed US requests to pressure South Africa not to let Aristide head home. Zero for two, and Air Force One hasn't yet left the tarmac for Brazil.
Another thing to watch for during Obama’s visit in Brazil is if Jean-Bertrand Aristide manages to return to Haiti. If Aristide does land in Port-au-Prince while the first family is in Rio, it would be further indication of the United States’s waning influence in the region. As Wikileaks cables reveal, the US Department of State has been intensely lobbying Brazil to use its influence in South Africa, where Aristide resides in exile, to prevent his departure. Unfortunately, the strong independent streak Lula exhibited in other areas of foreign policy didn’t extend to Haiti, where Brazil has largely supported efforts by the “international community,” led by the United States, Canada and France, to place the island country in receivership after having drove Aristide out in 2004. Now, though, Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, seems to have declined to press South Africa to bend to Washington’s will, and Aristide is expected to return home (Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is in South Africa to cover events).
By the way, Amy Wilentz had an interesting, long op-ed in the New York Times yesterday on Haitian opinion regarding Aristide, suggesting that the only domestic opposition to his return comes from the country’s microscopic, perversely rich elite. The essay was a little personalistic for my taste, holding Aristide responsible for not reversing the country’s deep structural inequalities (Haitians, Wilentz writes, “poured their love onto him and he has repaired them with nothing but dreams”). She also suggested that he was a hypocrite for allowing the United States, in exchange for supporting his return to power following the coup that interrupted his first presidency, to impose extreme neoliberal policies on Haiti (which Bill Clinton apologized for in the wake of the Haitian earthquake: “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did”). And she didn’t make mention of Washington's direct role in driving Aristide from office the second time. This omission might have been the price of entry to the paper’s op-ed pages, even though it was the New York Times itself that did good reporting on the shenanigans of the International Republican Institute, as cover for the old Iran/Contra gang, in destabilizing the country in 2004.
In the past, Jeffrey Sachs has been coruscatingly clear in his denunciation of Washington for the economic stranglehold it placed on Haiti. As he wrote in March 2004, with a clarity that seems to escape most US commentators when they consider Aristide: “Haiti, once again, is ablaze. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is widely blamed, and he may be toppled soon. Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington—deliberately, cynically and steadfastly. History will bear this out. In the meantime, political, social, and economic chaos will deepen, and Haiti's impoverished people will suffer.”
Barack Obama heads to Latin America tomorrow, bringing with him little more than a winning smile and the hope that the afterglow of his election, which Latin Americans celebrated with great cheer, still warms.
The trip is meant to show that his administration has not let crises, domestic and foreign, prevent a proactive engagement with the region. In reality, Obama will be playing catch-up, trying to slow down China’s inroads into what used to be the United States’s backyard, shore up an alternative to the so-called “bad left” countries of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and sometimes Ecuador and Argentina, and win back Brazil. With its $6 trillion economy, Brazil has helped lead what Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa recently called the “second and definitive independence” of Latin America, opposing Washington on issues ranging from climate change to trade, Palestine to Honduras.
Let’s recap. Promising a new focus on Latin America is as expected of presidential candidates as kissing babies, yet many did think Obama would be different. At the time of his election, Latin America was governed by presidents who each represented a different progressive tradition—liberation theology (Paraguay’s Lugo), trade unionism (Brazil’s Lula), peasant and indigenous organizing (Bolivia’s Morales), feminism (Chile’s Bachelet), social democratic economics (Ecuador’s Correa) and even military populism (Venezuela’s Chávez)—and these leaders hoped to induct Obama into the pantheon, seeing him as a fulfillment of the US civil rights movement.
Having been early critics of the militarism (most Latin American countries opposed the “War on Terror” broadly and the invasion of Iraq in particular) and extreme neoliberalism that crashed the United States, they believed he would help them create a new hemispheric framework, leaving behind the old failed orthodoxies and finding a way to cooperatively deal with transnational problems like poverty, inequality, crime, migration and climate change. At the very least, they thought he would finally end the US cold war against Cuba.
But despite getting off to a good start at the Summit of the Americas shortly after his inauguration, Obama has largely disappointed. His administration’s shameful legitimizing of the June 2009 Honduran coup was a symbolic turning point, but the disenchantment has been widespread. An expected alliance with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t pan out; immigration reform is off the table, as is a renewal of the assault rifles ban that might stem the flow of the weapons into Mexico; the United States refuses to lower its multibillion-dollar subsidy and tariff program that floats corporate giants like ADM and Monsanto; Cuba remains a pariah, if only in Washington’s eyes.
As Obama quickly learned, obstacles to an effective hemispheric diplomacy were not to be found in the “bad left" countries but much closer to home: it’s the NRA, the anti-Castro Cuban lobby, agro-industry, anti-Latino jingoism, as well as the State and Commerce departments (along with the Office of the US Trade Representative) stuffed with holdovers from the Clinton and Bush administrations, that prevent much-needed movement on any number of issues: migration, Cuba, gun smuggling into Mexico, tariffs (the last Congress renewed a 54 cent tariff on each gallon of imported Brazilian ethanol—so much for “free trade”), and poverty reduction. As a result, Obama succumbed to inertia, carrying on a disastrous war on drugs and pushing an economic agenda as if 2008 (or 2002 in Argentina, the worst recorded economic collapse in history) never happened.
Obama’s itinerary—Brazil, Chile and El Salvador—is instructive. If Washington is to salvage its hemispheric diplomacy, it will only be with the help of Brazil, with its enormous and diversified economy and huge oil reserves (which seem to double every day). And Obama’s decision to visit Chile and El Salvador can be read as both a bid to show that the United States can work with leaders across the political spectrum and an attempt to keep that spectrum narrow, restricted to a reformed right (à la Chile’s Sebastián Piñera) and a non-threatening, contained left (El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes).
In the coming days, I’ll be following Obama’s Latin American tour here on The Notion. One thing that might signal that his visit is more than fluff would be an announcement, while in Brazil, that he supports that country’s effort to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Such an announcement would indicate that Washington has finally accommodated itself to the new Latin America—and to the realization that if it hopes to stem the hemorrhaging of its influence it needs to recognize Brazil as a partner, and stop getting miffed every time Brasilia points out the gap between US rhetoric and action (in, among other places, Honduras, for example).
We’ll see. But Obama’s ability, or desire, to overcome the status quo is doubtful. The last thing many at Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon want is to give Brazil a bigger bully pulpit to rally what used to be called the third world. Recently, at a press conference held during a trip to Beijing—underscoring the new South-South axis shaping up—Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, reiterated his country's opposition to the militarization of the crisis in Libya, joining Venezuela and South Africa in a call to find a negotiated solution and to oppose any no-fly zone that wasn’t fully in compliance with the UN Charter and endorsed by the full Security Council. Brazil restated that position a few days later, in a joint statement with India and South Africa.
And that Obama’s whole trip would have been scuttled had Republicans made good on their threats to shut down the government underscores how domestic involution has crippled US diplomacy—imagine Congress preventing Ronald Reagan from touring Latin America over Big Bird. If that had happened, Washington might as well have tossed the keys to the region to China and called it a day.
In watching events unfold in Egypt, and Mubarak fleeing, from Cairo at least, I can’t get the Clash’s Sandinista out of my head, that great album released in late 1980, where one song after another predicted a global wave of true democracy washing away the world’s dictators, warlords and petty fascists, none better than “Washington Bullets”:
Oh! Mama, Mama look there!
Your children are playing in that street again
Don't you know what happened down there?
A youth of fourteen got shot down there
The Kokane guns of Jamdown Town
The killing clowns, the blood money men
Are shooting those Washington bullets again
As every cell in Chile will tell
The cries of the tortured men
Remember Allende, and the days before,
Before the army came
Please remember Victor Jara,
In the Santiago Stadium,
Es verdad—those Washington Bullets again
And in the Bay of Pigs in 1961,
Havana fought the playboy in the Cuban sun,
For Castro is a colour,
Is a redder than red,
Those Washington bullets want Castro dead
For Castro is the colour...
...That will earn you a spray of lead
For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America
Well the people fought the leader,
And up he flew...
With no Washington bullets what else could he do?
'N' if you can find a Afghan rebel
That the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist...
...Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet,
How many monks did the Chinese get?
In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary,
'N' check the British bullets in his armoury
Twentieth-century Latin America has seen its share of US supported strongmen topple by popular uprisings—Jorge Ubico in Guatemala in 1944, Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela in 1958, Batista in Cuba 1959, and Somoza in Nicaragua 1979, among others.
The standard narrative then, as it is now re Egypt, is of an anxious US administration watching “history unfold,” as Obama put it yesterday, while worrying that the revolution would radicalize. This fretting is deeply ingrained in US political culture, for at least since the guillotine relieved Louis XVI of his head in 1793, one key element of American exceptionalism is that only the United Sattes knows how to have a responsible revolution, knows where to draw the line to prevent the radicals—be they Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the Castro brothers, the Sandinistas, the Mullahs or now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—from coming to power and betraying the promise of democracy.
What’s missing of course from this narrative is the US role in making radicalization and militancy inevitable.
In Guatemala, a decade after the democrat revolution, the US coup (carried out by Frank Wisner Sr, the father of the would-be US envoy to Egypt), kicked off a nearly four-decade civil war that resulted in genocide. In Cuba (as Lars Schoultz shows in his excellent new book, That Infernal Little Republic), Washington’s refusal to accept the fact that Cubans took the ideal of sovereignty seriously drove political polarization and anger. It didn’t help that the United States, even before the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, supported a campaign of terrorism against the island. In Nicaragua, whatever “antidemocratic” currents existed in the revolutionary coalition were sure to be reinforced by the illegal war waged by the most powerful nation in world history on a desperately poor country of a few million people (the Clash was overly optimistic, to put it mildly).
Less well known is Venezuela 1958. It’s doubtful that Vice President Joe Biden, after his imprudent remarks supporting Mubarak, will be visiting Egypt anytime soon. But in 1958, shortly after Venezuelans overthrew a US-backed dictator, Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, took a tour of Latin America, with Caracas his last stop. There, he and his wife Pat were spit on, stoned, his car was stomped on, and the Nixons came close to being killed by a crowd angry not just at the long US support of Pérez Jiménez but because Washington had granted political asylum to many of the old regime’s torturers.
Check out this You Tube newsreel of Nixon’s near-escape. This was the first time that the US media depicted the serious foreign-policy criticisms driving third world nationalism as a mass and irrational “anti-Americanism”—an early expression of George W. Bush’s insistence that “they hate us because we are free.” Those Washington Bullets are never mentioned.
Last January, I wrote an essay for The Nation on Washington’s integration of Mexico, Central America and Colombia into a “security corridor.” I called it a “rump Monroe Doctrine,” an explosive mix of militarism and neoliberal economics. Militarily, assorted bilateral and regional treaties are fusing the region’s military, intelligence and judicial systems into a unified, supra-national counterinsurgent infrastructure. Economically, there’s been an intensification of socially and environmentally disruptive resource extraction—mines, biofuels plantations, hydroelectric dams; tying it all together are loans and other funding from the World Bank, the IMF, the UN and the Inter-American Development Bank, capitalizing projects aimed to synchronize the region’s highway, communication and energy networks, blending the North American and Central American free-trade treaties and, eventually, the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement into a seamless whole.
In other words, as the rest of South America pulls out of the US orbit (which I would argue ranks as a world historical event as consequential as the fall of the Berlin Wall, though less noticed since it has taken place over a decade rather than all on one night), Washington is retrenching in what's left of its backyard. Today in the New York Times, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has an interesting opinion piece that reads events in Egypt as part of a broader recession of US power in the world. Certainly another sign of this recession is this retrenchment running from Mexico through Colombia: unable to secure its interests and project its power in all of Latin America through a mix of hard and soft power, Washington has, by default if not conscious design, returned to some premodern “secure the flank” conception of security. Washington is building a moat around a besieged fortress America.
In the year since I wrote that essay, a number of events have taken place that has advanced the construction of this security corridor. These include: a new proposal for a “Plan Central America,” that would bolt together Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia, creating “synergies,” as a US official called it; a program by which Colombia trains Mexican policy to fight gangs, instruction that may soon be extended to Central American countries; a deepening commitment to the El Salvador–based and Washington-funded International Law Enforcement Academy, which critics have described as a new School of the Americas; the use of airbases in Panama and (post-coup) Honduras to launch US drones; and the construction of even more US military bases. To get a graphic image of this “security corridor,” check out this map created by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where Central America seems to have been turned into one big landing strip.
Josh Frens-String’s excellent blog, Hemispheric Brief, which daily gathers and crisply analyzes news concerning Latin America, has a number of posts on the topic. Another great source of news and analysis is the North American Congress on Latin America, along with the Americas Program, particularly Laura Carlsen’s essays and blog posts.
The origin of this security corridor is Plan Colombia—Bill Clinton’s multibillion-dollar aid program to one of the worst human-rights violators in the world. The main effect of Plan Colombia has been to diversify the violence and corruption endemic to the cocaine trade, with Central American and Mexican cartels and military factions taking over export of the drug to the United States. This, along with the economic disruptions caused by NAFTA and the CAFTA, kicked off the cycle of criminal and gang violence that today engulfs the region. This violence, in turn, has been accelerated by the rapid spread of mining, hydroelectric, biofuel and petroleum operations, which wreak havoc on local ecosystems, poisoning land and water, and by the opening of national markets to US agroindustry, which destroys local economies. The ensuing displacement either creates assorted criminal threats that justify harsher counterinsurgent measures, or provokes protest, which is dealt with by new-style death squads.
As during the cold war, the uniting of regional security and intelligence forces under the banner of a broader, international crusade creates the “hostile environment” in which death squads florish. But in a way, today's death squads have gone legit: they are now called “private security companies,” some of them staffed with ex-Colombian paramilitaries. The Canadian group Rights Action has documented a clear pattern of increased repression throughout the region, much of it linked to biofuels production and mining, which includes a rise in death-squad killing of peasants in Honduras.
It’s best to think of the Mexico-to-Colombia “security corridor” as less a defense initiative than a blueprint of how to build a perfect machine of perpetual war.