Continental shift

My following cover story appears in this week’s Big Issue (June 5-20):

Latin America is turning left, and one man in particular is leading the charge

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan treated Latin and Central America as killing fields against an imagined Communist threat. According to author and New York University professor Greg Grandin, US allies in Central America during Reagan’s presidency killed more than 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands and drove millions into exile.

This background is essential to appreciate the reasons behind the rise of anti-US sentiment in the region. From Peru to Venezuela and Chile to Bolivia, the wholesale rejection of Washington’s economic, social, military and political agenda has created a leftist resurgence, largely ignored or shunned in the West. “Today, roughly 300 million of Latin America’s 520 million citizens live under governments that either want to reform the Washington Consensus (a euphemism for the mix of punishing fiscal authority, privatisation and market liberalisation that has produced staggering levels of poverty and inequality over the past three decades) or abolish it altogether and create a new, more equitable global economy,” says Grandin.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the unofficial leader of the new brigade. A former military man, he has been democratically elected on a platform of fairly redistributing the country’s vast oil wealth. Unlike other Latin American nations, Venezuela’s press is free and robust. And though there are some issues with corruption and the rule of law it is not an autocratic state, as Chavez’s critics constantly claim. In fact, the charismatic Venezuelan leader is detested in Washington, London and Canberra simply because he dares to imagine a world without US military and economic imperialism.

“This century will see the end of American imperialism”, Chavez said during a recent visit to Vienna. “For every pig the day arrives for slaughter. For the pig of American imperialism, that time has come.” He also rejects policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying that they have created only misery for his people. Under Chavez, the majority of Venezuelans now enjoy free healthcare, subsidized food and a constitutionally endorsed policy of quality education for all.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has compared Chavez to Hitler (although the administration backed away from TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s call for Chavez to be assassinated), while the Venezuelan President has called George W. Bush “Mr Danger.” When British Prime Minister Tony Blair advised Chavez in February this year to “abide by the rules of the international community” – namely by granting Western multinationals the right to own and control Latin America’s natural resources – Chavez didn’t hold back. “Tony Blair”, he said, “you have no moral right to tell anyone to respect international laws, as you have shown no respect for them, aligning yourself with ”˜Mr Danger’ and trampling on the people of Iraq.”

The US supported a failed coup against Chavez in 2002 and has been accused of trying to destabilise his government (and even, by Chavez himself, of having plans to invade the country.) It recently imposed a ban on arms sales to Venezuela, accusing Chavez of having an “ideological affinity” with leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America.

Yet it’s Chavez, not Bush, who has been vilified by the Western, mainstream media. As British media watchdog Medialens notes, BBC TV often refers to the “controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez.” Is Bush ever the “controversial right-wing president?” And is Chavez really more controversial than the man who illegally invaded Iraq? In March this year, Britain’s Channel 4 produced a report that could have been written by the US State Department itself: “He [Chavez] is in danger of joining a rogue’s gallery of dictators and despots – Washington’s latest Latin nightmare.” In April, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl referred to the “perverted logic of Chavez’s court system” and claimed the President has never enjoyed overwhelming support. (Diehl conveniently overlooks the fact that most reliable opinion polls gauge Chavez’s approval rating to be almost 80%, which is far higher than the vast majority of leaders in Western democracies.) In May, an Associated Press story alleged that Chavez was agitating for 25-year terms, when in reality he had simply questioned the right of Venezuela’s opposition to continually boycott the electoral process.

Like Chavez, Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner has accused the IMF of imposing economic policies in the 1990s that impoverished his people. The Argentine economy is now growing at more than 8% annually, however, and Kirchner has established warm ties with Venezuela. Uruguay is also moving forward, with recent rebounds after years of stagnation. Attracted to the Chavez idea of regional provision of natural resources, Uruguay’s Socialist President Tabare Vazquez has begun talks to establish a transcontinental gas pipeline for Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

Bolivia, Latin America’s poorest nation, is another country undergoing a vast ideological shift. President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, has just renationalised the country’s natural gas and petroleum resources. “Now the gas and oil that flows from our land will no longer belong to foreigners,” he declared. Morales has also signed a people’s trade agreement with Cuba and Venezuela in an attempt to create a self-reliant region in opposition to US-led free trade.

As American author and activist Noam Chomsky sees it, Washington’s dictatorial style towards Latin America is coming back to haunt the superpower. “Many indigenous people apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies and cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit in their SUVs in traffic gridlock”, Chomsky says.

In the 1980s and ”˜90s, state-owned companies throughout Central and Latin America were sold. Foreign capital was sought. Government spending and regulation was cut. But the new dawn never arrived. The lives of average citizens did not improve. Instead, economic growth stagnated and Western multinationals got rich. And now, as Morales and his counterparts are discovering, there is a political price to be paid for disobeying US policy. Soon after Morales renationalised his country’s gas and oil resources, the Wall Street Journal warned foreign investors that Morales and Chavez were “playing chicken with foreign oil companies.” Implicit in the article was that Bolivians had no right to restrict access to their natural resources, and that multinationals have the right to plunder whatever they please.

The only country in Latin America that retains strong connections with Washington is Columbia. With an economy bolstered by both cocaine and vast US military aid, the country has been repeatedly accused of colluding with paramilitaries to kill civilians. The so-called “war on drugs” has continued for years with few concrete results, aside from citizens that are angry at the US for assisting the destruction of their coca crops. At least 3000 people are killed every year in the seemingly endless violence. Cocaine profits have certainly distorted the nation’s progress, though the US is keen to maintain at least one reliable and compliant ally in the region.

Whereas in the past the US wouldn’t think twice about supporting military coups and invasion, today’s Latin America is an altogether more independent and robust beast. The rise of popular movements – literally millions of people demanding more access to their country’s resources – is guaranteed to scare Western nations. After all, when was the last time Australians rose up in their millions to demand fairer access to health and education services?

Britain’s Independent, a supposedly liberal newspaper, recently published an article on the region, headed “Should we be worried by the rise of the populist left in South America?” Its author, David Usborne, explained that energy supplies to the West may be disrupted, “populist policies” may not be economically sustainable and Latin America may be “heading towards collapse.” And what of the people of the region and their needs and desires? Usborne didn’t mention them, instead worrying himself silly over the welfare of the elites in Britain and the US. Rather than present an honest analysis of Latin America, complete with the devastating role played by the US over the last decades, Usborne was content to rehash press releases from the alarmist British Foreign Office.

Meanwhile, Washington’s reputation in the region worsens. According to a recent poll by the non-partisan polling group Latinobarometro, three out of five Latin Americans distrust the US. And a US poll found fewer than 20% of Latin American elites regard Bush favourably. It seems the US President’s ineptitude has been the perfect gift for the Chavez revolution.

The Bush administration’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, travelled around Latin America in April in a seemingly futile attempt to improve the image of the US. “It’s not about communications”, said one Chilean of Hughes’s trip. [Latin Americans] want to be considered equals.”

With Latin America largely ignored in Australia, the mainstream media are failing in their duty to acknowledge a genuine shift in regional thinking. Untamed markets have been controlled and social justice is now a mainstay in countries more used to undemocratic institutions funded and supported by Washington. By proving that an anti-poverty agenda can be an electoral winner, leaders such as Hugo Chavez have given hope to millions of working men and women. It seems likely that other Latin American nations will follow the leftist bent, further eroding negative US influence, and as the world’s only superpower loses its grip on Latin America, new alliances offer alternatives to yesterday’s failed policies.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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