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Bush in Argentina: Bringing Imperialism Back to Public Debate


A few years ago, Tulio Halperin Donghi, Argentina’s most eminent historian, argued that “dependency” or “imperialism” were no longer part of the agenda of Latin American historiography or public debate. This was not due to their lack of significance as political concepts, he said, but because they have been accepted as part of an unchangeable reality. Imperialism and dependency affect us, that’s for sure; but there is no point in discussing it any longer, “just as we don’t discuss the rain”. It is just there.

Indeed, the very word “imperialism” (not to mention “capitalism”) was for most of the 90s something of a relic in Argentina, confined to die-hard leftists, and rejected by politicians, academics, and journalists alike. In comparison to that situation, the last couple of weeks leading to the Summit of the Americas seem to have made visible a dramatic change in Argentine culture.

George Bush’s visit, quite expectedly, was to be resisted by local activists and social movements. That we all knew. Somewhat unexpected was the general strike called by CTA, one of the main national unions, which was observed by many workers throughout the country. But nobody would have guessed such an intense participation of common people and even mainstream public figures in anti-Bush activities.

The first surprise came when the soccer hero Diego Maradona – something of a pagan (politically incorrect) God in Argentina – announced that he was going to march against Bush in Mar del Plata. “Bush makes me sick”, he simply declared, after screening an exclusive interview with his friend Fidel Castro in his own, immensely popular TV show. His move was followed by many public figures who are not usually seen in demonstrations, including some rock stars and actors.

On Thursday night they all took an “anti-FTAA train” to Mar del Plata – a city on the Atlantic, some 400 kilometers far from Buenos Aires – together with important leftwing activists such as Evo Morales, the Bolivian indigenous leader who is likely to win the coming presidential elections in his country. In Mar del Plata they met the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, other human rights activists, leftwing parties and social movements, and they all marched together before rallying in a soccer stadium to listen to Hugo Chavez’s speech.

The charismatic president of Venezuela spoke for over two hours before 40.000 people, in a stadium decorated with images of Che Guevara and the leaders of Latin American independence. His speech, which was transmitted live on TV, was an uncompromising denunciation of “imperialism”, “neoliberalism”, “capitalism”, and US domination, all of which is leading to the destruction of the planet. “The FTAA is dead and buried!”, he announced to the delight of his audience.

But he went even farther: by quoting extensively from Marx, Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara, and Rosa Luxemburg, as well as some Latin American myths (such as Evita, José Martí and, of course, Fidel Castro), Chavez argued strongly in favor of a post-capitalist society, which he called “socialism of the 21st century”. Maradona, like everybody else in the stadium, clapped their hands to death.

Meanwhile, there were massive anti-Bush demonstrations in the streets of Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, and all major cities of Argentina, and other less numerous actions in over 200 towns. In a few cities some demonstrators attacked buildings of trans-national corporations.

The information about these political activities, and also about the debates in the III “Counter” Summit of the Peoples, which was held in Mar del Plata at the same time, managed to attract the attention of the mainstream media. For the past couple of weeks, and for the first time since the 70s, anti-imperialism has become part of the public agenda in Argentina. As the famous actress Leonor Manso put it in front of TV cameras while boarding the “anti-FTAA train”: “We can now talk about imperialism again. Isn’t it nice?”.

A poll in today’s (Saturday 5 November) Clarin, the most important Argentine newspaper, confirms that we are dealing with a wide cultural phenomenon. Only 9% of the population believe that these kind of summits will be of any help for the people. In the ranking of popularity, Hugo Chavez got 38% of “positive image”, while George Bush barely obtained 5%.

Indeed, it is the American negative role in Argentina and the rest of the world that became a sort of commonsensical truth. Even perfectly conservative news presenters in the mainstream media express it in a matter-of-fact tone. It seems to be so obvious that they don’t even bother to explain it.

To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon. Anti-American feelings became more and more widespread in the 90s, while the role of the US administration and the IMF in Argentina’s endemic economic crisis became undeniable. The level of hatred of American domination showed itself in a rather tragic light on September 11th. In a country with almost no Muslims or close links with the Middle East, lots of people actually celebrated the attacks on the Twin Towers. At that time, these kinds of feelings did not make it to the public sphere, but remained in the realm of private conversation. Today, only few years later, anti-American sentiments are openly expressed on national TV.

As a leftwing teenager in the 80s, I remember how hard it was to win a political debate with my friends. Whenever I tried to make the point that “socialism” was what we needed to make our lives better, there was always someone pointing to the example of the USA. The idea that American society was not only prosperous, but also the home of justice, human rights, opportunities for all, etc. was shared by most people. Today, average Argentines may not believe that “socialism” or anything like that is a desirable or feasible alternative. But nobody would argue anymore that American society offers a good example either. Moreover, as the massive anti-Bush reaction in Argentina seems to prove, more and more people are starting to link the US with suffering around the world.

American imperial domination is not only loosing control of some peripheral countries; it is also loosing the war over people’s minds and hearts. Long ago, Antonio Gramsci argued that domination rests upon a combination of coercion and consensus. If the Italian thinker was right, American imperialism may be coming to an end.

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