Lesson From the Other Americas: “Si, Se Puede”

My fellow English-speaking United-States-of-American progressives, are you feeling defeated, and depressed? Are you tired of beating your head against the wall of plutocracy, racism, popular weakness, mass fear and indifference?

Are you bummed out by pervasive corporate power in a possibly post-democratic imperial “homeland”?  Are you horrified by the small size of the gatherings held to protest the messianic- militarist White House’s war on Iraq, even as new revelations appear weekly about that administration’s war deceptions, crimes, and plans?

Are you looking for models and/or just examples of democratic resistance to “failed state” corporate-imperial authoritarianism? Do you need a shot of optimism and faith?

It’s a good time to brush up on your New World Spanish.

The struggle for human rights is speaking most powerfully right now in an at once American and Latin voice.


North of the Rio Grande,  Latino activists have launched “a new civil rights movement” on behalf of the United States’11 million stateless and “illegal” aliens.

The number of people this new movement is putting in the streets is astonishing: half a million in Los Angeles, the same in Dallas, 300,000 in Chicago, and so on.

The leading spark for this movement has been the passage by the right-wing U.S. House of Representatives of a racially jingoistic bill that would turn millions of decent, hard-working Latinos into felons, along with anyone who provides shelter or provisions to them.

Still, it has taken impressive oganizing acumen and institutional capacity for Latino activists and leaders to bring off such massive demonstrations.  And it take great courage for untold thousands of “illegals” to march.  

Resisting the war against immigrants is part of defending what’s left of relevant democracy in the “land of the free.” The North American business community has long encouraged and cultivated illegal immigration for the simple and obvious reason that it likes cheap and easily exploitable workers, who (under the command of capital) drive down wages and benefit (it is important to acknowledge), especially at the bottom end of the labor market.  

Workers who lack citizenship and fear deportation are poor candidates to fight within the “democratic” U.S. for a union, shorter hours, a higher minimum wage, equitable school funding, improved workplace safety, stronger environmental regulations, campaign finance reform, progressive taxation, third-party legalization, sensible patterns of rural or metropolitan development, and the like. 

The business class knows this quite well and likes it very much.  And it’s nothing new. Capitalist calculations along these lines have long shaped the history of immigration and ethnicity in the U.S. (see Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America [Beacon Press, 2001], especially chapter 1).

The issue is whether or not the nation’s large and growing Latino population is going to contain large numbers of stateless sub-citizens. Without basic civil and social enfranchisement, Latino “illegals” are (through no fault of their own) pawns in the business class’s vicious assault on U.S. living standards, helping the corporatocracy undermine yet further the “homeland’s” already endangered social health (see Paul Street, “‘The Economy is Doing Fine, It’s Just the People that Aren’t’: Towards a Social-Democratic Alternative to the Indexes of Leading Economic and Cultural Indicators,” Z Magazine [November 2000]: 27-31; and “Social Health and Spiritual Death: Empire, Inequality, and the Costs of War,” ZNet Magazin [May 20, 2005], available online at http://www.zmag. org/content/print_article. cfm?itemID=7902 &sectionID=10).

Bush’s guest worker “alternative” to the reactionary House bill is an updated, business-friendly “bracero” program of “temporary” indentured servitude.  It serves the business community’s deeply entrenched authoritarian instincts and greed by retaining a basic commitment to keeping large numbers of Latino workers socially and politically powerless.


The second great Latin and other-American example of potential democratic inspiration is found in Latin America itself. As Noam Chomsky (Chomsky, ‘Latin America and Asia Are At Last Breaking Free of Washington’s Grip,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary, March 16, 2006) has recently noted: 

* “In Latin America [today] left-centre governments prevail from Venezuela to Argentina. The indigenous populations have become much more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, where they either want oil and gas to be domestically controlled or, in some cases, oppose production altogether. 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.”

* “Venezuela, the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere, has forged probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile US government. Venezuela has joined Mercosur, the South American customs union – a move described by Nestor Kirchner, the Argentinian president, as ‘a milestone’ in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as a ‘new chapter in our integration’ by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president.”

* “Venezuela, apart from supplying Argentina with fuel oil, bought almost a third of Argentinian debt issued in 2005, one element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the controls of the IMF after two decades of disastrous conformity to the rules imposed by the US-dominated international financial institutions. Steps toward Southern Cone [the southern states of South America] integration advanced further in December with the election in Bolivia of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. Morales moved quickly to reach a series of energy accords with Venezuela. The Financial Times reported that these ‘are expected to underpin forthcoming radical reforms to Bolivia’s economy and energy sector’ with its huge gas reserves, second only to Venezuela’s in South America.”

*  “Cuba-Venezuela relations are becoming ever closer, each relying on its comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost oil, while in return Cuba organises literacy and health programmes, sending thousands of highly skilled professionals, teachers and doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected areas, as they do elsewhere in the third world. Cuban medical assistance is also being welcomed elsewhere.”

* “Growing popular movements, primarily in the south but with increasing participation in the rich industrial countries, are serving as the bases for many of these developments towards more independence and concern for the needs of the great majority of the population.”

Chomsky is  writing, of course, about the historic challenge Latin America is posing to U.S. imposed “neoliberalism:” the doctrine proclaiming that economic and social development must proceed in accord with the wealth-concentrating dictates of the corporate-ruled  “free market,” not the needs of ordinary people, including the poor. 

One of the notable examples of that doctrine in practice is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA has significantly undermined trade union power in the U.S. while flooding Mexico with heavily government-subsidized U.S. agricultural exports, helping push Mexican farmers into often precarious migration streams that bring them to North American barrios and labor camps.

Thoroughly unimpressed by the regressive, poverty-deepening, and growth-slowing consequences of the neoliberal “Washington consensus” over the last quarter century, a growing number of Latin American states have been newly energized and impressively democratized by mass popular mobilizations  to prioritize the needs  of their own broad populations over privileged others’ (all-too commonly rich North Americans’) profits.  They are confronting savage internal inequalities and forming new linkages across  national boundaries in common defiance of Uncle Sam’s hypocritical “free trade” mandates. Venezuela is using a significant portion of it oil wealth to fight poverty at home and abroad, sometimes even in the U.S (where the Venezuelan subsidiary CITGO has sold low-cost heating oil to impoverished and ghettoized North Americans), and not as a way to curry favor with U.S. government and corporate officials. It is helping poor Mexicans obtain eye surgeries and funding the deployment of Cuban and other doctors across the poorest sections of his own and other Latin American nations.

Mexico, which possesses its own considerable oil wealth, is also moving towards the election of a left president who speaks the new Latin-American language of populism, anti-neoliberalism, regionalism, and independence.

The new Latin American “populist authoritarianism” (that’s how the South’s movement against neoliberalism is described in the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review) is coming in for some standard and predictable character assassination from Washington.  United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently took time out from his proto-fascist war on Iraq to liken Venezuela’s popular populist president Hugo Chavez to Adolf Hitler. And last February, the U.S. director of National Intelligence John Negroponte denounced Chavez for “spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries in Latin America and elsewhere, this despite the very real economic development and social needs of his own country.  It’s clear,” Negroponte told a Congressional hearing last month, “he is spending hundreds of millions, if note more, for his very extravagant foreign policy.” (“CHAVEZ SEEKING FOREIGN ALLIES, SPENDING BILLIONS: Oil Used in Rivalry With U.S. for Influence in the Americas,” New York Times, 4 April, 2006).

Never mind that Chavez’s government is working against poverty within and beyond its borders.  Forget also that the U.S. is perhaps the ultimate model of a state that fails its citizenry by sacrificing “the very real economic and social development needs of [its] own country” to an expensive and “extravagant foreign policy.” 

In early 2002, it is worth recalling, the Bush administration’s foreign policy “extravagance” even included supporting an attempted business-class coup against the democratically elected Chavez government.

You don’t need the mind of an elite rocket scientist or linguist to draw an obvious connection between the two Latin other- American examples of democratic inspiration. Both of the struggles —-  the one for immigrant rights above and the one against neoliberalism below the U.S. border —-  are fighting for an expansion of human rights and against  endless private wealth accumulation and related power concentration in the venerably Anglo-Saxon imperial core. 

Decades of savage, U.S.-imposed neoliberal austerity, often backed by U.S.-sponsored state terrorism, have contributed richly to the terrible domestic poverty and inequality that pushes so many Central Americans  to pursue, often at great risk, a better life in the inner shadows of the North American superpower’s territory. For the typical “illegal” Latino, almost any job in the U.S. is a ticket out of greater misery on the super-impoverished periphery of an unequal and imperial world order.

Appropriately enough, Negroponte was once a leading agent of U.S.-sponsored state terrorism in Central America. As U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, he ran interference for that nation’s U.S.-trained “security forces” in the U.S. Congress.  He made sure that U.S. military assistance kept flowing to Honduras while that state’s government conducted numerous tortures and massacres against its own population.

Negroponte’s main job in Honduras, however, was to oversee the contra camps in Honduras, from which a C.I.A.-equipped mercenary force launched repeated murderous attacks on Nicaraguan “soft targets:” farms, villages, schools, economy, and infrastructure. The purpose of this bloody terror campaign, ultimately successful, was to dislodge Nicaragua’s popular leftist Sandanista government, whose leaders’ policies and rhetoric on behalf of their country’s poor majority earned them the standard White House Hitler analogy.

The chief sin of that government?  Llike Cuba since 1959 and like the new “populist authoritarian” regimes in Latin American today,  it was pushing its little corner of Latin America “towards more independence and concern for the needs of the great majority of the population.”

Those who are seriously concerned with the threat, real and/or imagined, that Latin American immigrants pose to U.S. living conditions need to consider the role that Washington’s “extravagant” New World economic and military imperialism plays in turning millions of Latin-Americans into American Latinos.  

People who fear the Latino influx also need to understand that the threat recedes when “illegal” (stateless) immigrants are given the right to join freel in the fight for more just and democratic conditions within  the imperial “homeland.”   

Empire abroad and Inequality at home (along with Empire at home and Inequality abroad):  these critical and dialectically inseparable imperatives of U.S. policy are the connecting links between the two new Latin other-American human rights campaigns, one above and the other below the increasingly deadly U.S.-Mexico boundary line (history’s largest contiguous border between First and Third Worlds). 

Both campaigns have emerged from the political and historical shadows to say something essential to democracy and human rights activists everywhere : “Si, Se Puede,” meaning, “yes we can,” the leading slogan of Cesar Chavez’s California-based United Farm Workers. 


Paul Street ([email protected]) is a Visiting Professor in U.S. History at Northern Illinois University.  He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004, order at www.paradigmpublishers.com);Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge: 2005); and  Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: 2005).

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