The objectives of empire change very little from one century to another. Control of and access to energy and mining resources are only one strong motive driving imperial policy in Latin America. Control over food and water security is also a vital factor in imperial executive calculations. To veil the obvious injustice of the imperial system, co-option of local media is vital so as to manage the very terms in which political, economic and social issues are discussed.
Earlier empires eradicated whole languages and cultures from subject countries’ public life. Racism has always been an essential imperial tool and continues in both subtle and overt forms across Latin America. The Venezuelan opposition’s racist characterization of President Hugo Chavez is a contemporary glaring example. The Mexican ruling elite’s attitudes to the indigenous Zapatistas are another. Racist repression of indigenous peoples continues throughout Latin America from Chile to Mexico, but seldom makes the international media.
Co-opting “Civil society”
Over the last twenty years, co-option of so-called “civil society” has become an equally important element of cultural and intellectual control. “Civil society” sometimes seems to refer principally to “non-governmental” organizations many of whom finance themselves acting as agents, consultants or sub-contractors to foreign governments or to international institutions, like the World Bank, controlled by imperial appointees. These organizations do not have to be as outrageously politicised as the anti-government Sumate NGO in Venezuela to serve imperial designs well.
The US government and its corporate allies have long worked to convince people in Latin America that organizing their own countries’ agriculture to satisfy domestic consumption is uneconomic, Consumers are supposed to be best served by cheap food imports from the US. Urbanization is assumed to constitute inevitable progress. In this way, the US and its agri-business corporate allies increase their control of the agricultural economies of entire countries. For example, Mexico, once largely self-sufficient in rice, now imports over 80% of its yearly consumption from the US.(1) Other sectors of Mexican agriculture will follow suit over the next few years as the North American Free Trade Agreement comes into full effect.
So the imperial managers will be able to maintain huge pools of cheap labour in almost total dependency on low-wage maquila-style operations or insecure work in the informal sector. The damaging national costs of rural depopulation, urban squalor and social deprivation are not counted. This system not only means soaring profits for the global agri-business corporations. It will also mean the political subjugation of targetted countries since the US government and its corporate allies will control those countries’ food security. The role of “civil society” in rendering that political subjugation “normal” is key.
The Honduran case
One comes across examples of this process constantly in the relevant literature. The specialists who write it all up have a decisive influence in shaping political opinion in the countries where they work. They are the experts, after all. Here is one of the more conscientious examples available, from the conclusion of a study of rural poverty in Honduras:
“… given the facts of the last decade it seems an inescapable conclusion that the process of urbanization will probably play an important part in the reduction of rural poverty in Honduras. Until the rural population density corresponds to the productive potential of the land there will be a tendency for population to shift from the more densely populated sectors where soils are most degraded. Successful interventions through programs and projects may improve this process but it is improbable that they can halt it altogether.
The alternative to the urban absorption of this flow would be a continuation of rural-rural migration from the west and south of Honduras to the agricultural frontier in the north and east with hardly acceptable environmental consequences. This situation indicates the importance of considering alternatives in this regard that might avoid new concentrations of poverty in the marginal areas of the main cities and offer the possibility of a duly regulated expansion of the country’s medium-sized towns.”(2)
Appropriate, timely intervention might have changed that “inescapable conclusion”. But the US government and international financial institutions themselves intervened to impose “free market” solutions tailor-made to meet US government regional policy priorities. Now, at the end of nearly twenty years of those “free market” policies, Honduras is a country unable to guarantee food security for its people from domestic agricultural production, just the way the imperial managers like it.
Even liberal analysts like the authors of that study note that to mitigate the resulting rural poverty, rural populations should move to slightly less impoverished lives in urban centres. That observation simply confirms trends that have been clear since at least the late 1980s. NGOs and “civil society” have made a tidy living out of the whole process. Everything is normal. What else might the outcomes have been?
“Free trade” by the Brothers Grimm
The very question is made to seem irrelevant by established opinion. But the examples of Venezuela and Cuba demonstrate that such processes are not inevitable. Things do not have to be like that. Governments can intervene decisively to prevent the worst outcomes, as the above study itself notes. Clearly, it is a matter of political will, not economic inevitability. .
The imperial “free market” norm can be seen foisted repeatedly on peoples throughout Latin America. Right now in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina mono-cultivation of genetically manipulated soya is set fair to destroy sustainable agriculture in vast swathes of those countries’ rural areas. Even so, experience in Honduras and Nicaragua indicates that rural communities determined to stay put will do so.
They will make ends meet with subsistence food production, odd jobs in nearby urban centres and occasional family remittances from abroad. Those who give up on rural life will simply migrate to urban centres and beyond national frontiers. At a national level, food sovereignty in smaller countries has already become largely a thing of the past.
CAFTA and the Andean trade-in-your-sovereignty deals
Now that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been bullied and bribed through the US Congress, Central America’s agricultural production for domestic consumption will be decimated beyond recovery within a few years. Water resources are the next item on the imperial menu. CAFTA treaty commitments considerably weaken national governments’ ability to resist water privatization. Still, in Nicaragua legislators are trying to lock in place laws that may afford some protection to vulnerable sectors. In Costa Rica legislative approval for CAFTA is still uncertain.
Determined defence of their sovereignty by the peoples of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador has so far checked imperial trade-in-your-sovereignty deals in the Andes. Many people in the Andean countries are anxious to resist the crude bullying and trickery that characterised US negotiation of CAFTA and its subsequent ratification. Venezuela’s proposed model of regional integration makes imperial “free trade” treaty propaganda look as ridiculously self-serving as it in fact is.
Right now in Ecuador, workers and municipal authorities are in open conflict with the country’s government. The recent resignation of Economy Minister Rafael Correa signalled a drift to the right by the Ecuadoran government in favour of a “free trade” deal with the US and a free ride for breaches of contract by foreign energy companies. Outraged workers and under-resourced muncipalities are using strikes and occupations to insist the government addresses their needs. They also want the government to ensure foreign energy companies like Occidental Petroleum comply with contractual obligations.(3)
Margins get slimmer as the sands run out…
People in all the trade-in-your-sovereignty-threatened Andean countries – Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru – are asking legitimate basic questions. Why should their resources be sold off cheap to foreigners? Why should vastly wealthy foreign corporations get the same treatment as relatively vulnerable national businesses at this stage of their countries’ economic development? Why should their agriculture be geared to cash crops for export to the detriment of production for domestic consumption?
Why should small and medium agricultural producers not get preferential treatment, like they do in the US and Europe? How will government make good revenue lost from abolishing tariffs and other import taxes at the same time as taking out loans to implement the necessary institutional and administrative adjustments? How plausible are claims of massive job creation from fake “foreign investment” maquila-style operations like textiles when the reverse is happening in Mexico?
The Bush regime is desperate to push through these trade-in-your-sovereignty deals. That is an indication of how fine the margins for imperial manoeuvre are getting. Elections are coming up soon in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and several Central American countries. Multinational corporate managers, US diplomats, the CIA, the IMF and the World Bank, the US military’s Southern Command – the multiple tentacles of the imperial Thing are hard at work.
Programs of US electoral intervention specialists like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute will inflate like balloons with huge injections of anti-democratic, interventionist funding. All the tentacles will be working frenetically to choke any signs of sovereign dignity and self-determination in the countries concerned. With surging oil prices, dodgy US deficits and a wobbly dollar, time is not on their side.
Sam Beckett imperialism – the sun never sets on the US nothing new
Venezuela is decisively promoting integration alternatives with its Andean and Caribbean neighbours and with the Mercosur countries (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay). Following the failed US-supported coup in April 2002, futile US State Department attempts to isolate Venezuela have fallen flat. At a similar moment, after failing to destroy the Cuban revolution in the early 1960s, President Kennedy and his team came up with the Alliance for Progress initiative. Shortly afterwards, the US government invaded the Dominican Republic and encouraged a military coup in Honduras.
Parallel to the economic strands of the Alliance for Progress, the US government instigated death squads in Guatemala, promoted a military coup in Brazil and organized the military coup in Chile. That ruthless policy to stifle democratic change heralded nearly two decades of fierce US government-backed State terror throughout Latin America. Over thirty years after the coup in Chile and the end of the Alliance for Progress, the empire continues to offer vivid reminders of its ruthless intentions in Latin America.
The United States authorities are already planning how to cope without Venezuelan oil imports.(4) That might just be sensible contingency planning. Equally, it might signal sinister preparations for some kind of military action against Venezuela once sufficient troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. In 2001 the US supplied detailed information for NATO forces war gaming a military intervention called Plan Balboa – the hypothetical target was a country identical to Venezuela.
The defeated 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela and Haiti’s continuing agony show the US and its allies are as ready as ever to use covert dirty tricks and outright aggression to get what they want in Latin America. For the moment, the Bush regime seems content to co-opt countries benighted and foolish enough to fall for trade-in-your-sovereignty deals. But if that process stalls or collapses, the viability of the Latin American peoples’ inspirational drive towards integration and autonomy may well depend on stubborn anti-imperial resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
toni solo is an activist based in Central America – contact via www.tonisolo.net
1. “A 10 aÃ±os del Tratado de Libre Comercio perdiÃ³ la autosuficiencia arrocera” INFODEMEX www.argenpress.info 01/08/2005
2. “Desarrollo Rural y Pobreza en Honduras y Nicaragua: ¿QuÃ© sigue? PolÃticas, Estrategias y Acciones en Desarrollo Rural y ReducciÃ³n de Pobreza en Honduras” Ian Walker & Hugo Noe Pino, 2004 paper for the following UK development organizations, Regional Unit for Technical Assistance, UK Government’s Department for International Development, Overseas Development Institute.
3. “Gobierno ecuatoriano decreta en emergencia provincias en paro” Prensa Latina August 17th 2005
4. “Merco Press: US contingency plan for a Venezuela oil cut off” www.vheadline.com August 9th 2005