Bush’s Latin Reality Show

One thing had to dawn on Bush while on a recent seven-day, five country Latin American tour: the Monroe Doctrine is deader than a doorknob.

Unilaterally proclaimed by the U.S. in the 19th Century, ostensibly to keep European competitors out, the doctrine secured domination of the lands to the south – frequently guaranteed by armed intervention and U.S. instigated coups – until recently. Now, it is apparent that not only is that big brother relationship no longer tenable but that the U.S. is rapidly losing any influence at all in the region.

If public opinion polls are an indication, Washington has scant influence there or respect at all. Much can be ascribed directly to the Bush Presidency and his Administration’s actions, most especially the war in Iraq and its policies in the Middle East as a whole. Further, the “market friendly” neo-liberal economic policies foisted off on Latin America countries for decades under the rubric “Washington consensus” – weakening social service programs, privatization, removal of restrictions on foreign investment and free reign for “market forces” as against planned development strategy – have failed to live up to their hype. A lot more wealth has been going out of the region than what’s coming in and what is being returned from the “market” or foreign investment all too often flows into the pockets of formerly entrenched elites, while economic disparities increase.

Throughout the region, at a historically breathtaking pace, the peoples in the south of the Western Hemisphere are electing new leaders and rejecting the economic policies that have been foisted off on them by the colossus to the north, in collusion with local elites.

Writing in the New York Times March 17, novelist Luisa Valenzuela observed that for the Latin Americans, “The dream of a single-currency Latin American Union, modeled on the European Union, to create, insofar as possible, a buffer against the hegemony of the United States no longer seems so impossible.” At a moment when the Latin Americans are rejecting the economic dictates from institutions like the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, moving across the board for economic independence and regional cooperation, the Bush Administration has apparently decided to push in the opposite direction. The continent’s two largest countries, Brazil and Argentina don’t want bilateral “free trade” agreements with Washington. Former CIA operative Philip Agee described the Bush tour as “a mission to lure five countries away from regional economic integration.” Valenzuela observed that “in Uruguay, all Mr. Bush seemed to be trying to do was irritate the other governments of South America by promoting a Free Trade Area of the Americas project in opposition to Mercosur, the southern common market formed in 1991 by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, somewhat later, Venezuela.”

Furthermore, the White House can hang up any thought of trying to dictate or shape the politics of the region – like trying to “isolate” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Such maneuvers simply won’t fly. While Brazilian President Lula da Silva will meet the U.S. President at Camp David later this month, he has a state visit to Caracas slated for next month. Argentine President Kirchner made it clear to the U.S. President that he has no intention of joining the anti-Chavez campaign. To add insult to injury, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, openly broke with the policy of his predecessor and fellow PAN party member Vicente Fox and opted out of the anti-Chavez drive. For all the talk about the differences between various Latin American leaders – and they do exist – nearly all seem to agree on one thing: no more dictates from el Norte.

Much is being made of the political differences among the various new leaders in Latin America. It would be news if there were no differences. However, the effort to picture the continent as divided between a group of “moderate” governments on one hand and “radicals” on the other, widely misses the mark, especially as it is usually delineated, on the basis of attitudes toward Washington. There is significant spread in the ideological and political approaches amongst the new Latin American leadership; that, too, is reflection of the new independence and it should be obvious by now that efforts to drive a wedge between two alleged camps is futile. The direction of history is clear and it is being driven, to a large extent, not be personalities but by vibrant social movements from below.

On March 12, the Organization of American States held a meeting on the “Impact of poverty,” to consider “the role poverty plays in eroding social cohesion, leading to a lack of security and an increasingly vulnerable state.” What the conferees came up with went unmentioned in the media but three days later the OAS press office reported that Secretary General José Miguel Insulza told the delegates that “the persistence of inequality and poverty represents one of the main challenges to development, democratic governance and security in the hemisphere”. “As a result”, he said, “these threats should be confronted with a new multidimensional perspective that focuses on political, economic and social factors”.

There are approximately 534 million people living in the Latin American/Caribbean area. Of these, 132 million live on less than $2 a day, and 57 million live on less than $1 a day. The region is also one of the most unequal regions. According to the World Bank “the richest one-tenth of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean earn 48 percent of total income, while the poorest tenth earn only 1.6 percent”.

According to economist Mark Weisbrot, Latin America’s economic growth over the last 25 years has been “a disaster – the worst long-term growth failure in more than a hundred years”, and “it is easy to see why candidates promising new economic policies have been elected. In countries “where the poor get only a few cents out of every new dollar, growth bypasses the poorest,” the New York Times observed editorially last May. “Latin America is the world’s most unequal region. That means growth will not reduce poverty unless Latin American governments redirect it to the poor.” That’s what the new governments – with the support of massive and effective social, political and labor movements – are doing. There’s been quite a bit of success for the policies, most of which have faced opposition from Washington.

On March 14, Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte derided Bush for failing to contribute to development in poor countries, and hailed Chavez` Venezuela as a country “with an overdose of democracy.” “It cannot be possible that the US Government does anything it pleases in much sensitive areas such as waging wars, setting international prices, but at the same time it does not have the strength to convince developed countries to suppress protectionist barriers,” Duarte said in a television interview. He added that he would believe in Bush “when there is technology transfer, when tariff barriers are lifted and when he stops treating our fellow citizens in a miserable way when they try to travel to his country.”

“What is the Mercosur regulation that is endangered because of Venezuela?” asked Duarte. “Venezuela has an overdose of democracy, with one election after the other. It is the only country where the Constitution provides for a (presidential recall) referendum in the middle of the presidential term.”  The Chavez presidency, he said “is the result of the Venezuelan historically corrupt leadership, and all leaderships are the fruit of failed liberalism.”

“When President Bush set out on his five-nation tour of Latin America on Thursday March 8th he was hoping to obtain support for Washington’s effort to isolate Venezuela and tighten its stranglehold on Cuba”, wrote Circles Robinson from Havana for Prensa Latina. “However, once he touched down in Brazil, and later Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, it became apparent that he is virtually alone on the issue. Instead, most of the region wants to maintain or increase ties with Cuba and Venezuela.”

Fidel Castro’s active participation by telephone in a three-way meeting with Venezuela’s Chavez and Haiti’s President Rene Preval on Tuesday dramatically underscored this. “Fidel was very keen to make sure the trilateral cooperation succeeds”, Preval told a news conference. The three countries agreed to $21 million dollars of funding from Venezuela to extend medical programs carried out by Cuban doctors in rural Haiti.

When the Bush caravansary was announced, it was expected that he would receive a warm and cooperative reception in the three capitals presided over by right wing regimes: Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. However, his reception in the latter turned out to be one of the more tempestuous. President Calderon not only slipped out of the anti-Chavez camp, he raised sharp questions about things like the “Berlin wall” being erected on the border with his country. He was rebuffed in his effort to delay implementation of the section of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that will allow Mexico to be flood with low cost, U.S.-subsidized imported corn and beans which threaten to drive even more small Mexican farmers into destitution.

In Colombia, there were anti-U.S. demonstrations in 20 cities and riot police attacked protestors at Bogotá’s National University and several were injured. In Guatemala, workers protested the recent round-up of some 300 immigrant workers in Massachusetts. President Oscar Berger, who raised the matter in his welcoming speech, is reported to have pleaded with Bush for clemency to avoid their deportation, but the suggestion was ignored.

Meanwhile, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez noted that the Bush Administration has reduced resources available to fight drug trafficking, because it has been concentrating in its war in Iraq. In an address to the Regional Summit on Drugs, Security and Cooperation he charged that that drug trafficking has increased in the region as a result of Washington’s neglect. Such uppity talk would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

It appears that the main consensus arriving out of the recent Davos Switzerland conference of world capitalist movers and shakers was that 1). the world economic situation is healthy and secure, however 2). political threats are arising because globalization is producing economic inequities on a world scale and demands are increasing for limits on “free trade”, arising from working people seeing most of the increased wealth they create going into the pockets of the already rich. I guess little did they suspect that a few weeks later a crisis in the U.S. home loan industry would shake the first conclusion. Nonetheless, the poverty and inequities remain and the consequences were obvious throughout Bush’s Alice in Wonderland trip through Latin America.

Bush didn’t go south empty-handed. But his promises were relatively lame, especially when measured against the benefits the region is reaping from increased economic integration and mutual aid agreements, such as with Venezuela and Cuba. According to the Financial Times, the much-touted ethanol “green fuels” agreement with Brazil, involving contributions from the two countries and major international banks amounts to only $25 million. Latin American commentators are openly deriding the U.S. healthcare initiative which will involve a U.S. Naval ship calling at the ports of 11 countries.

One of the gifts the U.S. President had in this satchel as he embarked on tour was the promise that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the government agency that guarantees U.S. investment abroad, would increase funding for cheap mortgages for the working people of the region. A Brazilian newspaper editorial denounced the move as “mean,” “anachronistic” and “totally out of touch”. But it would appear to have a logical reason, albeit a neo-colonial one.

On March 14, Europe’s largest bank, HSBC Holdings Plc, already smarting painfully from its involvement with the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, announced it still plans to increase lending to high-risk borrowers in Latin America. Sandy Flockhart, HSBC´s president for Latin America, said the London-based company will offer credit cards and other loans to even more individuals with no borrowing history as part of a plan to produce a greater share of its revenue in the region. According to the Mexican newspaper El Universal, the largest banks in Mexico, including subsidiaries of HSBC, Citigroup Inc. and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, “are turning to riskier customers for growth after focusing on the smaller, wealthier parts of the population since 2003”. Competition in the Mexican subprime market “is heating up, now that the government has authorized the local unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other smaller retailers to enter the consumer banking business”, said the paper. Oh, my God.

The Mo’Kelly Report, called the Bush tour “a bad, traveling reality TV show in which Dubya and “Democracy” are the co-stars”. “The Bush administration is pitching this new program and the world simply isn’t buying or willing to tune in”, the blogger wrote. 


BC Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.  Click here to contact Mr. Bloice.

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