Latin America: From U.S. Corporate Hegemony to Regional Autonomy

The U.S. and UN sought to make dangerous interventions at the Summit of the Americas, in support of a neo-liberal economic agenda. These interventions were swiftly challenged by latin leaders promoting increased regional autonomy

The seventh Summit of the Americas took place last week in Panama and headlines highlighted the historic meeting between U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. The Summit has historically been defined and directed by U.S. agendas. This year, the Summit represented a sea-change shift in relations between North and South America.

Leaders in the hemisphere represented two diverging orientations between relations defined by historic patterns of Northern domination of the South and the more recent inroads made toward inter Latin American integration and regional independence from the North. A tide which began changing in 2009 when previous Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez theatrically gifted Edward Galeano’s book “Open Veins of Latin America” to Obama, sending a clear message that Latin American had broken free of its status as Uncle Sam’s backyard. Galeano died April 13, 2015, while Chavez passed away two years ago. Their visions live on.

Venezuela’s daring moves away from U.S. hegemony and control over the Americas has been met with U.S. decrees denouncing successively popular governments. At the Summit, on April 11, current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro requested to meet with the U.S. President to smooth relations between the two countries. 13 million signatures worldwide have been collected demanding that Obama withdraw the U.S.’s ridiculous decree that Venezuela represents an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

Every Latin American nation has openly condemned Obama’s stance on Venezuela. As teleSUR English has pointed out previously, the U.S. has been engaged in an almost two decade long ongoing campaign of aggression toward Venezuela, which includes actively supporting right-wing Venezuelan opposition forces in fomenting violence and instability throughout the country. The U.S. has openly, and vehemently, opposed Venezuelan social and economic programs to nationalize Venezuelan industries and apply the profits of these newly nationalized industries to the benefit of the people.

While the U.S. criticizes human rights, democracy and corruption in Venezuela, it supports other countries in the region – including Mexico – with considerably worse human rights records, but which support neoliberal economic policies consistent with U.S. political and economic agendas. The U.S. has a long history of intervention in the region it has long regarded its “back yard,” in order to protect U.S. corporate interests, and profits – at the expense of people, and the environment. From Chile to Guatemala, the U.S. has intervened to change democratically elected governments that dared to challenge U.S. corporate hegemony in the region, and who ventured to apply profits accrued from natural resources to improve the material conditions of people.

The current Venezuelan government has actively sought to improve the social and economic lives of its citizens. President Maduro’s predecessor in office – President Hugo Chavez – oversaw a dramatic reduction in poverty. Unemployment dropped from 14.5 percent of the total labor force in 1999 to 7.6 percent in 2009. GDP per capita rose from $4,105 to $10,801 in 2011. Minimum wages were increased sharply. In 1999, 23.4 percent of the Venezuelan population were recorded as being in extreme poverty, this fell to 8.5 percent in 2011. There were also considerable improvements in reducing infant mortality, which went from a rate of 20 per 1,000 live births in 1999 to only 13 per 1,000 live births in 2011.

Much of the improvements arose as a result of the Venezuelan government’s approach to nationalizing the country’s natural resources and applying the profits from its considerable oil reserves – for example – to the social good. Venezuela has one of the top proven oil reserves in the world and in 2011 Opec put the country’s net oil export revenues at $60bn. The current Venezuelan administration remains committed to missions and national projects dedicated to improving access to health, education, social security, food and land for the poorest sectors of society.

But despite these important gains and commitments, some global leaders attending the Summit of the Americas continued to overlook such progress and chose instead to highlight the need for business innovation in the region. Business innovation has failed to make social improvements comparable to Venezuela’s in other countries throughout our globalized world. Yet, business innovation is still deemed as the solution to our social, economic and environmental woes.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s April 10 inaugural address in Panama, commended the hemisphere’s commitment to peace, democracy, human rights, reducing poverty and in contributing to defining the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, while urging leaders to continue to pursue a future of prosperity with equality, where no-one is left behind.

Without naming any countries, the Secretary General applauded the region’s solidarity with countries in need, and growing engagement in UN peacekeeping activities. Indeed, Cuba has sent the largest numbers of doctors to fight Ebola in West Africa. Countries such as Uruguay contribute to UN peacekeeping efforts with almost 1,500 troops while the U.S. sends a meager 36. The Secretary General also commended advances made in women’s participation in political leadership throughout the Americas. The Americas has the highest number of women serving as heads of state or government, and the highest percentage of women parliamentarians. Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Cuba, and Ecuador rank among the top ten best countries in the world for women participating in politics, while Canada comes in 48th place, and the U.S. in 72nd.

Rather bizarrely, the UN Secretary General then went on to spend a third of his intervention at the Summit of the Americas to discuss the importance of business involvement in the post 2015 development agenda, and in the agenda to address climate change. While the Secretary General recognised that the Americas have been at the vanguard of discussions on key issues regarding climate change, he also said that the “new global development agenda and the battle against climate change will need resources, technology and capacity,” and as such “private sources and partnerships” would be crucial in the fight against climate change.

“With business support for implementing the sustainable development goals, we can transform our world. Business is part of the solution to several major global challenges,” said the UN Secretary General. Such an analysis fails to articulate the ways in which businesses are obliged to pursue profit, even at the expense of harmful impacts to the environment, and people. There is an increasing recognition that capitalism has caused climate change, described incontrovertibly in Naomi Klein’s recent book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate”.

The Secretary General’s intervention failed to explain how businesses might turn their minds to address the key issues of our day. Indeed, only three years previously, in Brazil at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference, Canada, and the U.S. united against reaffirming the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights, and protect our planet.

Throughout the Rio+20 negotiations, governments also failed to address human rights obligations, and responsibilities to the environment when they sit as shareholders of international financial institutions. International businesses operating from India, China, and Ethiopia, to Guatemala, fail to protect their laborers, and to clean up after they pollute rivers and lakes. Countries promote a harmful fracking industry with clear risks to health, and the environment. Big business is the problem, not the solution. While technical innovation is necessary to combat climate change, much of this innovation is tailored to pursuing energy which increases profit opportunities for business, not which effectively reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times recently suggested that President Obama delivered a skilfully diplomatic message at the Summit of the Americas; that the U.S. was open to improving relations with many Latin American countries. The New York Times also applauded Obama for paternalistically offering his view that these countries should not be afraid of an active civil society out on the streets. Organised “civil society” have been at the forefront of fomenting violence in Venezuela. Obama’s implied swipe at Venezuela and other countries in the regions overlooks the structural reforms that these countries have made to reduce poverty and empower civilians in political decision-making to help shape these countries.

Countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador prove that alternatives to relying on business to address social, economic and climate disasters exist. They prove that big business cause the social, economic and climate disasters, and that relying on them to solve the problems they create simply does not make sense. Instead of touting the underlying assumptions of neoliberalism and regional empire, perhaps Ki-moon, Obama and others should take a closer look at the substantive social transformations occurring in many Latin American countries and that have cleared the path for further regional autonomy and alternative economics.

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