Where is the “Right” in Latin America’s Left Turn?

A few weeks, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) handed down the results of a forensic audit of the files found on laptops that were reportedly seized during a raid on a rebel encampment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuador by the Colombian government on March 1. Interpol said that the documents showed no evidence of tampering but they could not verify the contents of the files, limiting the scope of their investigation. The Colombian government led by President Alvaro Uribe is claiming that evidence was found on the laptops linking the leftist leaders of Venezuela and Colombia to the rebels. Several international observers, including the OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, believe the claims to be largely fabricated. They warn that the findings of the Interpol report should not be taken at face value, as the Colombian government is asserting they should. Ecuadorian diplomats attested that Colombia had not proven that the laptops were recovered from the rebel camp, and they have not described their methods of retrieving the data. Yet, the claims by Colombian authorities, along with its provocative act of aggression on Ecuadorian soil, have alerted some to the possibility of destabilization that the region faces from right wing forces and governments.


Some of the first responses from the right to the rise of left wing leaders in Latin America came from the opposition in Venezuela to the government of Hugo Chávez. Oil executives in the petrostate participated in a three-month general strike that preceded the brief coup of April 2002, after which Chávez was brought back to office by a series of large demonstrations in the streets. Following a lockout and dismissal of 18,000 employees by the opposition in December of the same year, Chávez took control of the oil company and restructured it. Failing to remove Chávez unconstitutionally, the opposition attempted to legally remove Chávez from office through a recall referendum in August 2004. But through a large turnout of voters, this recall attempt was also defeated. With the Venezuelan army loyal to Chávez and the legal avenues also exhausted, the opposition has turned to diplomatic and military maneuvers, both of which were implicated in the most recent offensive by Colombia.


The right wing opposition in Venezuela has tried to portray Chávez as a dictator, a terrorist, and responsible for destabilizing the region. The conservative Uribe government, also concerned with its growing isolation amidst a growing left wing consensus in South America, has latched onto these accusations, suggesting that the evidence from laptops offers proof that Chávez has been funding the FARC rebels. They allege that the mention of "the 300" on one of the laptops offers proof that the Venezuelan government was to give $300 million to the FARC rebels. In the FARC documents there is reference to a person named "Angel," and Colombian officials believe this to be a code name for Chávez. In a letter initiated by a group of historians at New York University, they argue that there is no basis for these claims, and in fact, the use of both of the names "Angel" and "Chávez" sometimes in the same paragraph belies this interpretation. Any relationship with the Venezuelan leader that may appear in the files is highly likely to be connected to Chávez’s role as mediator in the hostage negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, which began in the fall of 2007.


Colombia‘s ties to Washington led Chávez to call it the "Israel of Latin America," saying that both countries portrayed themselves as besieged within a hostile region, and claimed the right to bomb their neighbors on orders from Washington. When Colombia entered Ecuadorian territory in pursuit of the FARC on March 1, they bombed the rebel camp, killed about twenty people, including FARC leader Raul Reyes, and supposedly also seized the laptops. Following Colombia‘s March 1 incursion, Ecuador and Venezuela both sent troops to their borders. Ecuador cut off diplomatic ties with Colombia and Chávez expelled the ambassador of Colombia. American press such as the Washington Post supported Colombia‘s incursion into Ecuador, and along with the New York Times, it reported the Colombian government’s findings of the laptop files as fact. Although the immediate tensions were eventually diffused the potential for further flare-ups remains present, especially given Washington‘s covert backing of Colombia.


Another recent challenge, this time to the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia, has come from elites in the wealthy eastern region of Santa Cruz. About a month ago, they held the first in a series of referendums to demand regional autonomy, which would give them more control over land distribution and the country’s oil and gas reserves, concentrated in the east. While Morales’ supporters in Santa Cruz largely abstained from the vote, his opponents declared a victory, after a campaign that stirred up regionalist sentiments and evoked the specter of "indigenous revenge." The referendum on autonomy has pitted the wealthy eastern region against the poorer western highlands, where Morales has a strong support base. The resource-rich eastern lowland regions of Tarija, Beni and Pando are also planning to hold referendums this month.


Morales’ reforms seek to distribute wealth more evenly across regions, which has brought him into conflict with large landowners and agribusiness interests in Santa Cruz. The Morales government has made moves to restrict the export of certain foods in order to address domestic food shortages, and this has met with strong resistance from sectors of agribusiness. The constitutional reform, to be voted on in coming days, proposes to nationalize oil and gas reserves, and limits the concentration of land ownership. One of the opposition parties, Podemos, had control over one third of votes in the constituent assembly, and they tried to use this power to block these proposals. After a series of delays and partisan conflicts, Morales finally convinced the Congress to go ahead and put the referendum to a national vote. It was at this time that the opposition in Santa Cruz announced its alternative tactic of the referendum, as another way to block the reforms.


As a solution to the crisis, Morales has agreed to hold a referendum on his rule within ninety days. The referendum will determine whether he, his vice-president, and nine governors should stay in office. When Morales initially raised this idea of a referendum in December, the opposition rejected it, however, given their recent victory in the autonomy vote, some elite sectors are feeling encouraged that they could defeat Morales in such a referendum.


Unable to defeat Morales through elections or the constituent assembly, the efforts of elites are now focused on destabilizing the country through secession and gaining control over land and natural resources. Chávez and Correa have warned that this strategy could be followed by opposition groups in other countries. In a recent speech, Chávez pointed to the upcoming regional and local elections to be held in Venezuela in November, that could follow a similar trend. Correa also talked about the separatist elites fostering similar autonomy claims in Guayaquil and Guayas in Ecuador and Zulia in Venezuela, who had met in 2006 to form a confederation. Yet, these movements cannot be compared to the Bolivia case, where the geographical divisions of the country are much more marked.


The region of Latin America may not be facing the same phase of cold war politics as in the 1960s to 1980s, with CIA-sponsored invasions, American-backed contras, and active wars of destabilization and "containment." Particularly given the entrenchment of the US military and economic resources in the occupation of Iraq, there are fewer resources available for fighting at other fronts. The electoral path being followed by leftist governments, who have as yet not carried out any major expropriations of property, has also won them greater legitimacy in the diplomatic sphere. However, as recent events show, dominant classes in the region are still strong and the threats of destabilization, possible war, and polarization, are always on the horizon.

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